Before Michael, there was Elgin
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

It is possible that no forward ever performed with the offensive proficiency and flair that Elgin Baylor showed for the Lakers in the late 1950s and throughout the '60s. It just wasn't the number of points he scored; it was the way he got them, thrilling fans with the remarkable variety of his elegant actions.

Elgin Baylor 
After signing with the Lakers for $20,000 as a rookie in 1958, Elgin Baylor basically saved the financially failing franchise.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Baylor was a rare combination of strength and grace, scoring either by powerful moves or acrobatic fakes. He would turn his back to his defender and begin a series of rhythmic dribbling feints from side to side, all the while sliding closer to the basket, protecting the ball with elbows and shoulders. Once inside, he would bull his way for a layup or, if his path was blocked, hang in the air -- seemingly longer than humanly possible -- before softly depositing the ball in the basket. Nor was Baylor just a scorer; his strength and timing enabled him to become one of the league's outstanding rebounders, too.

Baylor was all-NBA first team in 10 of his first 11 seasons, including his first seven. He averaged more than 30 points three times and more than 20 eight other times. (Incredibly, he never led the league in scoring.) He averaged 27.4 points per game for his career, best ever for a forward and third highest all-time behind Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Baylor scored 71 points in a game, the only forward to get more than 65. He scored 61 in a playoff game, still a Finals record. (The only player who scored more in a playoff game was Jordan, but he needed two overtimes to reach his 63.)

Baylor was born Sept. 16, 1934, in Washington, D.C. His father, John, looked at his gold pocket watch to mark the time. It was an Elgin. "And that's what he named me after," said Baylor, no doubt relieved that the Mickey Mouse wristwatch hadn't been manufactured yet.

Baylor didn't play basketball until he was about 14, but he learned quickly. As a senior at Spingarn High School, an all-black school, Baylor was honored as the first of his race to make the all-metropolitan team.

While some colleges were prepared to end their racial practices and accept him, he didn't qualify academically. He finally accepted a football scholarship at tiny College of Idaho -- a friend of his was going there and told the coach that Baylor was a terrific player, though Baylor's experience was limited to mostly pickup games. But Baylor never did play college football, opting instead for basketball and averaging 31.3 points before transferring to Seattle University after one season.

After sitting out a year because of the transfer, Baylor was named second-team All-American in his first season, leading the nation in rebounding (20.3 per game) and averaging 29.7 points. The next season (1957-58), he was a first-team All-American, second in the nation in scoring with a 32.5 average and third in rebounding with a 19.3 mark.

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Although Seattle U. was ranked only 18th in the final regular-season Associated Press poll, Baylor led it to the NCAA final, where it lost 84-72 to Kentucky. Baylor averaged 27 points in the five tournament games and was named most outstanding player in the Final Four even though he missed 23 of 32 shots against Kentucky.

Then Baylor went about saving the financially troubled Lakers franchise. The team was located in Minneapolis then, but after dominating the NBA in the early '50s, it fell on hard times. In 1957-58 it finished 19-53, by far the worst record in the league. Its attendance also was suffering. The Lakers made Baylor, who still had a year of college eligibility left, the first pick in the draft and signed him for $20,000, big bucks in those days. The crowds grew larger at Laker games.

"If he had turned me down then, I'd have been out of business," Lakers owner Bob Short said. "The club would have been bankrupt."

Baylor reported to the Lakers in an insecure frame of mind. "When I went to training camp and saw all these big guys, I wondered if I really could make it," he said. "But right after the first practice I could sense that I was as good as they were."

Make that better. Baylor earned his money, averaging 24.9 points (fourth in the league), 15 rebounds (third) and 4.1 assists (ninth) on the way to Rookie of the Year honors. He scored 55 one game, the highest total for the season. The Lakers improved 14 games over the previous season and won two playoff series to reach the Finals, where they were swept by the Boston Celtics.

Baylor did even more scoring the next season, averaging 29.6 points and leading a 25-50 Minneapolis team to the Western Division finals, where it lost in seven games to the St. Louis Hawks. His 64 points in one game set an NBA record, which he broke by scoring 71against the New York Knicks the next season. By that time, the Lakers were in Los Angeles, Short having moved the franchise following the 1959-60 season.

In his first three years in Los Angeles, Baylor averaged 34.8, 38.3 and 34 points. He had Jerry West as a teammate starting that first year, and they formed the finest one-two punch in the game. But they couldn't win a championship. Seven times they reached the NBA Finals from 1962 through 1970, but each time they were beaten, the first six by the Bill Russell-led Celtics.

For most of his career, Baylor was the team leader off the court. He was the focus of most conversations. He was the one who began discussions, turned them joyfully into arguments and then made the final judgment of the disputes -- whether whimsical or serious. Would a lion whip a tiger? No, Baylor decided. It was Baylor who disciplined the rookies, who decided when it was time for a pre-game meal, who decided when it was time to play poker.

On April 3, 1965, in the opening game of the Western Division finals against the Baltimore Bullets, Baylor's world came crashing down. He went up for a jump shot and came down twisting in pain. Players heard a "pop." He had ripped off the upper eighth of his kneecap. Doctors removed part of his kneecap, tendons and ligaments, and scraped out sharp flecks of calcium.

Baylor returned for the next season, but, as Lakers announcer Chick Hearn said, "It was like watching Citation run on spavined legs." Baylor averaged only 16.6 points and for the first time didn't make first-team all-NBA. Somehow, though his moves and speed were not what they had been, Baylor pushed himself so hard that he again took his place among the NBA elite, averaging at least 24 points in the next four seasons.

But a torn Achilles tendon limited him to two games in 1970-71, and after only nine games the following year Baylor retired with 23,149 points, 11,463 rebounds (13.5 average) and 3,650 assists (4.3 average). "I do not want to prolong my career when I cannot maintain the standards I established for myself," said Baylor, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Ironically, the day after Baylor retired, and with Jim McMillian replacing him in the starting lineup, the Lakers began a 33-game winning streak that is the longest in pro team sports history.

Baylor became an assistant coach in 1974 for the expansion New Orleans Jazz franchise and in December 1976 he was promoted to head coach, where he remained through the 1978-79 season, compiling an 86-135 record. Since 1986 he has been head of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers.