Born: September 16, 1934
Position: Small Forward
Minneapolis Lakers (NBA): 1958 – 1960
Los Angeles Lakers (NBA): 1960 – 1971
The Lowdown: An exciting, acrobatic small forward, Elgin Baylor scored in ways few people had ever seen before. His array of gliding, hanging one-handers and contorting layups captivated opponents and fans for 13 NBA seasons. His prolific scoring average of 27.4 points per game – the fourth-highest career average in NBA history – speaks to his excellent offensive production. A fine passer and rebounder for his position as well, Baylor was selected to 10 All-NBA 1st Teams in a span of 11 years.
Despite his supreme gifts and determination, Baylor never played for an NBA champion. His Laker teams lost eight times in the NBA Finals – including four Game 7 heartbreaks. Nonetheless, his abilities cannot be denied or underestimated for the serious student and appreciator of basketball. Off the court, Baylor was a gregarious personality who also ushered in desegregation of player accommodations and stood up for players’ labor rights.
The Long and Winding Road to Minneapolis
Born in Washington, DC, in 1934, Elgin Baylor didn’t play basketball until he was 14-years-old, but quickly made up for lost time. However, poor grades made him a temporary high school dropout in the early 1950s. After a year of working in the real world, Baylor returned to high school and dominated the basketball landscape as if there were no interlude. In 1954, he became the first black player named to DC’s All-Metropolitan team. Still, Baylor’s poor grades made him a difficult recruit for colleges to accept.
Fortunately for Elgin, a friend was able to convince the College of Idaho to deliver a scholarship. At 20 years of age, the freshman Baylor averaged 31 points and 19 rebounds for Idaho in 1954-55. Baylor’s journey remained bumpy and chaotic, though. Idaho rescinded his scholarship for the 1955-56 season after they fired the coach who had recruited him. Transferring to Seattle University, Baylor sat out that 1956 season, re-established eligibility with the NCAA, and subsequently led Seattle to the NCAA title game in 1958. Although Seattle didn’t win the National Title, Baylor’s efforts garnered the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.
The spring and summer of 1958 presented a final amateur dilemma for Elgin.
Due to his transfer in college and his high school troubles, Baylor would turn 24-years-old but still had a year left NCAA eligibility. However, he was also eligible to join the NBA since he was four years removed from graduating high school. Despite the risk that he would return to college, the Minneapolis Lakers, floundering with the NBA’s worst record for the 1957-58 season, took Baylor with the #1 pick in the 1958 Draft.
Baylor’s acrobatic moves was the type of hype needed to keep the Lakers competitive and, above all else, solvent. The Lakers’ prayers were answered when Baylor decided to sign a contract with them instead of returning to college.
When the 1958-59 NBA season tipped off in October, Elgin Baylor would quickly make his mark on the league.
Basketball wise, Baylor’s rookie season couldn’t have gone better as far the Lakers were concerned. Averaging 25 PPG, 15 RPG, and 4 APG, Elgin helped usher in a transformation of basketball. Sure, his ability to hang in the air, adjust shots, contort and beguile defenders had been done before. However, no one had done all of that with the regularity and flair 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 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.
Lastly, 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 since his facial muscles were making all kinds of crazy movements.
The Lakers improved demonstrably under Elgin’s dominance – at least in the win column. After finishing the previous season at 19-53, the Lakers in 1959 were 33-39, but still had a tough time drawing fans to their games. No matter for Baylor, who not only made the All-Star Team, but was named the game’s MVP that season. Further acclaim followed when he was voted Rookie of the Year and a member of the All-NBA 1st Team
Despite the 33-39 record, Minneapolis did qualify for the playoffs and bounced the Detroit Pistons in the Western Division Semi-Finals. In the Division Finals, the Lakers upset the defending NBA champs. Down 2-games-to-1 against the St. Louis Hawks, the Lakers took the next three games including a nail-biting 106-104 win in Game 6 to capture the series in six games. Baylor contributed 33 points and eight rebounds to that series-clinching victory. However, the Boston Celtics awaited them in the Finals and swept the upstart Lakers.
