By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 25, 2018) — Award-winning critic and author Bijan C. Bayne delivers a detailed account of Elgin Baylor’s greatness as a basketball player and the historic impact of his amazing career from the playgrounds and gyms of Washington, D.C. to the College of Idaho to Seattle University to the NBA’s Lakers (first in Minneapolis, then in Los Angeles).
Every step of the way, Bayne chronicles Baylor’s exploits with thorough research, drawing upon an impressive list of contemporary sources to tell the story. Newspapers, magazines, books and websites are referenced throughout the biography, which enrich the narrative.
In 2015, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. published the hardcover book. The paperback edition was released two years later, and recently seized my attention from start to finish.
A gifted observer and pundit, Bayne captures the essence of Baylor’s greatness. He explains again and again why Baylor was one of the most revolutionary — and important — athletes of the 20th century.
Above all, this is an excellent primer on the significance of Baylor’s career and how he changed the game, how he influenced future stars and run-of-the-mill players.
Longtime Boston Globe sports scribe Bob Ryan, an authoritative voice on the NBA for decades, penned the foreword to this book.
Ryan, employing both eloquent and straight-forward prose, explained why Bayne’s overarching premise for this book was spot-on.
“He just did what came natural to him on the court,” Ryan wrote. “Thus, we had a 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound athlete stutter-stepping, swooping and up-and-undering, and double-pumping and releasing shots from decidedly unfixed release points, adding up to a style of individual offense no one had ever seen before. Period.”
“…And before anyone says, ‘What about Oscar Robertson?’ understand that the vaunted ‘Big O’ was the king of orthodoxy, perhaps the most fundamentally sound player ever. The Big O was the basketball equivalent of classical music.
“Elgin was improvisational jazz,” Ryan declared.
Ryan also had this to say: “Elgin Baylor … had more influence on how the game of basketball is played than anyone in the past 60 years.”
Profound, indeed. And setting the stage for the action-packed book.
Baylor’s schoolboy exploits on the court are reported in detail. He was a local hero and on-court sensation.
In a Washington Post article from 1954 cited in the second chapter, the player nicknamed “Rabbit” was summed up this way: a remarkable athlete averaging 39.9 points per game, who had arms that extend to the “inside, not just touch, the rim of a standard basket on a jump.”
During his days at Spingarn High School in the early 1950s, Baylor attracted attention throughout the region. For instance, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach was well aware of him.
How couldn’t he have been?
Baylor’s best high school game, a 63-point gem, remains the record in D.C., Bayne wrote.
An all-around gifted athlete, Baylor took his talents to the College of Idaho in 1954, where he was one of the few black students on the campus, which had an enrollment of 450 students.
Interestingly enough, he received a football scholarship to Idaho, even though he’d only played sandlot football, the author noted.
“I thought, well, I’ll play football, and maybe I can make the basketball team, too,” Baylor said at the time.
He seized the opportunity. The rest is history.
Baylor quickly found his way to the basketball court.
In his first two games for the Idaho Coyotes, Baylor poured in 57 and 46 points as a college freshman, and the Coyotes had an unbeaten season in conference play. The team’s starting center, Baylor scored 31.3 points per game. (Baylor’s early foes included Nevada, Gonzaga and Montana State, and one of his well-known teammates was R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens, the future NFL receiving standout.)
Baylor was instrumental in making the Coyotes a hot ticket in the community.
“The basketball program that had total gate receipts of $2.40 a few years earlier was now turning away fans from sold-out games,” Bayne wrote.
It’s a powerful reminder of the big-time nature of Baylor’s entertainment value, even at this early stage of his career.
Despite Baylor’s impact on the program and its success, College of Idaho, an NAIA school, ended its basketball program in ’55.
Idaho’s loss became the Pacific Northwest’s gain. Seattle University has never had a more incredible game-changing force on its roster.
But before he left Idaho, a seminal moment in Baylor’s college days took place in his dormitory. He tuned in to the NCAA title game between the University of San Francisco, led by Bill Russell, and LaSalle, headlined by Tom Gola.
Here was Baylor’s recollection of that game, which Bayne cited from prolific author Bert Sugar’s “The Sports 100”:
“I’d read about Bill Russell and Tom Gola in the papers, but just to listen to the game on the radio was like seeing them play. I could see them blocking shots and rebounding and scoring. It was so exciting — it was better than any game I had ever seen.”
