No appreciation of Elgin Baylor should go without mentioning that Baylor might be the most underrated NBA star ever.
For his career, he averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds – one of two players to average those numbers. Wilt Chamberlain is the other.
And Baylor, who died Monday at the age of 86, did it as a 6-foot-5 small forward.
In 1960-61, he averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds and followed that in 1961-62 with 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds per game. Until knee trouble hampered Baylor in his final two NBA seasons, he averaged at least 24 points and 10 rebounds in 11 of his first 12 seasons.
He was the first person to score 70 in an NBA game, and it took Chamberlain to break Baylor’s record.
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But Baylor’s legacy is rooted in more than points and rebounds.
He influenced the game with his style of play – a high-flying, hard-charging wing who created shots off the dribble and at the rim with dunks and gliding, acrobatic layups. He wasn’t a big man who dominated with size.
Baylor recognized his ability as a teen, writing in his aptly titled “Hang Time” autobiography, “I roar by them or soar above them, jumping higher and hanging in the air longer than they can, using English to bank soft shots off the fan-shaped backboards. I don’t plan what I do. I just do it.”
My dad, a lifetime observer of all levels of basketball, considers Baylor one of the top four players in NBA history.
You can’t talk about the incredibly graceful and soaring wings of the past 40 years without giving Baylor credit for influencing Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving who influenced Michael Jordan who influenced Kobe Bryant who influenced LeBron James.
The lineage, at least in the NBA, starts with Baylor.
As longtime NBA writer Bob Ryan noted on Twitter, Baylor made the game diagonal – rising from one spot on the floor (not right under the basketball, by the way) and soaring to the rim.
Look at the grainy footage today – most of it in black and white – and not all of Baylor’s highlights look remarkable. But that’s because we’re familiar with how the game evolved and what players can do today.
“Elgin Baylor was a truly gifted athlete with abilities beyond all expectations for his era,” President and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame John L. Doleva said.
Back then, watching Baylor was like watching Dr. J float from one of the backboards to the other for a reverse, watching Jordan soar baseline for a slam dunk. You had not seen anything like that before. It was innovative and game-changing.
And if you view that video, you will notice that Baylor is doing a version of the Eurostep long before it was attributed to a player from across the ocean.
If you were around to watch Baylor in the 1950s and 1960s, it was like watching Erving in the 70s and 80s, Jordan in the 80s, Bryant in the 1990s and James in 2000s.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made note of Baylor’s significance.
“Elgin Baylor set the course for the modern NBA as one of the league’s first superstar players,” Silver said in a statement. “An 11-time All-Star during his Hall of Fame career with the Lakers, Elgin produced remarkable results with his athleticism and groundbreaking style of play, including setting an NBA Finals record with 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 championship series – a performance made all the more extraordinary by the fact that he had spent part of that season away from his team while on active duty in the Army.”
His influence extended beyond the court.
Baylor, like Black athletes of his playing days, was subject to racism and bigotry and boycotted a game in Charlestown, West Virginia, after a hotel would not let him or his Black teammates stay there.
“I don’t see myself as political or controversial,” Baylor wrote in his book. “But my action has an impact. Because of my protest, the league created a new policy forbidding hotels to discriminate against any member of an NBA team. Two years later, in 1961, I will play in an All-Star Game in Charleston. I will also accept an invitation to the same hotel that turned me away, this time receiving non-stop apologies as I check in. …
“It all comes down to this: I want to be treated the same as everybody else. I will not allow anyone to demean me, diminish me, or belittle me.
“I’m a man, same as any other man – no more, but no less.”