Kobe Before Kobe, LeBron Before LeBron: Elgin Baylor Finally Gets His Due

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeApril 6, 2018

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

No one can seem to tell you why the Lakers legend Elgin Baylor hasn't gotten a statue in front of Staples Center until now.                

It's been almost 20 years since the sports venue opened to the public, and in that time, numerous L.A. sports icons—Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Shaquille O'Neal, announcer Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar de la Hoya—have been immortalized in bronze. (The only other former Laker icons who don't have a statue at Staples Center are Kobe Bryant (a lock to get one eventually) and Wilt Chamberlain, who has one in Philadelphia). Baylor played 14 seasons for the Lakers—in Minneapolis and in L.A.—and was the City of Angels' first basketball superstar. But his exploits have largely been lost to time, and the absence of his image in the Staples courtyard has only been felt by those old enough—and lucky enough—to witness his on-court wizardry.

For certain fortunate basketball aficionados, like current Lakers coach Luke Walton, Baylor was "Kobe before Kobe." In every post-up turnaround jumper, runner or acrobatic layup by the former great, one can see echoes of Bryant. Both combined graceful athleticism with a crafty knack for creating a basket out of a broken play.

In the eyes of the former L.A. great Magic Johnson, now the Lakers president of basketball operations, some of Baylor's skills compare well to Bryant's. "Like Kobe, Elgin could score from anywhere on the court," Johnson told me. "He could shoot from the outside, midrange and drive the ball to the basket."

Baylor is 83, wryly funny and possesses the gravelly, hardened voice of a man who's been blessed with a full life. He comes across as humble and warm. When I spoke to him over the phone last month, he seemed flattered by the comparison with Bryant, though he was quick to point out where their two games differ. The Mamba was a pure scorer, more than willing to take over a game when necessary—such are the tendencies of a player who came up in the wake of Michael Jordan. Baylor, on the other hand, thrived during a time when fundamentals meant everything and even the star players were required to take out the trash occasionally.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Kobe Bryant arrives at the arena greeting Elgin Baylor before his jersey retirement ceremony on December 18, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
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"[Kobe's] a terrific player, a great athlete," he said. "I think the difference is, my era, we had coaches that instructed us that the team that outrebounds the other team by a substantial number, generally you will win. I've found that to be true. So I put more thought and interest into rebounding than anything else. If you rebound, you get a second effort, and it worked for me. I scored a lot of points, but I felt better rebounding, going up against a bigger guy."

Baylor revolutionized the way basketball was played by making the game faster, more dynamic and more athletic. "It was just natural how I played the game," he said. "I never sat around thinking, What I'm going to do. I just reacted to the situation, how guys guarded me. I did things that people probably had never done before. I just instinctively did it."

He currently sits 29th on the NBA's all-time scoring list and 26th all-time in rebounds. But his impact was felt far beyond stats: Baylor popularized the now-common jump shot, liberating perimeter play from the set shots of the day. He shot the ball with one hand while jumping. "He certainly made it his own," Alan Eisenstock, the co-writer of Hang Time: My Life in Basketball, Baylor's new autobiography, told me. "He said he had much more control when he shot it one-handed and jumped at the same time."

Eisenstock said that Baylor's reason for embracing the jump shot was born from utility. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he was the runt of a basketball-crazy family. His brothers, Kermit and Sal, both played and helped groom Baylor for the sport. "He was smaller and younger," Eisenstock said. (Baylor's childhood nickname was "Rabbit.") "He played with his brothers who were older and much, much bigger. He found that to avoid getting clobbered by his brothers, he would do different athletic moves."

At a time when the game was played on the ground, well below the rim, Baylor could fly. His ability to change directions in midair, take contact and finish the play was unparalleled and meant that he could find a way to score when lesser athletes would settle for a foul or pass out of traffic.

AP Photo/Harold Matosian

When Baylor and I spoke, it was hard not to think that his knowledge couldn't come in handy for the next in line for Lakers greatness: No. 2 draft pick Lonzo Ball. Baylor has not yet met Ball, but he has taken an interest in the rookie's style of play—particularly his versatility. Ball is an excellent defender and rebounder; he is averaging almost two steals per game and is the youngest Laker in history to record a triple-double. (The only other Laker to record multiple triple-doubles in his rookie season is Magic Johnson.) But his unique shooting form—his nontraditional shooting motion that starts almost below his shoulder—has drawn its share of critics. Ball is shooting a paltry 36.0 percent from the field and an even more troubling 45.1 percent from the free-throw line.

Baylor insisted that Ball be given room to grow. "Every player, I don't care how good or bad they say they are, there's something they can do good. … Whether it's dribble the basketball, rebound, make a pass," he said. "You have to let him play and feel comfortable. He has to do what works for him, what's best for him."

