Dr. J on Elgin Baylor: ‘He was just ballet in basketball’
Laker great to have his statue unveiled Friday night at Staples Center
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 6, 2018. On March 22, 2021, Baylor died at the age of 86.
BEVERLY HILLS, California — The views from Elgin Baylor’s house are spectacular. And other aspects of the place aren’t bad either.
Located on a private road in one of the nation’s most exclusive neighborhoods, the estate covers more than 8,000 square feet. The Basketball Hall of Famer’s wife of 40 years and best friend, Elaine, furnished and decorated the place immaculately, creating a stunning home that would jump off the pages of any magazine featuring the world’s most impressive living spaces.
“She couldn’t have done it without me,” Baylor told a visitor recently, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Quickly, you get it. You understand why the Baylors enjoy their longtime spot so much. But of all the things that make the house special, the views top the list. From multiple decks and every room, downtown Los Angeles is in your sights. At night, while watching the light show, one of the biggest athletic stars in the city’s history often reflects on his good fortune.
“I never expected any of this. I don’t think anyone could have,” Baylor said. “I’m very thankful for everything. I’ve been blessed. Great things have happened for me. I’ve gotten a lot of honors.”
The list is still growing.
On Friday, a statue of Baylor will be unveiled at the Staples Center, the downtown L.A. arena where the Los Angeles Lakers, the team for whom Baylor starred his entire 14-year NBA career, play their home games. Early the following week, Baylor’s autobiography, Hang Time: My Life in Basketball, will go on sale. In conjunction with the release, Baylor will embark on a book-signing tour, returning to Washington, D.C., where he was reared, on April 11 for an event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
It’ll be a whirlwind of publicity for the reserved Baylor, 83, who isn’t one to tout his monumental accomplishments as a pioneer both on and off the court. Many close to him, though, have been gently nudging Baylor for years to tell his story in his own words. The book and statue unveiling figure to reintroduce the onetime superstar to a generation of hoops fans who most closely associate him with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, the team he led as general manager for 22 years (in 2006, Baylor won the league’s Executive of the Year award) until he was relieved of his duties shortly before the 2008-09 season.
The NBA owes much of its global popularity, and today’s star players can directly trace their eight-figure salaries, to the foundation laid by all-time greats like Baylor. Now, he’s in the spotlight again.
“Elgin is so humble. He just doesn’t like to talk about himself and all the things he has accomplished,” Elaine Baylor said. “But he has done so much. And with everything that’s happening now, a lot of people who maybe don’t know will see Elgin in a whole new way.”
‘It’s long overdue’
The numbers tell a story of dominance.
After he led Seattle University to the 1958 NCAA tournament championship game, Baylor was the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick that year by the then-Minneapolis Lakers. An incredibly gifted athlete with a basketball IQ to match, Baylor would go on to become an 11-time All-Star and 10-time first-team All-NBA selection.
His first season, he averaged 24.9 points and 15 rebounds and was voted Rookie of the Year. His next four seasons, Baylor averaged 29.6, 34.8, 38.3 and 34 points, respectively. Once, Baylor scored 71 points in a game, which is tied for the league’s eighth-highest total. Baylor’s 61-point performance in an NBA Finals game is still a Finals record.
Baylor’s unique highlight-reel-worthy moves thrilled fans and revived the Lakers franchise. The team won five league titles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then, Hall of Fame big man George Mikan retired and the Lakers became just another struggling team. Until Baylor arrived. There just wasn’t anyone else who moved as Baylor did while going to the basket. His stardom fueled the franchise’s move to L.A. before the 1960-61 season.
“Yeah, I could score a little,” said Baylor, whose career scoring average of 27.36 points per game ranks third in NBA history, behind only Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07).
“But rebounding, man. I really liked to rebound.”
At 6 feet, 5 inches and around 225 pounds during his playing days, Baylor was a wing forward who rebounded better than most bigger players. Of the nine players who rank ahead of Baylor in career rebounding average (13.55), all are power forwards or centers. A knee injury in an era before arthroscopic surgery robbed Baylor of some of his athleticism. Still, he managed to play at a level most in the NBA have never reached.
Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving can tell you all about Baylor’s game. Dr. J spent much of his youth studying it in hopes of emulating his favorite player, and he’s pleased his friend is finally getting the recognition he deserves.
“When things occur that are overdue, you don’t want to overreact to it,” Erving said on the phone the other day. “And what’s happening for Elgin now, it’s long overdue. With something like this, there’s always the tendency to want to point fingers, like, ‘Who dropped the ball here?’ But I’m happy Elgin will be where he belongs.”
Statuary at Staples Center is handled by the arena’s owners, who also own the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, not the Buss family, which owns the Lakers. Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ controlling owner, was very supportive of Baylor joining fellow franchise icons Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and announcer Chick Hearn in bronze. Kobe Bryant, who retired after the 2015-16 season, will undoubtedly be the next up.
If the process were based on merit alone, Baylor would have been in bronze long ago, said West, his former teammate and friend of almost 60 years.
“He had an incredible instinct to score. But he also had an incredible instinct to rebound. I just marveled at him. He was truly a highlight film,” said the Hall of Famer, who as a player led the team to its first NBA title in L.A. and as an executive constructed Lakers rosters that won another six NBA Finals.
“I’ve heard numerous times from present players, and no disrespect to them at all, about what they’re gonna do to opponents in games. They say, ‘I’m gonna put on a show tonight.’ Well, if you have to put on a show, then you’re gonna have to try to do something completely different than most of these people in the league would do. Elgin Baylor never had to try to put on a show. He was just Elgin Baylor. He did things no one else could do.”
That’s the way Erving remembers it too.
While developing his own game as a youngster, the future Dr. J watched Baylor play on television every chance he could, “and I remember he was the first guy I saw grab the rebound, bring it in transition and then play-make from the top of the key. He was a playmaker, he was great one-on-one, he was great using airspace … he was just ballet in basketball. And that opened a lot of doors for young players, myself in particular, to try that stuff. Suddenly it was like, ‘Wow. This can actually work.’ ”
In his well-regarded 2015 book, Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball, author Bijan C. Bayne chronicled what West, Erving and others observed.
“The style of basketball that we accept as conventional today all comes out of him,” Bayne said. “Go away from the stereotype of Elgin [starting] the lineage of Michael [Jordan] and Dominique [Wilkins]. People get caught up on the hang time and the elevation, but he wasn’t, for most of his career, Dominique or Vince Carter; it’s more subtle than that.
“The things that we accept as routine today, like changing direction after one has left one’s feet. A spin move, double-pumping, any improvisation off the dribble, hesitation dribbles, all of that comes out of Elgin. And even to some degree, for a person of his size, no-look passes. That’s all from Elgin.”
Although listed as a forward, Baylor actually played multiple positions. His versatility also set him apart. Perhaps that’s why he identifies with LeBron James. Baylor wasn’t as physically imposing as James, but “our style of play was similar,” Baylor said. “I would handle the ball. I’d bring it downcourt when teams would press. I’d do different things in the offense. On defense, I’d guard different guys.
“LeBron does so many things. And I have great respect for LeBron because he’s a tremendous player, but he’s also a very smart player. He really knows how to play. There are a lot of guys who have physical ability, but they don’t know how to play the game. I always say it’s hard to compare players from different eras. But LeBron could have played, been really good, in any era.”
A different era
The NBA Baylor entered was integrated, but only barely. At that time in both major college basketball and the pros, there was an unwritten rule, some NBA old-timers say: Teams could play one black player at home, two on the road and three if they were losing.
When Baylor joined the Lakers, there were only two other African-American players, both reserves, on the team. In his early years in the league, Baylor was a rarity: An African-American franchise player.
“He was [one of] the first really prominent college basketball players who was black who was drafted to be a headliner in the sport,” Bayne said. “So much so that the Lakers moved to Hollywood to be able to showcase that. One of the nuances of his social impact was that Elgin was first black ‘home run hitter.’ ”
And as such, Baylor commanded respect. Even as a rookie, Baylor protested against racial injustice despite it being particularly dangerous for blacks to do so.
