Three decades before there was a Kobe Bryant and a LeBron James, a lifetime before Julius Erving introduced himself, the ABA and that red, white and blue basketball, a generation before Allen Iverson scored 48 points in the 2001 NBA Finals and Vinsanity’s throat slash was dunk contest legend and MJ had the sick game in Utah, before Bernard King lit up the Garden every game and David Thompson was unconscious with the rock, before Ricky Barry’s underhanded free throws and Shaq shattered backboards and James Harden’s step-back three, Elgin Baylor was the first professional scorer who made you gape. Did he just do that? Baylor entered a league dominated by the set shot and shook that off as irrelevant, becoming a legend with the jumper and running bank shot. He was the first NBA player to score over 70 points in a game and 61 points in the NBA Finals. He was the first NBA player to soar above the rim. He was called, the man with a thousand moves. He was unique and a trailblazer, the kind of scorer that no one had ever seen.
Elgin Baylor was a fearless, dynamic, jaw-dropping, undersized forward who was an offensive Picasso. He made scoring art, his canvas the ball in his hands, his gravity his brush strokes. Elgin Baylor was the first high flyer, change direction, finish right or left, score in traffic, float the ball in the basket, fake you out your shoes, rebound misses, dunk and demoralize you simultaneously, can’t be stopped, athlete. He created the template for the modern player to emulate yet is given the least amount of credit for who he inspired once the league erased its set shot and four-corners offense past.
Almost three years ago, Elgin Baylor, the 11-time All-Star, received a statue of his likeness in front of Staples Center, an honor for the first Los Angeles star in franchise history.
Once upon a time, a 13-year-old Lew Alcindor went to the Garden and snuck into the expensive seats to see Knicks-Lakers. Elgin Baylor scored 71 points. Adult Kareem Abdul-Jabaar never came close to hitting 71 points in a game. On that Friday night of the statue unveiling, he thanked Elgin for his example of dominance, excellence, and generosity.
That Elgin Baylor finally got his statue in front of Staples Center felt overdue for an organization that consistently honors those whose footprints they covet. Yet, it took a long, long time for the Lakers to honor their first dynamic scoring star. After Shaq had his statue, after Jerry West had his statue, after Kareem Abdul-Jabaar had his statue, after Magic had his, Elgin Baylor saw his likeness in bronze. It should have been reversed, if things were fair and if the Lakers were thinking of history and not popularity. Elgin should have gotten his statue before anyone else because he inspired everyone who came after.
There’s a saying, “If you can’t be the poet, be the poem.” Elgin was both, the poet and the poem. When the Lakers moved from Minneapolis because their owner was losing money and he sold the team, when they became the first NBA team on the west coast, Elgin and Jerry West, both number one draft picks, would play weekday games and then spend the weekends in a flatbed truck with a mic begging fans to come to Palisades Arena to see them play. Attendance was sparse in the beginning until everyone got a glimpse of Elgin’s game.
“I love him like a brother” Jerry West said, eyes full of tears, the last speaker before the statue unveiling, standing in front of Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, James Worthy among others. “He’s [Baylor] one of the greatest men I’ve met in my life. I can’t tell you how his teammates looked at him in the locker room. I don’t think there has been anyone that combined his incredible play with what he was. He never changed, humility and strength of character.”
Walt Frazier told the story about being in New York as a rookie and seeing Elgin on the street and following him for two blocks, just wanting to walk in his steps.
Elgin Baylor was the #1 pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1958. He was Rookie of the Year, averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds. (2020 Rookie of the Year Ja Maront averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 assists ). The Lakers went from worst to first, making the playoffs and Finals, swept by the Celtics.
His third year in the league, he had the game Lew Alcindor would dream about, 71 points, 25 rebounds. In his fourth year, he was a reserve in the Army and only played the weekends but averaged 38 points and set the record for an NBA Finals game, 22 rebounds.
But Baylor was unlucky, hampered with bad knees. He scored 23,000 points, grabbed 11,000 rebounds in 846 NBA games. He had to call it quits early into the 1971-72 season because of his knee. Without Elgin (the Lakers had Wilt as a consolation prize), they won 33 games in a row- a record that will probably never be broken- and they won the title too. The Lakers didn’t forget Baylor and gave him a championship ring. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players.
But no one talks about Baylor when they are adding up the greatest athletes of the sport. Of that Lakers team that routinely suffered because of the Celtics, Jerry West, who became the NBA logo and won MVP of the Finals even though his team lost, is the center object. But Elgin Baylor is the reason the Hollywood crowd has had its lengthy Lakers love affair for 61 years. Elgin put on a show every time he was on the court, and he asked for zero attention off of it. In a town of narcissists, he was a celebrity on the court but the kid they called “Rabbit” off of it. Quiet and calm was Elgin Baylor.
Kobe Bryant always paid homage to Elgin, consistently repeating how he stole most of his patented moves from Elgin, not MJ, not Dr. J., but Elgin. Kobe always made sure Elgin knew he revered him (and copied him) and wanted to be around him.
Kobe and Elgin are together again, 24-7. In heaven.