Elgin Baylor, the Hall-of-Fame Lakers Small Forward, died on March 22nd, 2021, at the age of 86. His death was first announced by his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, on Twitter. His cause of death was natural, according to many sources, and he is survived by his wife Elaine, his son Alan, and his daughter Alison. Everyone in the NBA community is grieving his death, as he meant a lot to the game of basketball and to those around him.
Elgin Baylor was the first pick in the 1958 NBA Draft by the Minneapolis Lakers. As a matter of fact, the Lakers wanted Baylor so much that they drafted him two years prior as well, but Baylor opted to stay in college at Seattle University.
Baylor made an immediate impact the moment he stepped on the court. Averaging 24.9 points, 15 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game his rookie season, Baylor won the Rookie of the Year award in a landslide and led a Lakers team that was pathetic the year before to the NBA Finals, where they lost to (guess who) the Boston Celtics. One of Baylor’s best moments from his rookie year was when he scored 55 points in a game. Guys like James Harden and Bradley Beal have made 50-point games an every other night occurrence these days, but keep in mind, there was no three-point shot or shot clock in Baylor’s era. At the time, this was the third highest scoring performance in NBA history, behind Joe Fluks’ 63-point game and George Mikan’s 61-point game.
Baylor would finish his career as an 11-time All-Star who averaged 30+ points per game in three consecutive seasons. In one of those seasons (1960-1961), Baylor scored 71 points in a game, then setting the record for most points scored in a game. Unfortunately, the record would be broken just one year later in 1962, by the man, myth, and legend Wilt Chamberlain who dropped 100.
Baylor would score 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 NBA Finals, which is still a record today. Unfortunately, despite playing eight Finals, mostly against the Boston Celtics, Baylor was ringless, and retired at the beginning of the 1972 NBA season due to injuries. Even worse, the day after he retired, the Lakers went on a 33-game win streak, an NBA record, and then won the 1972 NBA championship. Even though he didn’t play, the Lakers still gave him a Championship ring, which was a nice gesture of how much they appreciated him.
Baylor finished his career with averages of 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists on 43% shooting. He also had a 22.7 PER, which is very efficient. He was selected to the All-NBA Team 10 different times, and is a Hall-of-Famer. After his playing career was over, Baylor coached the New Orleans Jazz, and after he was fired, served as the General Manager for the Los Angeles Clippers for 22 rough seasons. The Clippers never did well in his time there, always having their trades end up backfiring. His time there didn’t end well, as there were some major disagreements and lawsuits between Baylor and notorious racist owner of the Clippers Donald Sterling.
Oscar Robertson said, “Elgin was the first and original high flier,” and an inspiration to Dr. J, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson. In his book, The Big O, Robertson wrote, “You could not stop Elvin from driving to the basket. You sure couldn’t out-jump him, or hang in the air longer then he did.”
Baylor’s biggest impact on the game was not his play in itself, but in helping make the league what it is today. When Baylor entered the league in the late 1950s, there were only nine teams, the NBA was way less popular, and the players had practically no rights. They were paid below average salaries (some had to get jobs during the summer), with the minimum salary for an NBA player being $7,000! Imagine seeing Lamelo ball getting paid $59,000 for his rookie contract, because that is how $7,000 translates into money in 2021. The players were also forced to play in very harsh conditions, such as back-to-backs. Now, back-to-backs don’t seem like a big deal (just about every AAU team has them), but as a professional basketball player playing 82 games in a year, playing on Friday night and then Saturday afternoon takes its toll on you. They didn’t even have full-time trainers, so who knew how long it took to get an injury addressed? The players had a player’s union, but it was basically a joke and the commissioner and owners never took the players seriously.
“They’d tell us they were going to do all these things. And then, they changed their minds.”Oscar Robertson on NBA owners in the 1960s
Luckily for the players, the President of the NBA Players Association at the time, Tommy Heinsohn, had a plan to make their demands heard. At the 1964 All-Star Game, Heinsohn tried to convince the 1964 All-Stars not to play until their demands were heard. This would seriously hurt the NBA, as this was the first year the All-Star Game was televised, and you can imagine what a PR mess it would be if there was no All-Star Game.
There were debates among the players if they should go through with this or not, as some players were that scared about losing their jobs and knew how much power the owners had over them. However, Elgin Baylor, along with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson (the star power), announced they were not going to play.
The players were still debating on what to do, when Lakers owner Bob Short decided to try and barge in and scream at Elgin Baylor.
“You go tell Elgin Baylor that if he doesn’t get his a** out here fast, I’m done with him!”Bob Short
Elgin was certainly not happy about this, and his reaction and rage helped make the players on the fence realize that they had to do this strike NOW to make a difference.
“Tell Bob Short to go f*** himself!”Elgin Baylor
After the owners understood how serious the players were, they caved to every single demand, setting the stage for a new era of basketball. Full-time trainers, less harsh schedules, better salaries, and a pension system all kicked in, and the 1964 All-Star Game did not become a black mark on the NBA’s history, in part thanks to Elgin Baylor.
So, if you make it to the NBA and are making anywhere from $1-$10 million your rookie year, just remember that if it hadn’t been for Elgin Baylor and the 1964 NBA All-Stars, you could be making less then 1-10% of that money. Never forget Elgin Baylor’s incredible contributions to the game of basketball, and as always, have an awesome day!