Classic Rivalries: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Elgin Baylor

via siphotos.tumblr.com/
via siphotos.tumblr.com/

Teammates from 1968 through 1971 on the Los Angeles Lakers, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain weren’t exactly the best of friends. The two men possessed huge similarly styled egos. Each always thought he was right all the time and never hesitated to express their unvarnished opinions. One locker room argument exemplifies their disdain and incompatibility…

“[The Boston Celtics] run like a bunch of turtles with arthritis,” [Baylor] joked to the delight of his fellow Lakers.
“Are you joking about people again?” Chamberlain inquired seriously.
“I’m not talking about people,” Baylor answered.
“You always talking about people,” Chamberlain replied.
“What do you mean?” Baylor asked.
“How do you think people feel when, you know, you call them turtles with arthritis?” Chamberlain said.
“I didn’t say they were turtles with arthritis. I said they run like turtles with arthritis,” Baylor responded.

… what had begun as jovial locker room interplay between teammates quickly descended into an unpleasant clash of egos…

- Via Thomas Whalen’s Dynasty’s End

Forget the arthritis, the Lakers locker room was one big awkward turtle. Chamberlain thought Baylor was beyond his prime and ought to relegate himself to secondary status behind the Big Dipper and Mr. Clutch. There was some truth to Chamberlain’s thoughts. Baylor after suffering from a serious knee injury in 1965 was robbed of his explosive first step. Prior to the injury Baylor had averaged 30 points and 15 rebounds¬† a game. Afterwards it was a “mere” 23 points and 11 rebounds.

In truth, though, Chamberlain wasn’t quite the overpowering force he had been in younger years either. Gone were his routine spectacles of 50 points and 30 rebounds in a game. He was still good for 20 points and 20 rebounds a night, but both of these men were past their most physically spectacular, statistically outlandish years. As it so happens, they often performed their statistical feats opposite one another.

Using the wonderful databases at basketball-reference.com, I’ve been able to find three instances where Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor scored at least 50 points against one another in the same game. And as it so happens they all took place in December 1961 and December 1962.

December 14, 1962:
Los Angeles Lakers 120
San Francisco Warriors 118

Elgin Baylor 51 points
Wilt Chamberlain 63 points

This meeting early in the 1962-63 season found the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers headed in opposite directions. The previous season both franchises had lost to the Boston Celtics during the playoffs. The Lakers had lost their chance at a title in a heartbreaking overtime in Game 7 at Boston Garden 110 to 107. The previous series, Boston had eliminated the Philadelphia Warriors in 7 games in the Eastern Division Finals. During that offseason, the Warriors had moved cross-country to the California Bay Area joining the Lakers as the only clubs west of the Mississippi.

In the first meeting between the two teams in November of 1962, Chamberlain uncorked 72 points and 18 rebounds, while Baylor “only” managed 30 points and 18 rebounds. Laker teammate Jerry West chipped in 49 points, however, and the Lakers took the game 127 to 115. A little over a month later in this December rematch, Baylor established a more dominating tone as the Laker forward exploded for 51 points. Chamberlain was his usual self by scoring 63 points. The Lakers still pulled off the victory though, thanks to Baylor hitting a couple of long-range jumpers to keep the Warriors at bay. The Lakers were a team headed in the right direction, another NBA Finals appearance. The Warriors meanwhile had just lost their 12th out of 13 games. San Francisco’s first season as an NBA outpost ended in misery: 31 wins, 49 losses.

December 29, 1961:
Philadelphia Warriors 123
Los Angeles Lakers 118

Wilt Chamberlain 60
Elgin Baylor 52

Toward the end of 1961, Wilt and Elgin engaged in their second grand duel. Both clubs were in the midst of great seasons. The Warriors, still in Philadelphia, had racked up a 22-13 record and the Lakers were 30-10. Both great teams, however, boiled down to their two best players on this night:

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember there are eight other guys on the court when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor play in the same game.

Chamberlain, heading for a third straight record-breaking scoring year in the National Basketball Association, tallied 60 points Friday night as the Philadelphia Warriors whipped the Los Angeles Lakers, 123 – 118.