The follow-up season was disappointing and progressive. On the positive side, Elgin kicked his scoring (29.6) and rebounding (16.4) averages up a notch. And Minneapolis reached the Western Division Finals, again facing the Hawks. Even though St. Louis triumphed in seven games, Baylor had been magnificent in the postseason with 33.4 PPG and 14.1 RPG. However, the disappointment arose from the paltry 25-50 regular season record Minneapolis put together. The retirement of All-Star forward Vern Mikkelsen was too much to overcome, evidently.
Then there was also the harrowing plane mishap on January 3, 1960. Flying back to Minnesota from a game in St. Louis, the Lakers encountered a snow storm over Iowa that forced their pilot to make an emergency landing in a corn field. When the plane safely landed, after several aborted attempts, Baylor recalled the players’ jubilation in Tall Tales:
“After the initial silence, there was a knock on the door of the plane. It was then that we realized we’d made it and everyone started cheering and screaming… The first thing I saw out that door was a hearse, with the town mortician standing next to it. We had buzzed his house and he figured he better get out there to jump on some possible business.”
The Laker players didn’t need a mortician that night, but NBA basketball in Minnesota did. Club owner Bob Short was hemorrhaging money and was exploring moving the team to Los Angeles. That offseason (1960), Short was able to convince his fellow owners to allow the move to Southern California.
That same offseason, the Lakers drafted a young guard, Jerry West, who would go on to compliment Baylor on the NBA’s first West Coast club.
Baylor’s first few seasons in Los Angeles were the most prolific of his career. From 1960-61 through 1962-63, he averaged 35.3 PPG, 17.3 RPG, and 4.9 APG. As a team, the Lakers began to build up from their morose end in Minneapolis. In 1961, they improved to 36-43 and lost another deflating Division Finals against St. Louis in seven games, including losing the final two games by a combined three points.
In 1962, the Lakers reeled off a 54-26 record, despite Baylor only playing in 48 games due to military service. Despite Uncle Sam’s call, the Lakers small forward averaged a career-high 38 points per game. In the playoffs, the Lakers lost to the Celtics in seven games, culminating with a 110-107 overtime defeat in Game 7. Baylor was magnificent in the series averaging 40.6 points and 17.9 rebounds. And in Game 5 he set a Finals record of 61 points to go along with 22 rebounds.
Then in the 1963 season, Los Angeles racked up a 53-27 regular season record. In the playoffs, they again met St.Louis and defeated their Western rivals in a brutal series that went all seven games. In the Finals, the Celtics again thwarted L.A. in a highly competitive six-game series.
By 1965, Baylor had turned 30-years-old and had finished his seventh NBA season. He held career averages of 30.2 PPG, 15.4 RPG, and 4.3 APG. Although the Lakers had yet to win an NBA title, he had, along with Jerry West and lunch pail forward Rudy LaRusso, taken the franchise to the Finals several times. Every season of his career, Elgin had been named a member of both, the All-Star and All-NBA 1st Teams.
In the locker room, his boisterous humor and affable demeanor made him as much the focal point of the team as his actual play. And the on-court play definitely left impressions on opponents and observers. At 6’5″ tall and rugged 225 pounds, guarding Baylor was no easy task as guard Rod Thorn recalled, “You try to lean on him and he’d fend you off with that left arm, using it like a hammer.” Teammate Jerry West pondered:
“Often times you like to pattern yourself after a great player, but with Elgin it’s hard to do. He does things the average guy can’t do. Often, you’d like to do some of the things Elg does, but if you don’t have his tremendous strength and body control, the best you can do is just think about it.”
Elgin Baylor himself would soon find out what it was like playing his style of basketball without his typical strength and body control.
Gliding into the Sunset
Elgin Baylor played just five minutes in the 1965 postseason.
The problem stemmed from a knee injury he suffered in the lone playoff game he participated in. Rising for a jump shot, Baylor noticed his leg feeling uncomfortable:
“I didn’t know what it was,” he later said. “I forgot about the ball as soon as I felt it. But I could run. I went up and down the court a few times, but it hurt so much and I didn’t know what it was, so I decided I better get out.”
