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RIP, Elgin Baylor, the Overlooked Prometheus of the Modern NBA

Baylor died on Monday at the age of 86. Though the Lakers legend’s exploits are often lost to time, his style of play and trailblazing work off the court helped forge the league we know today.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Decades of distance allow us to connect the dots, to draw straight lines from what came before to what we see now. But it’s important to remember that the moment of creation—the spark, the spontaneity, the ineffable genius that breathes something new into existence—rarely includes a plan. Mapping out the universe comes later; first, you need the Big Bang.

Elgin Baylor didn’t set out to become the start of something, necessarily. He certainly didn’t set out to become the start of everything: the superstar who saved the Lakers and brought the NBA to L.A.; the transcendent athlete who “all but invented the above-the-rim game” and changed the geometry of the sport; the avant-garde innovator who was, in the words of legendary hoops writer Bob Ryan, “the most influential individual offensive player of the last 60 years.” He was just ... setting out. Trying to use the tools at his disposal to put the ball in the hole, any way he could.

“It was just natural, how I played the game,” Baylor told Dave Schilling of Bleacher Report in 2018. “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.”

Those instincts, paired with no small amount of skill, strength, and athleticism, produced one of the greatest and most important players in the history of basketball. They sketched a blueprint that generations of über-athletic wing scorers would follow—and, in fact, still follow today.

They propelled Baylor, who died Monday of natural causes at age 86, through a remarkable Hall of Fame career that helped lay the groundwork for the NBA’s transformation into a nightly highlight factory but that, for several reasons, has never quite seemed to get its proper respect.

These days, Baylor is most often discussed in the language of ancestry and lineage. In the NBA’s creation myth, he’s a Promethean figure—an early skywalker who, in the years before frequent nationally televised games and widely distributed video footage, helped pave a path toward the sort of eye-popping feats we now see every night.

“He just might be the best player I ever saw,” legendary Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn once said. “He was doing things that Dr. Julius Erving made famous 20 years later, the hang time and so forth. But Elgin didn’t have the TV exposure. Nobody did in those days.”

Those who did see him, though, never forgot it—and learned from the experience.

“In basketball, you watch and emulate the things other players do,” Michael Goldberg, former head of the National Basketball Coaches Association, said in Basketball: A Love Story. “Once one player can do a ‘wow’ move, then every kid in every school yard tries to do that themselves. Those that can refine it take it to the next level, and so on down the line. I would say that Elgin Baylor begat Connie Hawkins, and Hawkins begat Earl Monroe, and Monroe begat Dr. J, and Dr. J begat David Thompson, and Thompson begat Michael Jordan, and Jordan begat Kobe Bryant, and there’s more begats going on.”

Off the court, he was a fearless trailblazer who fought against the racist, segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era. On it, he was a groundbreaking slasher who, as Ryan wrote in the foreword to Bijan C. Bayne’s 2015 biography of Baylor, took “a game that was essentially horizontal and occasionally vertical and [made] it diagonal.” He was a tradition-flouting talent, an improvisational creator constantly unlocking new possibilities.

“His ballhandling ability at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds made him a one-man revolution,” Bayne wrote. “He had all the fakes and a sure handle, and some of his spectacular plays culminated in twisting, hanging, or gliding near or past the basket. Yet, it was the combination of those elements—the yo-yo dribbling, the subtle feints, the knifing reverse layups between taller defenders—that set Baylor apart from his predecessors and peers. Where such players as Hawkins, Erving, and, of course, Jordan became known for their trademark dunks, Baylor scored on one-hand push shots, banks, floaters, and fallaways.”

Baylor had the deepest off-the-dribble bag of his era, and he used every trick in it to score a ton. He totaled 23,149 points over 14 seasons—all after entering the NBA at age 24, all compiled without a 3-point line—which made him the third-leading scorer in NBA history behind Wilt and Oscar when he retired in 1972. (He now ranks 36th on the all-time NBA/ABA leaderboard.) He averaged 38.3 points per game during the 1961-62 season, the fourth-highest single-season average in NBA history, while spending a large chunk of it as an active-duty Army reservist who could play only on weekends and when given special clearance.

There was a bitter irony in that: Baylor performing at an all-time-superstar level while on leave from serving a country that continued to treat him and people who looked like him as second-class citizens.

Two years earlier, on January 16, 1959, the Lakers were scheduled to play the Cincinnati Royals in Charleston, West Virginia. When they arrived at the Kanawha Hotel, the desk clerk took one look at them—specifically Baylor, Boo Ellis, and Ed Fleming—and told team captain Vern Mikkelsen, “The three colored boys will have to go somewhere else. This is a nice, respectable hotel. We can’t take the colored boys.”

Rather than submit to the discriminatory policy, the entire Lakers team left, staying instead in a motel that welcomed Black guests. Later, Baylor went out with his teammates to get something to eat, only to be denied service at a restaurant, too. An incensed Baylor decided not to play in the game, boycotting to call attention to the inequality and mistreatment he and other Black people faced in the town.

“I’m a human being,” he told his friend and teammate Hot Rod Hundley, who was white. “All I want to do is be treated like a human being. I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show. They won’t treat me like an animal.”

The NBA and Lakers stood by Baylor. From then on, the Lakers would demand non-segregation clauses in contracts when setting up games. Shortly thereafter, then–NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff “promised to make sure such treatment of Black players at hotels would be a thing of the past when they were representing the league.”

“Certainly I don’t regret having done it,” Baylor said in a March 1963 Sport magazine profile. “I’m no pioneer or anything like that, but I’m interested in my people and I’m interested in progress. I’m Elgin Baylor, and I don’t want anything more than I’m entitled to—or less.”

