His statue hovers out in front of STAPLES Center like a gigantic bronze ode to greatness. Playground legends and NBA players alike have tried to simulate his game. He is a certified Hall of Famer, one of the best to pick up a basketball.
“There are a lot of wonderful players that have played this game, but I don’t think there’s ever been anyone who combined this incredible play with being the kind of person he was,” former teammate and Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West said during Baylor’s statue unveiling ceremony at STAPLES Center in 2018. “He never changed. Never changed. The humility, the strength of character.”
But when it comes to remembering former great Los Angeles Lakers, often times a player that fails to be mentioned is Elgin Baylor. A Laker throughout his entire career, Baylor first came into the league in 1958 when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the team when they were known as the Minneapolis Lakers.
Baylor had been drafted a few years earlier by the Lakers well in the 14th round of the 1956 draft, but the 6-foot-5 forward opted to stay in college and play another season at Seattle University.
Back then former Minneapolis Lakers owners Bob Short shed light on how important drafting the rookie was in rebuilding the franchise.
“If he had turned me down, I would have been out of business. The club would have gone bankrupt,” Short said during a 1971 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Baylor did exactly what the owner was hoping he could achieve and brought the franchise back from the abyss by leading them to the NBA Finals against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in his rookie season, a theme that would haunt Baylor throughout his career.
The Celtics went on to sweep the Lakers in four games, providing the world a glimpse of what would be the first of seven-championship match-ups between the two historic franchises throughout the 1960s. Despite suffering a finals loss his first season in the league, Baylor averaged 24.9 points per game alongside a whopping 15 rebounds in route to securing the rookie of the year award for the up-and-coming phenom.
Baylor would go on to be named to 11 straight all-star games, including his rookie season where he was awarded co-MVP of the game after finishing off the night with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
During this remarkable stretch of his career, Baylor was able to help lead the then Minneapolis Lakers to a final appearance, before the team relocated to Los Angeles during the 1960 season, where the Lakers would reach eight more championship appearances over his 11 years with the franchise.
For Baylor, this is where he fell short of achieving the ultimate prize any professional athlete desires, winning a championship title. Despite playing alongside other Hall of Famers such as West, Gail Goodrich, and Wilt Chamberlain, Baylor failed to win a championship during his playing career, an unfortunate hole in a well-decorated basketball career.
Baylor was a statistical monster as a player. Not too many players can ever match what Baylor did on the basketball court. Two years before Chamberlain broke the scoring barrier with his 100-point game against the New York Knicks, Baylor became the first NBAer to cross the 70-point threshold with his 71-point outburst against the same Knicks.
To show what kind of mercurial juice he had as a baller, Baylor made 28 of his 48 shot attempts in the Lakers’ 123-108 win.
“Elgin set a standard that I thought I would catch up to, “six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul Jabbar said at Baylor’s statue unveiling ceremony. “In my 20-year career, Elgin, I never got close. So that shows you this man’s talent and the way he led the team.”
Though the Lakers were finally able to break through and win a championship in the 1971-1972 season after defeating the New York Knicks in five games, Baylor was already gone from the team, having been forced to retire nine games into the season due to injuries at the age of 37.
For Baylor, this shadow lingers over what was a remarkable career for the third-best all-time scorer in the NBA averaging 27.4 points per game. The only two people in the line in front of Baylor are Michael Jordan (30.1) and former teammate Wilt Chamberlain (30.0). That’s an awesome company to keep.
Baylor also finished his career on the top ten all-time rebounding list by averaging over 13.5 rebounds a game, making him one of only two players to finish his career in the top ten of both categories.
In one of his most incredible seasons, Baylor put together a season for the ages by averaging 34.8 points a game, adding 19.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists in what was only his third year in the league. Baylor was actually able to top that scoring number the following season by averaging just over 38 points a game.
However, due to being called to active duty Baylor was only able to attend weekend games for the team which limited him to 48 games that season.
That same season in the 1962 NBA Finals, Baylor posted a finals record 61 points in what is quite possibly considered the best scoring game in finals history. The historic night helped lead the Lakers to a 126-121 victory over the Celtics and put the team a victory away from a championship, but the Lakers would fall yet again to Boston in seven games.
For the Lakers though, the organization will never cease to forget all the great moments that Elgin provided for a team that was nearly run out of the league before drafting him. Recently during the 2018 season, the team unveiled a statue of the Hall of Famer outside of Staples Center, joining fellow bronze members such as the iconic Chick Hearn and Magic Johnson.
During the ceremony, Baylor shared his thoughts on what it meant to him to be remembered.
“You can’t do anything without your teammates, no one in basketball can, and I’ve always appreciated the guys I played with. There are just so many people you want to thank. So many people you need to thank. It was great,” Baylor said.
While for many Baylor’s playing days may be a distant memory, or a bitter one when thinking of all the Celtics championships, as another former great Laker Shaquille O’Neal says, everyone needs to do their homework on Baylor.
“The first guy I noticed and loved, and is still my favorite guy, was Dr. J, so anybody before Dr. J, I would have to do my homework on ’em. I would have to Google ’em. So, a lot of young fellas don’t know. But Elgin is one of those guys who did great things. And young guys should go find out about that history. They could learn something,” O’Neal said.
Featured image: Elgin Baylor #22 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a layup against the Boston Celtics circa 1967 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Copyright 1967 NBAE (Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)