Los Angeles Lakers legend Elgin Baylor has passed away at the age of 86.
The Hall of Famer died of natural causes surrounded by his family, the Lakers announced.
“Elgin Baylor was THE superstar of his era – his many accolades speak to that,” Lakers governor Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “He was one of the few Lakers players whose career spanned from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. But more importantly, he was a man of great integrity … He is one of the all-time Lakers greats with his no. 22 jersey retired in the rafters and his statue standing guard in front of STAPLES Center. He will always be part of the Lakers legacy.”
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 22, 2021
Long considered one of the games’ greatest yet most underrated icons, Baylor led the Lakers to eight Finals appearances and was selected to 10 All-NBA First Teams.
As a rookie, the Washington D.C.-native averaged 24.9 points and 15.0 rebounds per game. For his career, Elgin Baylor averaged 27.4 PPG and 13.5 RPG across 14 seasons (1958-72) — all with the Lakers franchise. In 134 postseason games, the versatile forward averaged 27 points and 12.9 rebounds.
— Chillin in my Bacta (@DarthAmin) March 22, 2021
Baylor was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977, and his number was retired by the Lakers in 1983.
As we reflect on his immense legacy in the game of basketball and beyond, here are a few things to know about the late, great Elgin Baylor.
He was always better than everyone
Baylor went across the country to attend Seattle University, where he led the school to its only Final Four appearance in 1958. The Redhawks lost to Kentucky in the title game, though Baylor was named Most Outstanding Player.
The Minneapolis Lakers then selected him with the no. 1 overall pick, although it wasn’t the first time he’d been drafted by the organization. The Lakers picked him in the 14th round of the 1956 draft, too, but Baylor opted to play out his collegiate career.
Mr. Hang Time
Baylor was one of the sport’s pioneering above-the-rim artists.
-8 Finals appearances
-10x All-NBA First Team
-Scored 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals
-Absolutely threw it the F down on Bill Russell pic.twitter.com/GVt6qFhosz
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) March 22, 2021
His nickname applied to more than just the around-the-rim acrobatics. Baylor’s signature hanging jumper was considered dazzling at the time.
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Here’s a clipping from Ramona Shelburne’s 2010 article for ESPN on Kobe Bryant’s basketball influences:
Baylor’s highlight reel prompted Bryant to coin the former Lakers great “the footwork king.”
“He was Dr. J and Michael Jordan before Dr. J and Michael Jordan,” Kobe said. “He could get to the basket and do all these incredible things in the air, but I wanted to know, how did he get to the basket? It’s cool to be able to do all those fancy things, but how did he get here?”
The answer, young Kobe discovered, lay in Elgin Baylor’s unorthodox footwork. While most scorers like to establish a rhythm in the way they attack the basket, Elgin was adept at mixing up his fakes, thereby keeping the defender guessing. His explosive first step, as well as his superior strength, made that possible.
Kobe pointed out images of Baylor pivoting on his right foot and using his left foot to fake out the defense.
“It’s an uncomfortable move for right-handed players, but he looked absolutely natural doing it,” he said.
If only more highlights of his prime existed.
Elgin Baylor was GM of the Clippers when I started out. Told him often how upsetting it was that basketball history, unlike baseball history, was so poorly circulated and that so little footage from his prime was available. No. 22 was truly WAY ahead of his time as a player. #RIP
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) March 22, 2021
He roasted the NBA while serving in the U.S. military
As Buss also included in her statement, Baylor starred for L.A. while “serving his country as a U.S. Army reservist, often playing for the Lakers only during his weekend pass.”
During the 1961-62 season — his absolute apex — Baylor somehow managed to serve double-duty as Lakers forward and members of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Baylor was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. Instead of using his weekend passes to head home or take a load off, he drove to NBA games. In 48 appearances that season, he averaged 38 PPG and 19 RPG.