In January 1959, Baylor refused to play in a game in Charleston, West Virginia, against the Cincinnati Royals because he and the Lakers’ other two black players were denied lodging at an area hotel. According to a newspaper account at the time, “Baylor and the entire Minneapolis team spent Friday night at a Negro motel in Charleston after a mid-town hotel had refused to house three Negro players, including Baylor. Despite pleas from his teammates urging him to play, Baylor declined to put on a uniform and sat on the Minneapolis bench in civilian clothes throughout the game.”
Baylor had bad memories from growing up in segregated Washington, D.C. As an adult, he refused to back down.
“When I was a kid … it was rough,” Baylor said. “I lived in an all-black neighborhood, and every time there was a problem, each time a crime was committed somewhere in that area, the police would always come around, pick them up and take them in for questioning. It always ended up with them being innocent, they always got out of it, but it was hard. It was hard on my mother. It was wrong.”
During the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1960s, Baylor wasn’t as publicly vocal as activist superstars such as Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics and Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns. In his own way, though, Baylor made a difference.
“Looking at his life as a full citizen outside of the realm of sport, he was the first major North American team-sport pro athlete to boycott a game because of Jim Crow,” Bayne said. “He did a lot with voter registration in Watts and Compton [California]. He did things [to push for equality] … and he has always demanded that he be treated a certain way.”
By the time West arrived through the 1960 draft to start the Lakers’ first season in L.A., Baylor was already at the top of the league. The wide-eyed rookie followed Baylor’s lead.
“When I first came [to the Lakers], I was really quiet. Shy. I wouldn’t say very much. And I would just observe how he treated people and how he conducted himself. It was probably the greatest lesson that maybe I’ve learned about an individual,” West said. “He treated everyone with respect. He was really the life of the party, razzing everyone all the time, but he treated the game with respect, and that never changed.”
A championship is the one thing missing from Baylor’s résumé. As a player, coach (for three seasons in the late 1970s, he led the then-New Orleans Jazz) and NBA executive, the game’s biggest team prize eluded him. Repeatedly, though, he came close.
Eight times, Baylor reached the NBA Finals. But unfortunately for him and the Lakers, their run coincided with that of the Russell-led Celtics, the greatest dynasty in the game’s history. While forging the NBA’s best rivalry, the Lakers and Celtics also spurred fan interest in the league overall. They had some classic Finals battles — all of which the Celtics won.
“Man, you just couldn’t beat Russell,” Baylor said of his longtime good friend. “The focus he had was incredible. The minute the game started, you saw something change. You just couldn’t get him [rattled].
“So when everything was happening around him, it didn’t bother him. A lot of guys, real talented guys, take bad shots, throw a bad pass or forget about [a defensive assignment]. You see it all the time in the playoffs. With Russell … you just didn’t see that stuff happen [often].”
In what some probably would consider to be a cruel blow, the Lakers won their first title in L.A. during the 1971-72 season — the season in which Baylor retired after nine games mostly because of lingering knee problems. The team also reeled off an NBA-record 33 consecutive victories. What was Baylor’s reaction to the Lakers’ finally having broken through without him?
“I was happy they won the championship. Why wouldn’t I have been?” Baylor said. “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.”
Said West, “The people we played with, it really was like family. We were all very, very close. The type of person Elgin is, how classy he is, he would only want the best for everyone he played with.”
Baylor never experienced the same feeling of camaraderie while working for the Clippers under Donald Sterling, among the worst owners in the history of professional sports. Back in 2014, Sterling was banned for life, fined $2.5 million and forced by the NBA to sell the team in response to racist comments the league determined he made in a recorded conversation. The revelation of Sterling’s racism occurred too late to help Baylor: In 2011, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury rejected Baylor’s wrongful-termination lawsuit against the Clippers. “The truth came out,” Baylor said. “Then you just turn the page.”
With a statue to unveil and a book to promote, Baylor doesn’t have time to dwell on one disappointing chapter in an otherwise great life. There’s too much work to do. And when he’s finally done, Baylor will return home and enjoy the view again. It’s only getting better.