Baylor, who held the NBA’s single game scoring record until Chamberlain battered it with a 78-point performance earlier in the year, netted 52 for Los Angeles in a losing effort.

This 1961 article recalling the game alludes to what is often forgotten: Elgin Baylor was the premier scoring machine in the NBA prior to Wilt Chamberlain. The problem is that premiership lasted all of one season. Entering the league in 1958 for the Minneapolis Lakers, Baylor was a high-flying revelation. He could throw down a dunk, but he was more likely to float and glide high in the air for acrobatic scoop shots, runners, and reverse layups. It was a modern-day Joe Fulks, a hall of fame player for the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1940s and 1950s.

But whereas Fulks leaned through defenders, Baylor often bowled his way into the lane. Both men were 6’5″ tall but Fulks was a mere 190 lbs, while the muscular Baylor weighed in at 225 lbs. Despite his slender frame, Fulks had set the professional record for points in a game with 63 points back in the 1948-49 BAA season. In Baylor’s second season, he surpassed Fulks by scoring 64 points in a game. In his third season (1960-61), Baylor set a new record high with 71 points against the New York Knicks.

But in this 1961-62 season, Wilt Chamberlain was on a ferocious pace and in the first grand duel between Wilt and Elgin, the Big Dipper broke Elgin’s single-game scoring record.

December 8, 1961:
Los Angeles Lakers 151
Philadelphia Warriors 147

Elgin Baylor 63
Wilt Chamberlain 78

In a triple overtime marathon, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain engaged in what is perhaps the greatest single game duel between players. Elgin Baylor scored a sensational 63 points. Wilt Chamberlain, however, went nuclear and detonated for 78 points and also hauled down 43 rebounds while playing every single minute of the contest. Despite record-setting performance, the Big Dipper was distraught:

Wilt Chamberlain definitely was unhappy. He slouched his huge 7-foot-plus frame onto a tiny stool in a corner of the Philadelphia Warriors dressing room, a picture of dejection, seemingly too tired to move an inch.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said Wilt, “It’s just 78 points down the drain. We lost the game.”

Warriors coach Frank McGuire felt Chamberlain could have scored 100 that night, if the Lakers hadn’t used a defense that collapsed all five men on Wilt whenever the ball approached his vicinity. Elgin’s sentiments on the game reflected Chamberlain’s but took on the viewpoint of the victorious:

“Wilt can have all the records just so we win the game.”

Baylor agreed with Frank McGuire that Wilt would hit 100 points in a game. The game came just three months later. By scoring that mammoth 100 points, Chamberlain asserted his lock and command on scoring explosions. His 50 points per game that season remains by far the NBA record.

But, leaving the Dipper aside, who holds the highest PPG in a season?

The official answer is Michael Jordan’s 37.1 PPG in the 1986-87 season. Unofficially it is, of course, the overlooked Elgin Baylor. The same year Wilt scored those 50 PPG, Elgin racked up 38.3 PPG. However, his tally remains unofficial because he missed half the season doing military service.

Sadly, it’s typical of Elgin Baylor’s career which approaches Shakespearean levels of tragedy. He was a record-breaking scoring machine, but all his records have since been broken, mostly by Wilt. He reached 7 NBA Finals but failed to win the title every time thanks to Bill Russell’s Celtics. Then when Russell retired, the Lakers lost to the Knicks in the Finals. Elgin graciously stepped aside two years later and the Lakers rip roar their way to a record winning streak of 33 games, 69 wins overall and the title.

Wilt has notoriously received his fair share of criticisms and critiques, but at least he can hang his hat on the litany of single-game and season records. Playing on the first 68-win and then the first 69-win teams. Winning two titles.

Despite, not having those accolades, Elgin Baylor should be remembered as the incendiary scorer he was.  The fantastic rebounder he was. The underrated, but excellent passer he was. And of course these games where Wilt and Baylor would go toe-to-toe, mano a mano.

One thought on “Classic Rivalries: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Elgin Baylor

  1. the Warriors had moved cross-country to the California Bay Area joining the Lakers as the only clubs west of the Mississippi.

    didn’t realize St. Louis wasn’t west of the Mississippi!

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