That insistence manifested again at the 1964 NBA All-Star Game in Boston, when Baylor, Robertson, Jerry West, and other star players “barricaded themselves in a locker room and announced they would not play unless they were guaranteed benefits originally forwarded to the commissioner’s office the previous summer”—namely, improved playing conditions, athletic trainers on every team, and a pension plan.

“[Lakers owner Bob Short] said to an Irish cop that guarded the door, ‘Tell Elgin Baylor if he doesn’t get out there, he’s through,’” Celtics All-Star Tommy Heinsohn told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times in 2011. Baylor didn’t budge. The stoppage worked.

“For Elgin, in particular, the Black athletes, they had to be crusaders in this league and in many cases were vilified for it,” West told Sam Smith in his 2017 book Hard Labor: The Battle That Birthed the Billion-Dollar NBA. “That day has always resonated with me as one of the seminal points of this league. … That day in Boston probably was the beginning of something that few could comprehend.”

Baylor represented an inflection point on the court, too. In the early years of the NBA, the run of play was dominated by towering post players like George Mikan and Dolph Schayes, or sweet-shooting perimeter playmakers like “Jumpin’” Joe Fulks, Paul Arizin, and Bob Cousy. Baylor split the difference, combining the bulldozing strength and rebounding of the league’s best bigs with the speed, quickness, passing, and shotmaking of its top guards, all in a bruising 6-foot-5, 225-pound package. You know how James Harden is sometimes described as being built like a tank? Baylor was the same size and, in his day, just as tough to stop; Knicks forward Richie Guerin, a Hall of Famer in his own right, once said defending Baylor was “like guarding a flood.”

The way Baylor moved could move people. Stylistic successor Julius Erving described it as “just ballet in basketball.” To Hall of Fame guard Charlie Scott, watching Baylor was “like watching poetry.” They weren’t alone in their hosannas; Baylor’s play inspired some delightfully creative and high-minded descriptions from the ink-stained wretches tasked with capturing his brilliance. One favorite: “When Baylor gets the ball, the opposition scatters like quail at the sight of the hunter.”

You can only earn prose that purple with pure production. Baylor is one of only four players to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds per game in his career, joined by Chamberlain, Karl Malone, and Bob Pettit. Of that group, only Wilt delivered as many assists per game as Baylor, a heady passer who still ranks 20th on the all-time triple-double list:

Baylor is one of just 10 players ever with at least 10 All-NBA first team appearances; only LeBron James, Bryant, and Malone have more. Nearly 50 years after his retirement, his career scoring average of 27.4 points per game still ranks third all time, behind only Wilt and Jordan. He still ranks 11th in rebounds per game, too, and in the top 30 in player efficiency rating, field goals, free throws, and total rebounds.

The vulnerabilities in an otherwise sterling on-court résumé all come from Baylor having the misfortune to streak across the sky at the same time as some of the brightest lights in the NBA firmament. He finished second in scoring twice and in the top five eight times, but, thanks in part to the presence of Chamberlain, he never led the league. He finished in the top five in Most Valuable Player voting seven times, but could never supplant the likes of Pettit, Chamberlain, Robertson, and Bill Russell at the top of the ballot.

The Lakers teams Baylor led with West—the “Mr. Outside” to Baylor’s “Mr. Inside” throughout the 1960s—and later Chamberlain made the NBA Finals eight times in 12 seasons. But they ran into Russell’s Celtics six times in that span, and fell to the 1970 Knicks in the Willis Reed Game (which was also the Clyde Frazier Game). They had chances. A 3-2 lead over Boston in ’62, which Baylor delivered with 61 points and 22 rebounds in what remains the highest-scoring single-game performance ever in the NBA Finals. Another in ’69, with West carrying the load while an aging and hobbled Baylor scuffled. But they couldn’t break through. When the Lakers finally did, in the fourth year of the post-Wilt-trade superteam era, it came only after years of knee issues and a torn Achilles tendon had brought Baylor to the end of the line.

The night that Baylor retired, the Lakers won the first of 33 consecutive games—still the longest streak in NBA history. They steamrolled to 69 wins and went 12-3 in the playoffs, exacting revenge on the Knicks in five games to finally win the championship that had eluded them all those years. West finally got his first ring; Wilt got his second. Baylor would receive an honorary ring for his contributions. It wasn’t the same, though.

“It seemed so horribly unfair for him not to be playing when we finally won,” West wrote in his 2011 autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. “I mean, Jesus Christ Almighty, the guy that shared all the blood, sweat, and tears wasn’t there to realize what it felt like.”

West told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times on Monday that he “could never bring [himself] to ask” Baylor how he felt having committed so much of himself to the pursuit of that championship only to see his teammates achieve it without him. Perhaps he needn’t have worried. Baylor told Jason Reid of The Undefeated in 2018 that he was happy for his teammates: “Why wouldn’t I have been? I would have liked to have been part of it, but I retired. We had been through so much together as a team, I wanted them to win.”

Too often over the past few decades, it’s felt like the NBA and the community that’s grown up around it had turned the page on Baylor, allowing his lack of post-playing-days success—first as the head coach of the New Orleans Jazz, then as the long-tenured vice president of basketball operations of the woeful Clippers—to obscure the role he played in advancing the sport, and in the league’s rise from small-scale regional concern to multibillion-dollar international media conglomerate. We’ve started to bridge that gap in recent years, thanks to developments like the unveiling of more footage of his game, the publication of a biography and autobiography detailing his life’s story, and the Lakers finally dedicating a statue in his honor outside Staples Center.

We’ve started to appreciate the creative spark that started so much of what we now hold dear about the sport. To hear Baylor’s long-tenured running buddy tell it, though, we’ve still got a long way to go.

“He was one of the most gifted and special players this game will ever see,” West said in a statement on Monday. “And he has never gotten his just due for what he accomplished on the court.”