Elgin Baylor is basketball's answer to Ernie Banks: the best player in his sport to never win a championship. Seven times he went to the NBA Finals and seven times he came home a loser. Only after injuries forced him to retire from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971 did the Lakers win it all.
At his peak, Baylor was considered the best all-around player in basketball history. Serious injuries to both knees eventually robbed him of his best moves, but even in the late 1960s he flashed brilliance. He retired with a career scoring average of 27.4 points per game, surpassed by only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in NBA annals. He was Rookie of the Year in 1959 and made first-team All-NBA 10 times. He scored 61 points in a Finals game against Boston in 1962, a record that still stands.
A 6'5", 225-pound forward, Baylor did it all offensively. He was smooth and he was powerful. He had sensational body control, with the ability -- like Jordan after him -- to adjust in midair and make spectacular plays look routine. He made hook shots with either hand, and he had a knack for putting just the right amount of English on his shots off the backboard. He was "The Man of Many Moves." No single defender could deny him his points.
Baylor played in Los Angeles in the pre-Showtime days, but the Lakers already were a hot ticket. Doris Day, Danny Thomas, and Pat Boone sat courtside at the Sports Arena, where they were wowed by Jerry West and Baylor, one of the greatest two-man shows in NBA history. In the 1961-62 season, Baylor averaged 38.3 points and West averaged 30.8. Overall, Baylor and West averaged at least 25 points apiece in the same season six times.
While his demeanor on the court was stoic, Baylor off the court was happy-go-lucky, a world-class talker respected immensely by his teammates. Life wasn't always hoops and high jinks for him, however. Born September 16, 1934, he grew up in Washington, D.C., in the days when public playgrounds were off-limits to African-Americans. Consequently, he didn't take up basketball until he was a teenager.
Baylor attended Phelps Vocational High School and played on the basketball team, then left school for a year to work at a furniture store. He returned to school at Spingarn High, where he became the first African-American to make the All-Metropolitan team. But because of his poor academic record, Baylor was rejected by the big-name colleges. He eventually went to the College of Idaho to play football. A year later, after Idaho deemphasized sports, he transferred to Seattle University, where he soon caught the attention of pro scouts.
During the 1956-57 season, Baylor averaged 29.7 points and 20.3 rebounds and put a previously inconsequential Seattle U. program on the map. The next year, he led the Chieftains to the NCAA championship game against mighty Kentucky. Although Seattle lost by 12 points, Baylor won the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. He left college a year early and signed with the Lakers (still in Minneapolis) for $20,000, a king's ransom at the time.
Baylor experienced many highs, and a few lows, during his career. He averaged 24.9 points as a rookie in 1958-59 and finished third in the league in rebounding behind Bill Russell and Bob Pettit, but the Lakers were swept from the playoffs by Boston, four games to none. In the preseason that year, Baylor, travelling with the Lakers for an exhibition game, was denied a hotel room and restaurant service in Charleston, West Virginia, because he was African-American. It was one of the most overt acts of racism in NBA history. And in January 1960, Baylor was aboard the Lakers' team plane when a snowstorm forced the pilot to land it in an Iowa cornfield. No one was injured.
In 1959, owner Bob Short hired John Castellani, Baylor's college coach at Seattle, to coach the Lakers. But Elgin was in the Army when training camp began, and Castellani was lost without him. He would be fired after 36 games. Shortly after returning to the team, Baylor scored 64 points against Boston, breaking Joe Fulks' NBA record of 63. A year later, Baylor set another record with 71 points against New York.
One of the most remarkable games in NBA history occurred on December 8, 1961, in Philadelphia. Chamberlain had 78 points (breaking Baylor's record) and 43 rebounds. Baylor had 63 points and 31 rebounds. The Lakers won in triple-overtime.
Calcium deposits in both knees ate away at Baylor's effectiveness in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, the Lakers continued their struggles in the Finals, losing to the Celtics in 1962, 1963, and 1965. In April 1965, Baylor suffered a shattered left kneecap, and there were whispers that his career was over. He made it back for the 1965-66 season but was a shadow of his former self, averaging career lows in points and rebounds. Then, suddenly, he caught fire the last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs, averaging 29 points and 13 rebounds against the St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division finals. Alas, a two-point loss to Boston in Game 7 of the Finals deprived Baylor of the championship he coveted.
Baylor averaged at least 24 points and 10 rebounds each of the ensuing four seasons and went to the Finals three times, twice losing to Boston and once to New York. Another injury kept him out for all but two games during the 1970-71 season, leading to his retirement nine games into the 1971-72 season. He served as head coach of the New Orleans Jazz from 1976-79 and has been vice-president of operations for the Los Angeles Clippers since 1986. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.
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