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SLAM 27: The curious case of Elgin Baylor
For years, Elgin Baylor and the Clippers front office have been a mystery to many, and with a lawsuit under way, he’s back in the headlines. It’s sometimes forgotten how great of a player he was, but some of that is because of how his post-NBA career has panned out. To get a look into Baylor’s life, check out this story that originally ran in SLAM 27. –Ed.
By Scoop Jackson
Elgin Baylor doesn’t talk much. He’s a man of very few words, very dignified, very proud. To me, he is the most important player in NBA history – that includes Jordan. Understand, though, that these may be the last nice words I’ll write about Mr. Baylor. For this is a protest story, the protest story that I never thought I’d have to do.
The influence of fatherhood on a young man can be monumental – or damaging. My father and I never argued during childhood. I respected him too much for that. Like any shorty, at times I idolized my Pops. Hung onto everything he did, every word he said. On my 11th birthday, my father drove me to Indianapolis to see Julius Erving play against George McGinnis. The New York Nets v. the Indiana Pacers. Like many young brothas in the day. I thought Doc was the greatest show ever. My father had given me the gift of seeing Julie operates in person.
My father was never overly impressed with Doc’s game, something I could never understand. All he kept telling me about was Elgin Baylor, Elgin Baylor, Elgin Baylor. “You see the things Erving is doing?” he would constantly say, “Elgin used to do those same moves 10 years ago.” For a young kid, this was a stretch. I listened to a lot of Richard Pryor back then, so I had an understand of how older people exaggerated. I idolized Muhammad Ali, but they’d tell me about Sugar Ray Robinson. Same thing.
The mythology of Elgin Baylor grew as I got older. Back then there was no videotape to validate. All we had were the words and stories of those we considered the masters. Father. Uncles. Older cousins and neighborhood Paul Reveres. Numbers runners. The pimps, hustlers and playas. The veteran ballplayers who would, out of sympathy, “let” us young’ns run with them when the games had no meaning and money wasn’t on the line. Through their mouths, their actions, their beliefs and their stories, Elgin Baylor’s legend grew. I loved Julius Erving, but in the real world, one I was too young to understand, Elgin Baylor was the most important ball player that was ever going to live.
As playground b-ball history goes, Elgin’s name will be overlooked. He wasn’t one of those heralded street prodigies like Julius or Connie Hawkins, who rules the parks before they took their game indoors. No, while growing up in Washington, DC, Elgin was destined to be the first Harold Carmichael or Mark Bavaro. Football was his forte. Recruited by the University of Idaho as a top receiver, Elgin originally went away to school on a scholarship to put in gridiron work. The story goes that one day it was raining so bad in Idaho that football practice had to be moved inside. Once inside, Baylor decided to play a little basketball to pass the time. Impressed by a game Elgin had casually, even anonymously picked up on DC’s streets, the basketball coach made Elgin’s top priority the university’s basketball program. During his freshman year, Elgin averaged 31.3 points per game.
In NBA at 50: The Book, Elgin remembers: “When I grew up in Washington, DC, the playgrounds were segregated. We didn’t even have a place to play until I was 14 or 15 years old, which is when I started playing ball. They built a park, or part of a park with a basketball court, right around the corner from where I lived. So that’s where our summers were spent. That part of the park was just for blacks. They had a white part of the park where blacks could not participate. They had tennis courts, swimming pools, baseball diamonds, football. And the only thing they had for blacks was the basketball court. We could go to the other side of the park, but we could only go at night. It closed at 9 o’clock, and that’s when we went. So that was it: basketball. And that’s what we spent our entire days doing in the summer.”
Baylor left his private Idaho and took his game public to the University of Seattle. There his game got open. Sorta like crime at Fresno State. Mad Open. He took a mediocre squad to the Final Four, challenged the almighty Adolph Hitler – oh I’m sorry, Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats for the crown. U of S lost, but Baylor got so nice during the tournament, he was voted the MVP anyway. The math during the year: 32.5 points, 19 rebounds, second and third in the nation respectively. The NBA calls started coming.
Although Baylor had one year of eligibility left, the Minneaplois Lakers’ owner “promised” E that he’d be the first pick of the ’58 draft. In his own words, Lakers owner Bob Short said, “If Elgin turned me down, I’d have gone out of business.” Baylor came in the League and averaged 24.9 ppg and 15 rpg, earning Rookie-of-the-Year honors, but that was not the big picture. Elgin Baylor had the ability to resuscitate, reinvigorate and recast franchises. He did this not just by performing on the court, but by winning.
The Lakers were a 19-53 team the year before Baylor arrived. In his first season he took them to a 33-39 record and the NBA Finals, although they got swept in the Finals by Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Jerry West joining the club the next year helped, and the Lakers’ worth jumped from an unmet $250,000 asking price in ’58 to a $5-million sell in ’65. Was Elgin ever compensated? They signed him to a new, long-term contract — $50,000 per year.
For 13 years, Elgin kept moving the crowd. Not merely scoring and rebounding like a normal human being, Elgin had a game that was elevated. As one reporter wrote: “He never broke the law of gravity, but he was awfully slow at obeying it.”
Elgin Baylor was the originator of the fly game. What Bob Cousy did on the ground, Baylor did in the air. Before Hawkins, Erving, David Thompson or Jordan, there was Elgin. Relying on nothing but “instincts,” he created moves previously unseen. Hanging in the air longer than a time-out, twisting, turning, flipping the ball in the basket from behind the backboard, over his head, all that. While players like Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich and later Magic Johnson had shopping bags full of tricks, Elgin’s bag was Louis Vuitton. Prada. Hermes. His game had so much style, you could profile it.
Elgin also did the dirty work, the other things, the bare necessities that made his teammates shine and his teams great. “Elgin Baylor was the premier quick forward in NBA history,” said Tom Heinsohn, reflecting on Elgin’s game in the NBA at 50 video. “I’m sure you would get an argument about Dr. J, Larry Bird and other players. But not only was he a great offensive player, rebounder, passer – which is evident in the record books – but of all the players that could be compared with Elgin, he was by far the best defender.”
And this is including Jordan. What is funny is how, in places, Baylor’s legacy parallels Michael’s. Neither had witnessed an NBA game until he played in one; both had an enormous amount of God-given talent but never rested on it. Both loved to gamble, had great senses of humor off the court, used the angles on the basketball court better than any players in the history of the game. Both put up record-breaking numbers against the Celtics in the playoffs (Elgin’s 61, Michael’s 63 – but Baylor grabbed 22 rebounds in his same game), both have career highs that are separated by only two points (MJ’s 69, Elgin’s 71). Both also had and have enormous appeal, especially in black communities.