Just as he was at Idaho, Baylor became an instant success at Seattle.
John Castellani, the Chieftains’ new coach in 1956, described Baylor as “point-blank the greatest ballplayer I had ever seen.”
He did this, Bayne deftly pointed out, on the second day of preseason practice that October.
What caused Castellani to make this bold proclamation?
“The way he rebounded, the way he put the ball back up after a rebound,” the ex-Seattle coach said in 2012. “You see guys rebound today, and it’s not the same. Elgin would squeeze the ball, and no one could get the ball away from him. He could run the court, dribble, and he had a jump shot from today’s three-point range.”
In a February 1957 game against Gonzaga, Baylor, then sophomore, demonstrated his one-of-a-kind talent. A game in which he scored 40 points, including 26 in the second half. Double- and triple-team defenses couldn’t stop him. That same month Baylor stuffed the box score with 51 points and 20 rebounds against Portland.
Seattle went 24-3 that season, finishing fifth in The Associated Press’s final poll. And “sportswriters were calling the school ‘Baylor Tech,’ ” noted Bayne of the superstar who was the NCAA’s No. 1 rebounder and third-leading scorer.
In the 1957-58 season, Baylor compiled back-to-back games of 60 and 43 points on consecutive days against Portland at Seattle Civic Auditorium.
“A week later,” Bayne wrote, “Seattle faced Gonzaga and its much ballyhooed 280-pound, 7-3 French freshman center, Jean Claude Lefebvre. When Lefebvre and Baylor went up for a jump ball, the 6-5Baylor outjumped Lefebvre and swatted the ball into the stands for good measure. Baylor netted 42 points to Lefebvre’s 26. Of the Gonzaga giant, Baylor said Lefebvre was the toughest player he faced all season. Yet, when the teams played again the next day, Baylor managed to college 30 rebounds and score double Lefebvre’s output, for a total of 46 points, taking over the national scoring lead at 33.7 points per game from Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson (32.9) and Kansas’s Wilt Chamberlain (32.7). His 23.5 rebounds per game also led the nation — including Chamberlain.”
Indeed, he was a player destined for greatness. Bayne made this clear with his authoritative presentation of the facts.
The Chieftains fell to the University of Kentucky in the 1958 NCAA Tournament championship game, and Baylor received the Most Outstanding Player award. He had 25 points on 9-for-32 shooting and snared 19 rebounds.
The following is one of the best passages in the book and effectively explains why Baylor produced a lasting imprint on the game.
“Without a doubt, Elgin Baylor’s skills were helping him build a legendary reputation in the game of basketball. … For all the credit Baylor has since received for paving the stylistic path for Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and Michael Jordan, he was a thoroughly unique player. Unlike his aerial descendants, Baylor was a novelty because of his many unpredictable moves from the wing. His ballhandling ability at 6-5, 200 pounds made him a one-man revolution. He had all the fakes and a sure handle, and some of his spectacular plays culminated in twisting, hanging, or gliding near of past the basket. Yet, it was the combination of those elements — the yo-yo dribbling, the subtle feints, the knifing reverse layups between taller defenders — that set Baylor apart from his predecessors and peers. Where such players as Hawkins, Erving, and, of course, Jordan became known for their trademark dunk, Baylor scored on one-handed push shots, banks, floaters, and fallaways…”
While the Minneapolis Lakers settled on drafting Baylor in 1958, he was on the New York Knicks’ wish list. New York made a $100,000 offer to the Lakers “for the rights to draft Baylor, a move that reminded NBA owners why they held Knicks owner Ned Irish in such low regard,” Bayne reported.
Unearthing key but lesser-known facts about Elg’s career from first-hand accounts — teammates, opponents, ex-coaches, broadcasters and media — paint a full picture of a player who’d be a LeBron James-like presence in the modern media landscape, a player picked No. 1 in the 1958 NBA Draft after guiding Seattle U. to the NCAA Final four.
Baylor played in his first NBA game on Oct. 22, 1958, competing against the Cincinnati Royals. He made a stellar debut for the Lakers with a 25-point effort.
“On the opening center jump, Lakers center Jim Krebs tapped the ball to Baylor. The rookie glided down court with a dribble, raced past Royals forward Jack Twyman, and laid the ball in uncontested.”
Baylor instantly emerged as one of the leading scorers and rebounders in his rookie campaign. The Lakers upset the St. Louis Hawks in the West Division finals, and they faced the reigning champion Celtics in the NBA Finals. Boston’s four-game sweep was the first of numerous playoff disappointments for Baylor over the years against the Celtics.
