He was a transcendent player who rescued the Lakers franchise from irrelevance and paved the way for the Minneapolis Lakers to become the Los Angeles Lakers. Elgin Baylor was a phenomenal basketball talent whose presence on the Lakers record books is often overlooked.
When people talk about the greatest scorers in Lakers history few ever utter his name, despite the fact that he is the franchise’s all-time leader in points per game with 27.4.
To be clear Baylor is also first in total rebounds (11,463) along with points per game (27.4), he is second in field goals attempted (20,171), minutes per game (40.0) and rebounds per game (13.5), he is third in free throws made (5763) and free throws attempted (7391). Baylor is fourth in total minutes played (33,863), field goals made (8693), and total points scored (23,149). He holds the NBA record of eleven straight playoff games of scoring 30 or more points. So there should be little argument that statistically he is among the best Lakers ever.
In 1957 the Minneapolis Lakers were struggling on the court and more importantly in owner Bob Short’s wallet. They were the worst team in the league and could not sustain the interest of the locals. They were last in attendance for three years in a row and for the first time had no superstar to carry them into the new era of professional basketball.
The Minneapolis Lakers were having immense difficulty adjusting to the current NBA. Larry Foust and Vern Mikkelsen were good players but were not capable of carrying the Lakers. The two were also failing miserably in the people skills department. They simply did not gain the interest of the Minneapolis fans that supported the franchise in years past. In one last attempt to keep the franchise in Minneapolis and, keep the franchise out of the red, owner Bob Short coerced a young stallion to leave school a year early and join his struggling Lakers team.
In 1958 the Lakers were in dire need of a jolt and coming off a 19 – 53 season they were not particular about where said jolt would arrive from, enter Elgin Gay Baylor. Armed with a $20,000 contract and unlimited potential Baylor took the league by storm. He finished his rookie season fourth in scoring (24.9) and third in rebounding (15.0) and in just one year the Lakers went from second to last in attendance to fourth. Baylor won Rookie of the Year honors and led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1953 – 54 season.
Although they would lose to the Celtics 4-0 Baylor officially announced his presence with authority. The Southwest DC native proved to be more than a one hit wonder as he would improve both his scoring (29.6) and rebounding (16.4) averages respectfully in his second season. The highlight of that year was Baylor dropping 71 points against his future teammate Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors. There was no doubt that Baylor was a bonafide star and where else do stars go but the City of Angels.
So two years after owner Bob Short talked Baylor into to coming to Minneapolis he was now using the forward as the center piece in a move that would change the sports world forever. The man who soared while others used set shots was now headed to Los Angeles.
Once the Lakers arrived in Los Angeles they were not the celebrated franchise that we have come to know and loathe. Instead they had to prove their worth and Baylor was up to the task. In the first three years of their inception the Laker forward averaged 34.8, 38.3, and 34.0 points a game combined with 19.8, 18.6, and 14.3 rebounds a game. As word spread about the dynamic forward attendance at Laker games grew and grew. The Lakers were seventh in attendance during the 1960 – 61 season.
In 1961 – 1962 they were fourth and that would also mark the first time the Los Angeles Lakers ever played for an NBA title, losing to the Boston Celtics 4-3. However, Baylor again put on a show and in game five he scored 61 points and pulled down 22 rebounds. In the playoffs that year the forward averaged 38.6 points and 17.6 rebounds, what made the 61 – 62 season so amazing was Baylor only played in 48 games. He was in the Army Reserves that year and was only able to play in games that were on the weekends.
In four years the Laker forward had led two franchises to the NBA finals, however he was unable to attain that elusive NBA championship. This would become a staple in his magnificent career and thus the reason many exclude him from the conversation of all-time greats.
Total Baylor would play in eight NBA Finals and lose all eight of them. Twice he played in three straight Finals only to have the bitter taste of defeat served to him again and again. The Lakers would finally win the title that would have validated his career in the 1971 – 72 season, sadly Baylor was forced into retirement just nine games into that season with an injury. This was also the season the Lakers set the 33 consecutive wins streak, which still stands today.
There have been a plethora of stories written and told about how great Jerry West was but there have been too few written to tell just have great Baylor was. It seems his greatness is almost destined to be an afterthought. What Baylor played through was incomprehensible. The things he endured as a black athlete during these trying times in America and still managed to flourish is simply amazing.
Think about this the face of the NBA was changing Bill Russell was leading the Celtics not Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson was the best guard in the game and was the first pick in the NBA draft, ahead of “the logo”, and Elgin replaced Mikan. Even today change is not a welcomed part of our lives. Imagine what a trip to play a game in Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta or Cincinnati must have been like for this trailblazer. Then later in his career at the height of the racial tensions in this country he played in such welcoming places like West Virginia and still he managed to shine.
The league was changing along with America. Imagine what was said on a daily basis to Baylor the first athlete to play truly above the rim. He was the first of a new generation of players yet his legacy is shackled by the old generation’s affinity with others. His place in Lakers’ history is set based on the records he holds, but when will his name be mentioned among those same Lakers who sit behind him in those record books. The NBA and America were forced to change because of players like Elgin Baylor and the game along with our lives are better for it.