From the playgrounds of inner city Washington D.C. to the glitz of Hollywood, Elgin Baylor’s journey through life has been extreme and unusual. The journey began in the segregated neighborhoods of the Nation’s Capital, and would include Caldwell, Idaho; Seattle, Washington; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and finally Southern California.
Baylor was a legend on the playgrounds of Washington D.C. He was simply the best player ever to come out of the District of Columbia. He starred for the Southwest Boys Club, then became a 3-time All-City selection at Phelps Vocational High School and then the brand new Spingarn High School his senior year. He obliterated the City’s single game scoring record that year by pouring in 63 points against his former school, Phelps. He broke the record of Jimmy Wexler by eleven points. When Wexler broke Baylor’s record the year before, the Washington Post had given it massive coverage. A two banner headline and a full article. This time, Baylor’s feat earned a corner spot in the Sports Section and a few lines. Such was the fate of a black phenom in the 1950s.
After the season while sifting through offers about his future, including a contract offer from the Harlem Globetrotters, Baylor would be involved in a game that would forever change basketball in the Nation’s Capital. Sam Lacy, the sports editor of The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper organized a game between the best black players in the community and the best white players. This was a first, and neither side had any trouble recruiting players, but the principals at some of the white high schools refused to allow their students to participate. This forced the white team to go after players who had already graduated. One of them was Jimmy Wexler.
For the first time Jim Wexler would face Elgin Baylor on the basketball court. The game was played at a 900 seat junior high school gym, 1500 people showed up. Wexler and Baylor greeted each other before the game. They shook hands and said “Good Luck.”
Wexler was guarding Elgin in the first half when Baylor made a spin move to the basket and went in for a two handed reverse dunk. Baylor said of the play, “I don’t think anyone had seen a reverse dunk before. I had never done a reverse dunk before.”
Wexler was not intimidated, he went for 34 points, but the game was never close. The all-black team won by 25! Elgin Baylor tallied 44. Years later Wexler remembered Baylor, “He showed me basketball at a totally different level, another world, heads, and shoulders above anything I’d ever seen. He could do everything.”
Since Baylor hadn’t graduated from high school, most colleges were reluctant to recruit him. Seton Hall and Duquesne made inquiries, but no firm offers were made. Finally in August an offer came. The College of Idaho in far off Caldwell, Idaho, offered a full ride if Elgin would play both football and basketball.
That’s how a black kid from inter-city Washington D.C. wound up in Caldwell, Idaho.
His year in Idaho was magnificent. The students were friendly and supportive, the basketball team excellent. They went 25-4 with Baylor averaging over 31 points a game. They made the Divisional playoffs, but would be bounced out in the first round. With the season over, Elgin had kept his grades up and was looking forward to his sophomore year. Things didn’t work out as planned. Due to financial concerns the College of Idaho eliminated their basketball program, and again Elgin was looking for someplace to play.
Seattle University was the only suitor, and after visiting the campus he decided to transfer. In two seasons at Seattle, Baylor led the Chieftains to the NIT in 1957 and a second place finish in the NCAA Tournament in 1958.
Chosen with the #1 pick in the 1958 NBA draft by the Minneapolis Lakers, he took a team that went 19-53 in 1957-58 and led them to the NBA Finals, averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds a game in his rookie season. He finished third in the MVP voting behind Bob Pettit and Bill Russell. Baylor would spend one more year in Minneapolis and then the Lakers would move to Los Angeles after the 1959-60 season. The Lakers had the #2 pick in the 1960 draft, and they used it to select a player who will forever be tied to Elgin Baylor, Jerry West out of the University of West Virginia. For the next ten years they would be the core of one of the elite teams in the NBA.
Through 1965, Baylor was the Laker’s best weapon. He would finish no lower than 6th in the MVP voting and as high as second in 1962-63. In the 1961-62 season he finished 4th in the MVP balloting despite playing in only 48 games due to his military obligations. The Lakers made the playoffs every year, making it to the Finals again in 1962 and 1963, but they couldn’t get past the Russell and the Boston Celtics.
Then it happened, Game 1 of the 1965 NBA playoffs at the Los Angeles Sports Arena against the Baltimore Bullets. On the Lakers first offensive opportunity, Elgin received a pass from Jerry West and then made a move to the basket, his left knee exploded in pain. Elgin Baylor would never be the same. A player who averaged 31.5 points per game up until that time would only average 23.4 points per game the rest of his career. He was still an All-Star, but no longer even the best player on his own team.
The Lakers would make five more Finals before injuries forced Baylor to retire early in the 1971-72 season. The cruelest irony is that’s the year the Lakers finally won the Championship. Baylor was given a ring, but he was not on the team when they made their playoff run. He participated in seven Finals, and the Lakers lost them all.
Just how good was Elgin Baylor? He’s third, behind Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, in NBA history in points per game with a 27.36 average. Lebron James is fourth at 27.1. Baylor’s average rebounds per game was 13.55, which places him 10th on the all time list. The only other players who are in the top ten in both points and rebounds are Wilt Chamberlain (2nd & 1st) and Bob Pettit (8th & 3rd). This puts Baylor in real elite company. He averaged 32.5 points and 16.5 rebounds per game before he blew his knee out in 1965. If he had maintained that production he would be #1 in points per game and #3 in rebounds per game. But he wasn’t the same player after the injury.
Like his contemporary, Bob Pettit, you very rarely hear Baylor’s name mentioned in the greatest of all time discussions. Knowing what we now know, why is that? The answer is simple, despite all the individual statistical success he had, his teams never won a Championship. Is that a fair indictment? The answer is; maybe.
Baylor’s first year in the NBA (1958-59) he went to the Minneapolis Lakers, and took a team that finished 19-53 in 1957-58 and led them to the NBA finals, beating the defending NBA Champion St. Louis Hawks in the Western Conference Finals. They were swept by the Bill Russell led Boston Celtics in the Finals, and there lies the rub. In the next ten seasons Russell’s Celtics would win nine Championships, defeating Baylor’s Lakers six more times in the Finals. Baylor’s playoff averages in those years were 28.7 points per game and 13.5 rebounds a game. He’s 12th all time in average rebounds per game and 6th in points. They lost three Game 7s to Boston in that stretch, one in overtime and two others by two points. Baylor only lasted two more seasons after Russell retired following the 1968-69 season, and by that time Elgin was only a shell of his previous self. He was involved in only one more playoff run, culminating in another game seven loss in the Finals, this time to the New York Knicks.
Baylor suffers the same criticisms as all of his contemporaries who weren’t on the Celtics. While Bill Russell was active, Baylor joined teammate Jerry West and Oscar Robertson with zero NBA championships, while Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit were both held to one. West and Robertson would both win a Championship after Russell was gone in the early 1970s, and Chamberlain would add another one also. In Baylor’s 14 year NBA career his teams made seven NBA finals. That’s more than Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, or Shaquille O’Neal, and the same number as Bob Cousy and Kobe Bryant.
Baylor was a winner, his teams just couldn’t beat the Celtics, but nobody else could either. He was a great player.
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