He has two of the greatest single-game scoring performances in NBA history
On Dec. 11, 1960, Baylor hung 71 points on the New York Knicks, which still ranks as the 8th-highest single-game scoring output in history. It stood as the Lakers franchise record until Bryant’s 81-point performance in 2006.
More impressively, in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, Elgin Baylor scored 61 points — which remains a Finals record. He also pulled down 22 rebounds in the Lakers’ 126-121 victory.
Overall, Baylor eclipsed 60 points in a game four times.
elgin baylor laid the foundation for how the modern nba wing plays. he will be missed but his influence will live forever. rip pic.twitter.com/Mux6ZSIGyh
— Logan Murdock (@loganmmurdock) March 22, 2021
His unselfishness cost him his last, best chance to win a championship
Baylor lost eight times in the NBA Finals, including three Game 7s to the Celtics.
Nine games into the 1971-72 season, Baylor retired, citing his plaguing knee troubles.
“I had hoped to end my career after one last successful season. Out of fairness to the Lakers and to myself, I have always wanted to perform on the court up to that level and up to the standards that I have established throughout my career,” he wrote. “I do not want to prolong my career at a time when I cannot maintain these standards.”
One of the wildest things about Elgin Baylor's DRAMATICALLY UNDERRATED career is he never won a ring because he wasn't willing to not be great. He walked away during the Lakers' 71-72 championship season because he wasn't playing up to his own standards.
— Benjamin Hoffman (@BenHoffmanNYT) March 22, 2021
Without Baylor, the Lakers would win 69 games, — including 33 in a row — and a title.
Baylor was general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers for over two decades
Elgin Baylor served as Clippers GM for 22(!) years from 1986-2009. His results were mixed, though the incompetent cloud of Donald Sterling hung over the organization. The team made the playoffs twice during Baylor’s tenure, but he did win Executive of the Year honors in 2006.
After stepping down, Baylor sued Sterling, claiming he was pushed out due to age and racial discrimination. Baylor’s lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful — he dropped the discrimination claims before the entire suit was thrown out — but it remains the most high-profile instance of a prominent member of the NBA community calling Sterling out for his racism.
Prior to joining the front office, Baylor coached the New Orleans Jazz for three seasons (1976-79).
He sat out a game in protest of hotel segregation
In January 1959, as a rookie, Baylor refused to take the floor in Charleston after he and two teammates were forced to spend the night in a separate hotel from the white players. The Lakers lost, while attendees of the game were incensed by Baylor’s decision, even filing a formal complaint to the NBA.
Elgin Baylor once sat out a game because a hotel wouldn’t let him and his Black teammates stay there.
This is what was written about that decision at the time. (https://t.co/G592BhqFQE)
Baylor’s life on and off the court was marred by racism and he stared it down at every turn. pic.twitter.com/7yNSY5OmNk
— Anthony F. Irwin (@AnthonyIrwinLA) March 22, 2021
The Lakers literally might not exist today without him
The Minneapolis Lakers were a dynasty in the early 1950s, but there was legitimate uncertainty about whether the franchise would fold before Elgin Baylor came along.
The Lakers had won just 19 games in 1957-58, and the team was struggling to pull in gate receipts. After drafting Baylor, the Lakers essentially placed the fate of the franchise in his hands.
Needless to say, Baylor delivered. His popularity enabled the organization to survive two more years in Minnesota before relocating to Hollywood.
“If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business. The club would have gone bankrupt,” former Minneapolis Lakers owner Bob Short told the Los Angeles Times in 1971.
“He was the (person) that started this franchise in Los Angeles,” Jerry West said at Baylor’s statue-unveiling ceremony in 2018.
This was his last tweet
“Elgin Baylor was the love of my life and my best friend. And like everyone else, I was in awe of his immense courage, dignity and the time he gave to all fans,” said his long-time wife, Elaine.
Happy Valentines Day
to my everlasting love, Elaine. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/3NlLD94O0k
— Elgin Baylor (@theelginbaylor) February 14, 2021
RIP to a legend, Elgin Baylor.