Greatest sports figures in L.A. history, No. 17: Elgin Baylor
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Continuing our countdown of the 20 greatest figures in L.A. sports history with No. 17, Elgin Baylor.
No. 17, Elgin Baylor (no first-place votes, 689 points)
One of the greatest and most exciting players in NBA history, Baylor was a human highlight reel who became the first star basketball player to compete in Los Angeles. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward displayed a combination of size and grace like no other player before him, averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game over his 14-year career.
“I say without reservation that Elgin Baylor is the greatest cornerman who ever played pro basketball,” former Lakers coach Bill Sharman told The Times in 1971.
Known for his signature running bank shot, Baylor’s knack for mid-air acrobatics made him one of the most difficult players to defend against. He utilized his speed and maneuverability to become the first dominant small forward in league history. Baylor finished with 23,149 points, 3,650 assists and 11,463 rebounds when he retired in 1971.
A two-time All-American and NCAA tournament most valuable player at Seattle University, Baylor was selected first overall by the Lakers in the 1958 NBA Draft. The team signed him to a $20,000 contract, a hefty sum in those days for a player who hadn’t proven himself at the professional level. However, it was a move former Lakers owner Bob Short claims saved the franchise.
“If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business,” Short said in a 1971 interview with The Times. “The club would have gone bankrupt.”
Coming off its worst season in team history, the Lakers finished second in the Western Division behind Baylor, who finished fourth in league scoring (24.9 points per game) and rebounding (15 per game).
In addition to scoring 55 points in a game that season, he led Minneapolis to the NBA Finals.
Baylor steadily improved over the next five seasons, becoming one of the league’s top players next to Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. During the Lakers’ first season in Los Angeles in 1960-61, Baylor scored a then-record 71 points on the road against New York. The following year, he posted a career-high 38.3 points per game, but was limited to 48 games because of military service obligations. Despite the setback, Baylor led the team to another NBA Finals appearance, where he scored a Finals record 61 points in Game 5 of the Lakers’ series loss to Boston.
Knee problems started to creep up on Baylor during the 1963-64 season, and his reputation as one of the league’s top scorers and rebounders slowly began to diminish. Despite this, he was still a reliable playmaker and scorer for the remainder of the decade, teaming up with future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain to make the Lakers one of the best NBA teams of the 1960s.
Baylor led the Lakers to the NBA Finals seven times, but never won a title in his 846 career games with the team. Chronic knee problems forced the 11-time All Star to retire nine games into the Lakers’ memorable 1971-72 championship season.
After retiring, Baylor served as head coach of the New Orleans Jazz for a brief time in the 1970s. He later became general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, a position he held for 22 years before resigning in 2008.
The Washington, D.C. native was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977, and the Lakers retired his No. 22 jersey in 1983.
“Elgin had incredible strength,” said former Lakers teammate Tommy Hawkins in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner. “He could post up Bill Russell. He could pass like Magic [Johnson] and dribble with the best guards in the league.”
— Austin Knoblauch