Earlier that season, he also stepped into the spotlight as a man with strong moral convictions in Charleston, West Virginia, in January 1959, when racial discrimination reared its ugly head. During Lakers captain Vern Mikkelsen’s visit to a hotel’s front desk to check in, he was told the team’s black players couldn’t stay there. Two additional hotels also refused to admit them. The team wound up staying at Edna’s Retirement Hotel, which Bayne described as “an establishment for Negroes.”
While in Charleston, Baylor and black teammates Ellis and Ed Fleming were unable to find a place that would let them eat besides inside the Greyhound bus station — at a concession stand.
Bayne wrote, “He decided to boycott the game rather than support the hypocrisy. That would show the city of Charleston, the NBA organization, and the press how ridiculous the double standard was. ‘I was turn up inside,’ he said of the decision.”
Baylor sat on the bench during the game, and the Royals won 95-91.
“Only after the game was it revealed that he had refused to play in protest,” Bayne highlighted in a chapter entitled “I’m Not An Animal Put In A Cage…”
“Baylor later said he wouldn’t have played even if it cost him his entire year’s salary.”
The Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s African-American newspaper, praised Baylor afterward. “Baylor’s refusal to compromise with all the evil segregation stands for is a tribute to his character and should give the faint-hearted something to think about. He has shown the way.”
Speaking to Sport magazine in 1963, Baylor, named Rookie of the Year in ’59, looked back on his decision to boycott the game in Charleston.
“Certainly I don’t regret having done it,” Baylor was quoted as saying. “I’m no pioneer or anything like that, but I’m interested in my people and I’m interested in progress. I’m Elgin Baylor, and I don’t want anything more than I’m entitled to or anything else.
“When you do something you hope something good will come out of it, that people will recognize it and be conscious of what’s going on in this country. If it serves its purpose, great. At the time when you’re being embarrassed or humiliated, you’re not thinking, ‘I have to do this for everybody else.’ You’re just thinking about what’s happening to you.”
Snippets from Sports Illustrated and Sports, Jet and Ebony, The Washington Post and Washington City Paper, Baltimore Afro-American and Seattle Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many other publications are doled out throughout the book. The author collected rich anecdotes for his research on Elgin Baylor’s life and basketball career. He finds valuable stats, trends and comments as well from numerous books and publications from all corners of the country, including Negro Digest, New York Magazine, Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Long Beach Independent, Boys Life and Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Bayne turned to Tommy Heinsohn, the former Boston Celtics great, head coach and announcer, for an expert’s viewpoint on Baylor.
“Elgin Baylor was the premier quick forward in NBA history,” Heinsohn said in “Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA,” penned by Terry Pluto. “I’m sure you would get an argument about Dr. J, Larry Bird, and other players. But not only was he a great offensive player, rebounder, passer — which is evident in the record books — but … he was by far the best defender.”
The accolades came early for Baylor in his pro career as he was chosen for the All-NBA Team as a rookie, and the Lakers went from missing the playoffs and finishing in last place in the year before his arrival to reaching the Finals in Baylor’s first pro season.
Baylor had a dynamic 52-point game to open the 1959-60 campaign against Detroit, doing so even after serving in the U.S. Army Reserve for basic training while his teammates trained away from military duty. Then he scored 64 points in a November game against Boston, eclipsing the league record of 63 points set by Joe Fulks.
A year later, the team’s star attraction was a major reason flocks of fans attended Lakers games during their West Coast trek. The increased income from ticket sales convinced owner Bob Short to relocate the team to Los Angeles, but not without some resistance from some owners who didn’t want to shell out extra money to fly out to California.
In short, as Bayne pointed out, “the fate of the NBA on the West Coast rested on Baylor’s broad shoulders.”
On Nov. 15, 1960, “Baylor propelled the NBA into the atomic age,” the author noted. The details: Another record-breaking performance — 71 points versus the Knickerbockers. He had 15 points in the opening stanza, 34 by halftime and 47 entering the final period.
“…Baylor picked up his fifth foul in the fourth quarter and played matador defense the rest of the way. The Knicks would not double-team Baylor, who eclipsed his own record of 64 points with five minutes to play,” the author stated.
Totals: 28 of 48 from the floor and 15 of 19 at the free-throw line and 25 rebounds.