He added: "He has to have a love for the game and confidence in himself, his ability. … Once he starts doing that, he has the athletic ability to be a good player. He has some good people around him, telling him the right thing."

Baylor remains an avid watcher of the modern NBA. He's particularly fond of LeBron James—a player who, he said, has come close to his impact. "He's unusual. Think about it," Baylor told me. "LeBron could play every position. He could go in the backcourt and play. He's big and strong to play center, power forward. He has a complete game. It's a joy to watch. He's an unselfish player. He can rebound, block shots, get assists. He's a freak of nature."

Baylor's stellar career nearly was derailed before it began. He had sub-par grades, but he eventually did enough to make it onto the roster at Seattle University. There, he impressed onlookers with his creative inside play and strength. In 1956, Baylor was drafted by the Lakers, but he initially turned down the offer to go pro, electing to stay in college. He led Seattle University to the NCAA championship game in 1958 and set the all-time Seattle University single-game scoring record by dropping 60 in that same year.

When he finally made his leap to the league, his impact was immediate. He won the 1959 Rookie of the Year award. He earned All-Star honors 11 times, and he was selected to the All-NBA First Team 10 times.

However, he never quite got his franchise over the hump. Baylor led the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times, seven of which came during the L.A. era. But the Boston Celtics, led by Bill Russell, proved too much. (This blossomed into the Celtics-Lakers rivalry we know today.) Baylor retired nine games into the 1971-72 season—a move that might be his greatest regret. That Lakers team—led by Chamberlain and West—won a record 33 straight games after Baylor hung it up, and went on to finally win its first NBA championship in Los Angeles over the New York Knicks.

Baylor was given an honorary championship ring that year. It might not have been won on the court, but it meant something. It meant even more to see his old buddy Jerry West finally get a championship after years of falling short against the Celtics. "To this day, Jerry says his biggest regret is that he couldn't share that championship with me," Baylor wrote in his book. Baylor mentored West on the court and off. In Hang Time, Baylor recounted how he "gravitated" toward the soft-spoken kid from West Virginia, and that he was eager to help him learn the game through a trying rookie year in 1960-61. (The team had just relocated and went 36-43.) Their shared love of competition forged a friendship that lasts to this day. As Baylor wrote, "Jerry West can't stand to lose."

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

The two have grown close over the years. They still speak frequently and play golf together. Soon after retirement, Baylor jumped into coaching, and he led the New Orleans Jazz to an underwhelming 86-135 record in three seasons. He retired from the bench in 1979. In 1986, he joined the Clippers front office, but he struggled to improve the team during his 22-year tenure as its vice president of basketball relations.

Then, in 2009, Baylor was fired. The termination prompted Baylor to file an employment discrimination suit against Donald Sterling, the Clippers' former owner. Eisenstock, who spent four years developing and writing Hang Time with Baylor, believes his tenure with the Clippers might have been part of why it took so long for him to be honored with a statue. "All of that [on-court success] was kind of obliterated by the time he spent in the front office," Eisenstock said. "People had kind of forgotten him."

No one forgot Jerry West, though. He's the Logo, the architect of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers of the early 2000s and the puppet master behind the Golden State Warriors' budding dynasty. Now, he's taken a job with the Clippers front office, hoping to do what eluded his friend: turn the Clippers into a champion.

Last December, Baylor and West were both in town for Kobe Bryant's jersey-retirement ceremony. In a video circulated online, Baylor can be seen standing near Bryant, expecting a greeting that never comes. The moment was emblematic of how Baylor has been left out of the conversation for greatest Lakers ever. He's hovering on the periphery but perpetually unnoticed.

Bryant couldn't be reached for this piece, but in an interview with ABC, he praised Baylor's offensive prowess. "He had great footwork. Great first step, very strong," Bryant said. "Everything I've read about Elgin, he was Dr. J and Michael Jordan before Dr. J and Michael Jordan."

What connects the two men more than their immense talent on the basketball court is the jersey they wore. Both of them are represented in the rarified air of the rafters of Staples Center. Even if Elgin Baylor jerseys are not as ubiquitous around Los Angeles as Bryant's 8 and 24, his legacy is untouchable. At last, fans can touch that legacy or at least come close, when they interact with his statue.

Last week, I met with West in the tunnels below the Staples Center. He wore a simple gray suit befitting a man who eschewed flash in all things and spoke with a steely-eyed focus and lilting drawl. We talked about Baylor and what he meant to the franchise. When I asked him about the lack of a Baylor statue, he grew visibly frustrated. "This wasn't copacetic for me," he said, thoughtfully. "He probably should have been the first one out there."

Baylor told me that never imagined that his play on the court would one day be enshrined by a hunk of metal with his face carved into it. "I never thought about [a statue]," he said. "I never gave a thought. I was just appreciative that people recognized and appreciated my contribution to the game of basketball. I never really gave it a lot of thought. It's just hard to get one."


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