A lot of names get bandied around when it comes to the increasingly divisive (and almost always insufferable) Greatest of All Time debate. But one name in particular that is usually inexplicably omitted from this discussion is Los Angeles Lakers legend and Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor, who is considered by many one of the most criminally-under-appreciated players in NBA history, and by others – namely the eternal Bill Russell – quite simply the best player to ever set foot on a basketball court.
Baylor celebrates his 80th birthday today, and in honor of this milestone, we recommend that basketball fans everywhere – especially those unfamiliar with Baylor’s career – take a few minutes out of your day and watch this mini-doc on his legacy.
Video doesn’t quite do him justice, but the lucky few who saw Baylor in his prime herald him as the progenitor of the types of aerial displays players today perform on a routine basis. Baylor was the first to do it in the NBA, and for this, Bill Simmons once dubbed him “The Godfather of Hang Time.”
Baylor was the first overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, and during his 14-year career, he made 11 All-Star teams and was a 10-time All-NBA First Team Selection. During his rookie season in 1959, he was named All-Star co-MVP (along with the Hawks’ Bob Petit), won Rookie of the Year, and led the Lakers to the NBA Finals. He averaged 27 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists over his career, and during the 1962-63 season, he was the first player to rank in the top five in every major statistical category – points, rebounds, assists, and free throw percentage.
Fair or unfair, the ring debate rages on when it comes to reconciling Baylor’s place in the pantheon of all-time greats. Like so many others, Baylor ultimately had the misfortune of playing during the Boston Celtics’ golden era in which they had a virtual stranglehold on the NBA title for 11 out of 13 seasons during the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
In 1966 and 1969, he led the Lakers to the NBA Finals where they would eventually lose to the Celtics in two separate, heartbreaking seven-game series. Despite eight NBA Finals appearances, Baylor’s teams always came up short, and to complicate matters further, when he announced his retirement at the beginning of the 1972 season, it was arguably the catalyst for Lakers’ historic run that followed, during which they rattled off a record 33-straight wins en route to an NBA Championship.
Baylor played college ball at Seattle University where he averaged 31 points per game and led his team to the 1958 NCAA Title game where they would ultimately lose to Kentucky. He joined the Minneapolis Lakers during a volatile period and ultimately was the savior of a franchise that was essentially on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1960, the team relocated to Los Angeles where Baylor would team up with Wilt Chamberlain. The two finished first and second in scoring that season by combining for more than 70 points per game – Chamberlain with 38.4 and Baylor with 34.8.
Like most black players during the pre-Civil Rights era, Baylor was subjected to rampant and vitriolic racism, perhaps most notoriously during an incident prior to a pre-season game in Charleston, West Virginia where Baylor and two other black teammates were blocked from entering their hotel and denied service at every local restaurant. Baylor refused to play that game, and the Lakers ultimately lost.
Baylor also – amazingly – averaged 38 points, 19 rebounds, and five assists during the 1962 season…while stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington on active military assignment. Baylor was only able to play 48 games that season by obtaining weekend passes and without ever actually being available to practice with the team.
He is truly one of the forgotten greats, but those who had the privilege of watching him play during his prime are helping keep his undeniable legacy alive.
(Video via Wilt Chamberlain Archive)
Where does Elgin Baylor belong among the all-time greats?
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