Elgin Baylor is one of the revolutionaries of basketball. He didn’t just play the game well, or take existing modes of playing to new heights. Certainly, he did do all that.
But what he also did was transform the game. His ability to hang in the air, adjust shots, contort and beguile defenders had been done before. However, no one had done it all with the regularity and flare Elgin did. He could take off on one side of the basket and finish on the other side after having switched the ball to a different hand, or reversing his body position, or swinging the ball like a peach in his hand.
He was also known for pump-faking at around the free throw line, getting his man in the air, and then jumping around the airborne defender for a leaning jump shot.
His defense, passing, and rebounding have always been underrated, perhaps understandably, because of his prodigious offense. While airborne himself, Baylor could just as easily decide to swing a pass instead of firing off a shot. This is a man who six times averaged over 4.5 APG. And at just 6’5″, Baylor was also a superb rebounder peaking in 1961 with 19.8 boards a game.
Elgin also had this quirky nervous twitch on his face that threw defenders off. They never exactly knew which direction he was preparing to go.
As a rookie, Baylor surprised the NBA by leading a pretty thin Minneapolis Lakers squad to the NBA Finals in 1959, where they would be slaughtered by the Boston Celtics. After help came in the form of Jerry West and Rudy LaRusso over the next couple of seasons, Elgin would lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the Finals seven more times.
Baylor set a Finals record of 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals that still stands. He’s one of only five players to score over 70 points in a single game. In the 1962 season, he moonlighted in the NBA while serving the military and still scored a remarkable career-high of 38 points per game.
After knee injuries hobbled Baylor during the 1966 season, he reinvented his game. No longer the gliding virtuoso, he still carved out several more all-star seasons on the strength of his jump shot and making more use of pick-and-rolls.
He truly was a remarkable player with a remarkable career, so why is he often left unremarked when the upper echelon of NBA greats gets mentioned?
The problem for Elgin, I suppose, is that he holds no all-time records. His total games played limited the volume of his total career points and rebounds. He also never led the league in scoring or rebounding. Most glaringly, for some, he never won an NBA title.
All of that trifling fades away when considering that Baylor was a key figure in fighting segregation that black players faced in hotel accommodations and also instigated the 1964 All-Star showdown between players and owners over labor rights. When Lakers owner Bob Short demanded via messenger that Jerry West and Baylor desist their role in the burgeoning strike, Baylor told the messenger to relay the following message to Short:
“You go tell Bob Short to fuck himself.”
The language may have been a bit surly, but Baylor was a player who delivered so many graceful acts to the NBA. From his gliding stride to integrated accommodations on the road to a pension plan. He’s a titan of the game and deserves every bit and more of the admiration he receives.
Seasons Played: 1959 – 1971
Rookie of the Year (1959)
10x All-NBA 1st Team (1959-’65, 1967-’69)
11x All-Star (1959-’65, 1967-’70)
All-Star Game MVP (1959
NBA - 846 Games
27.4 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 4.3 APG, 43.1% FG, 78.0% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1958-59 through 1969-70 season)
2nd Points, 5th PPG
2nd FGs Made, 2nd FTs Made
3rd Rebounds, 8th RPG
8th Assists, 16th APG
5th Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played