Before there was Michael Jordan or Julius Erving dominating the wings, there was a trail-blazing forward from Washington D.C. who made it all possible.
Elgin Baylor is consistently the most forgotten great player in NBA history which is funny, because he was the original prototype for many of our favourite players. Baylor was the first NBA star to defy gravity every time he took the floor, routinely questioning the laws of 1960’s NBA physics.
Prior to Baylor, the league was a series of set shots and bland basketball that (shockingly) wasn’t appealing to the mass American population. Then, a kid from Seattle University came into the league and decided he wasn’t going to play by the rules of the previous generation who thought there was only one way to play basketball.
With legends like Baylor, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson leading the way, basketball discovered a series of new and invigorating ways to play the sport. From everyday joes making the ‘right’ play to a style much more familiar to modern fans, real-life superhero approach, the stars of the 60s made basketball fun.
As the entire basketball world sits and watches a documentary about a high-flying wing with talents never seen before, it’s important to remember that Michael’s game happened because of Elgin.
Baylor and company took the previously horizontal NBA, flipped it on its side and made it the vertical league we now know and love.
Bill Simmons in a 2008 column famously said of Baylor, “You could call him the godfather of hang time. You could call him the godfather of the “WOW!” play.”
What’s maybe most impressive about the change Baylor created in the NBA was the time in America he did it. When Baylor entered the league in 1958, it was a very different world from the one we know now.
Back then, it was an understood, unwritten rule amongst NBA teams that every team could employ only two African American players. Everywhere those players went, despite their talents and what they were doing for the sport, they experienced overt racism in city after city.
Time and again on the road, the Lakers superstar was refused meals at restaurants his white teammates were welcomed with open arms. While fans celebrated the way basketball was changing on the floor, off it they hardly treated the players with the type of human decency they deserved.
One of the most famously impossible instances of Baylor’s career came during the 1961-62 season. Baylor lived in a US Army barrack in Washington state, as a member of the US Army reserves. The reserve would only release him on weekends to go play for the Lakers.
When given his pass, the star forward would fly wherever his team was playing, meet up with them and play in the games. For an entire season, he played exclusively on weekends and didn’t practice once.
In the 48 games he played that year, he averaged 38 points, 19 rebounds and five assists a game.
Despite being in the process of serving for his country, across it he was still denied basic things his white teammates were not.
It’s hard hearing stories like this and having much sympathy for today’s players who struggle with social media. Complaints about things in their mentions when players like Baylor routinely had far, far worse said to their faces inside arenas without anyone doing anything to protect them.
Of course, with Baylor, unlike contemporaries, Russell, Chamberlain and Robertson, what’s worse is while the others are remembered by generations after them for their great achievements, Elgin is often forgotten. He still holds the most points in a finals game record with 62 and, is the Lakers all-time leading rebounder.
Unfortunately, even with his immense talent and the addition of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich throughout his career, Baylor was never able to bring a title to Minneapolis or Los Angeles (the Lakers relocated before his third season). Instead, he lost in an impossible eight NBA finals over his career.
The closest he came to winning the title was in that incredible 62 season. In game seven of the finals, in Boston, Frank Selvy missed a potential series winning shot at the end of regulation. That ball bounces differently and it’s likely Elgin Baylor’s legacy is much different.
Funny how an individual’s legacy can change so much based on something they have no control over.
Baylor’s luck was incredibly never on his side and so, the belief a wing couldn’t lead a title win raged on for another decade plus. Without the title, Baylor needed a thing to be remembered forever like Robertson’s triple-double season or West being the logo but for him, it never really materialized.
Instead, he went on to be a really bad executive for the Clippers and has disappeared from the basketball ether since he was fired in the middle 2000s. Incredibly, for the player who originated the do it at all forward style like LeBron James or the incredible multi-level scorer like Kobe Bryant, Baylor remains a hidden figure amongst the NBA’s memories.
A Laker legend lost in the pages of NBA history, seemingly destined to be the guy kids point to and ask who number 22 was and why his number is in the rafters. For those of us who know though, Elgin Baylor changed the sport at a time when he wasn’t supposed to. At a time when America was hardly ready for a person of colour to carry a sport.
Now some fifty years after he retired, it’s impossible to deny the impact he had. Many of today’s best owe their games to a man they’ve probably never thought of.
So is the legacy of the game’s first vertical superstar.