The problem turned out to be a dislocated patella. Doctors predicted he’d play again, but not at the level he was accustomed to. The next season (1965-66) he injured ligaments in his other knee and played just 65 of 81 possible games, scoring a paltry, for him, 16.6 PPG. After playing tentatively all season, Baylor got a stern challenge from his doctor with a month left: Either keep playing scared of future injury (and thus have mediocre production) or just play with his usual style and live with the results – good or bad.
The 31-year-old Baylor took the advice to heart and finally got over his mental fear of re-injury. During that final month of the 1966 season he re-established himself as an NBA force… and kept it up for the next four years. Although he was no longer the completely destructive force of the past (injuries and his age saw to that), Baylor was still magnificent in his renaissance. Making more use of his jumper and pick-and-rolls, from 1966-67 through 1969-70, he averaged 25.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, and 4.6 APG.
And after the hiatus of 1966, he returned to the All-NBA 1st Team in 1967, ’68, and ’69.
With Baylor in his mid-30s, Jerry West was more assertive as the team’s dominant offensive force, but the one-two duo (with really good third wheels like Archie Clark, Gail Goodrich, and LaRusso) still couldn’t get over the championship hump. They lost the 1968 Finals in six games. Even after acquiring Wilt Chamberlain they were upset by Boston in seven games in 1969 and brutally lost to New York in seven games as well in 1970.
By now there was no rejuvenation to be had for Baylor. In the 1969-70 season, he appeared in just 54 games and over the 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons, he mustered just 11 games total. His knees had finally given out and he retired early in that ’72 season.
In a cruel irony, the Lakers finally won the championship in 1972.
The Inside Man
After playing over a decade beside Jerry West, Elgin Baylor had earned the nickname, “Mr. Inside” for his punishing and graceful play near the basket. Naturally, this meant West was “Mr. Outside” for his sweet jump shot. Baylor’s nickname though doesn’t do enough justice to what he truly meant on the court.
Mr. Inside was the first of only five players to score over 70 points in an NBA game. His 71-point outburst in November of 1960 set a new league scoring mark. Of course, the old record of 64 points had been set by Elgin the previous November. Unfortunately Baylor’s scoring prowess was quickly overshadowed by Wilt Chamberlain’s titanic performances. Indeed, it’s odd that Baylor does hold the fourth-highest scoring average in league history, yet he never led the league in scoring average any particular season.
That quirk speaks to Chamberlain’s own abilities, but also to Baylor’s remarkable durability and consistency given how old he was when came into the NBA and his recovery from the knee injury at age 30.
When his career effectively ended at the end of the 1970 playoffs, Elgin was second all-time in points, fourth in rebounds, and tenth in assists. Those ranks spoke very effectively to his overall abilities. Absolutely a scorer first, but he was capable of doing so much more.
Baylor spread the wealth as a feared and deft passer. He could snare defensive boards and push the ball all the way upcourt with ease. On the offensive end, few were better at recovering their own miss for a quick putback basket. And when motivated, he was a very good, not great, but very good defender whose strength was a thorny problem for opposing forwards.
And off the court, Baylor may have been an even more momentous figure. He was a key figure in fighting segregation that black players faced in hotel accommodations. Most famously, he and two other black players for the Minneapolis Lakers refused to play in a game scheduled in West Virginia after a hotel refused to lodge them.
Later on, he helped instigate the 1964 All-Star Game showdown between players and owners over labor rights. The players refused to take the court unless the owners recognized their union (and their demands for a pension) as legitimate. 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:
“Tell Bob Short he can go 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 that comes his way.
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)
Regular Season Career Averages (846 games):
Playoff Career Averages (134 games):
Major sources for this article: basketball-reference.com, Tall Tales by Terry Pluto, Dynasty’s End by Thomas Whalen, Wilt Chamberlain Archive (YouTube), Wikipedia