Before there was Michael Jordan, there was Julius Erving. Before “Dr. J,” there was Elgin Baylor, who died yesterday at the age of 86.
When you watch highlights of Baylor, you probably won’t see anything that looks extraordinary. The moves in the old tapes are ones that top players in the NBA and even some in college regularly pull off.
But when Baylor entered the NBA in 1958 (for the Minneapolis Lakers), his game was revolutionary. Remember, this was an era in which some players were still using the two-hand set shot and tossing up free throws underhanded.
The NBA of that era had no answer to Baylor’s aerial show and assorted acrobatics. That’s why, as a rookie, he made the all-NBA first team and finished third in the MVP voting (behind Bob Petit and Bill Russell).
In his rookie year, Baylor led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where, in a preview of things to come, they lost to the Boston Celtics. The year before Baylor arrived, the Lakers had finished in last place with a record of 19-53.
Baylor was even better after the Lakers moved to Los Angeles. In 1960-61, his first season in LA, Baylor averaged 34.8 points per game, along with 19.8 rebounds (Baylor was six feet, five inches tall). The following season, he averaged 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds.
That year, Baylor was in the Army reserves, stationed in Washington state. He could not practice with the team and was available only on weekends, flying coach to meet up with the team wherever it was playing. Yet, he put up those numbers.
Baylor also set the single-game scoring record in 1960, becoming the first NBA player to crack the 70-point mark, with 71 against the Knicks. Wilt Chamberlain smashed that record with 100 against the Knicks a year later, but Baylor’s output remained the Lakers’ single-game record for 45 years, until Kobe Bryant broke it.
It’s no wonder that Knicks star Richie Guerin complained: “Elgin Baylor has either got three hands or two basketballs out there. It’s like guarding a flood.” The great Oscar Robertson said this:
As a shooter, as a dribbler, Elgin Baylor had no match. The greatest game I ever saw was a Los Angeles playoff game in Boston when the Celtics double-teamed Elgin and Jerry West, and Elgin still scored about 60 points.
He scored 61 points in that game, still an NBA Finals record, to go with 22 rebounds. This was in 1962. In that Finals, he scored more than 30 points in all seven games. But the Lakers lost to the Celtics in Game 7, 110-107.
The name “Elgin Baylor” is magic for basketball fans of a certain age — mine. Chamberlain was better. Petit, Russell, Robertson, and Jerry West were about as good. But none of them, not even the Big O, was as much fun to watch as Baylor. None soared into our imagination in anything like the same way.
That’s why stars like Dave Bing (who followed Baylor at Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C.), Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and Lou Hudson all say they grew up trying to imitate Baylor’s moves.
Baylor continued to excel during the second half of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade he was nowhere near the same player. I started to hear younger fans declare Baylor overrated. Some wanted to make him the scapegoat for the Lakers’ inability to win an NBA title.
Yet, Baylor was still averaging at least 24 points per game and double-digit rebounds as the decade closed. And in his final post-season — at age 35 — he averaged 18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
The Lakers finally won the NBA title in their first season without Baylor. His replacement, a mobile young Ivy Leaguer out of Columbia named Jim McMillian, was a better fit than Baylor and his aching knees. It also helped that the Celtics dynasty was finished.
But with Baylor in anything like his prime, the 71-72 Lakers would have been virtually unbeatable. And the 72-73 Lakers likely would have won the title again, instead of losing to the Knicks in a rematch of the previous year’s Finals.
Baylor’s college career deserves recognition. He starred for Seattle University, where he averaged 31.3 points a game during his two seasons there. He still holds that school’s record for points in a game — 60.
In 1958, Baylor led Seattle to the NCAA final game, in which powerhouse Kentucky defeated Seattle. Baylor was named Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four.
I’ll give the final word on Baylor to Jerry West, his longtime teammate and fellow superstar with the Lakers:
I will forever cherish my days spent with him as a teammate, he was one of the most gifted and special players that this game will ever see and he has never gotten his just due for what he accomplished on the court.
My first few years in the league he cared for me like a father would a son, he nurtured me and encouraged me like no one else had during that period of my life. We shared the joy of winning and the heartbreaking losses during the championship finals.
He was a prince both on and off of the court. There are no words to describe how I feel at this time. . .I loved him like a brother.
UPDATE: A reader notes that Baylor is third on the NBA’s all-time list of leaders in points per game. He trails only Chamberlain and Jordan.
Baylor is also 11th on the list of all-time leaders in rebounds per game. The ten players ahead of him were all centers for at least part of their career. Baylor was a 6-5 forward.