As Baylor gained greater notoriety within sports circles and among the general public as a whole, he crossed paths with a wider cross section of the nation’s most famous folks.
Case in point: A December 1960 visit by boxers Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer to the L.A. Sports Arena for a fight. Elg was an integral part of the pre-fight promotion.
Bayne described it this way: “To hype the bout, newspapers ran a photo of middleweight Fullmer raising Baylor’s lofty hand as the world:s greatest scorer, in a pose generally reserved for a boxing ref lifting a victorious fighter’s arm…”
A prolific scorer (27.4 ppg) and magnificent rebounder (13.5 rpg), Baylor’s dazzling passing skills may have gone unnoticed by many hoop observers or forgotten as the years passed by.
To his credit, Bayne doesn’t let that happen in this book. He brings up this underappreciated aspect of Baylor’s game to the forefront on several occasions. He cited one one of the Lakers media guides to underline that important point. The guidebook noted, “(H)is passes from one side to the other from impossible angles and out of impossible tangles were spectacular.”
Author Leonard Koppett correctly noted in “24 Seconds to Shoot” that Baylor and the Big O possessed the ability to play anywhere on the court. “If anyone could match Oscar (Robertson) on the versatility scale, it was Baylor,” Koppett wrote.
Descriptions of all-time great Wilt Chamberlain’s impressive accomplishments, including his 100-point game against the Knicks, are sprinkled throughout the book. Bayne detailed with contextual clarity how Wilt and Baylor interacted as foes, friends and later as teammates. A huge chunk of space is devoted to Wilt in the book (and for this review, honestly, it could constitute a separate story). He underscored the chief differences between the two men’s games and personalities; it all adds up to one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
Baylor’s aerial artistry combined with his physical toughness created defensive nightmares for opponents. According to legendary columnist Jim Murray, who gave Baylor the moniker “The Big Hurt,” Bayne recounted that the former stated that “opposing players stocked up on liniment and aspiring before guarding him.”
But it wasn’t just his toughness that stood out. As Bob Ryan pointed out in the aforementioned foreword, Baylor was a master improvisational artist.
“Finesse usually happens in small people about 5-foot-9,” Lou Mohs was quoted as saying to Sports Illustrated in April 1959. “But Elgin is so quick of mind and hand he gets his shot off no matter how good the defense is … He comes up with the second and third try on the same ball.”
Baylor’s popularity within the greater Los Angeles community is detailed again and again in the book, with examples of his involvement in philanthropic, civic and sports activities provided. This included working as a customer service rep for Great Western Savings & Loan in the offseason.
For the 1961-62 season, he became the third-highest player in the league, a sign of his rising status as an NBA icon.
In one memorable game that season, the Lakers faced Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors, and Jerry West provided the winning spark for L.A. in triple overtime.
It was tied 109-all after four quarters, with Chamberlain scoring 53 and Baylor putting 47 on the board. Wilt finished with 78 points, topping Baylor’s mark, while Elg had 63, including 16 in bonus play.
“When I play, I don’t think about how many points I’m scoring,” Baylor was quoted as saying in a Sport Magazine cover story in 1961. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. I like to win.”
The Celtics dynasty overshadowed what Baylor achieved with the Lakers, a team also featuring all-time great Jerry West starting in 1960. But the author reminds all that the influential pioneer preceded the era of noted leapers like “Pogo” Joe Caldwell, Gus Johnson and Erving, and did so while appearing in seven NBA Finals and producing a 61-point output in Game 5 of the ’62 Finals against Russell and L.A.’s arch-nemesis, Boston, “facing the best defensive player of all time.”
The impact that Baylor had as a stylistic impresario is felt in the words of Dr. J, Jerry West, Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, Paul Westphal and George McGinnis, among others. All praised the jaw-dropping skills that Baylor possessed, and revealed they tried to emulate what he did at one time or other. These comments are fascinating, well-placed reporting.
Future Hall of Fame player and coach Lenny Wilkens also weighed in on Baylor in a passage from “Tall Tales.”
Said Wilkens: “Elgin Baylor would have been a great player in any era. People talk about the amazing things Julius Erving and Michael Jordan did athletically, but I saw Baylor do many of the same things — only this was in the early 1960s. He had spin moves, the dunks, the head-above-the-rim attacks on the basket. He played way above the pack.”
The Lakers became the most popular team in terms of attendance in the league in the mid-1960s. Credit must go to Baylor for raising the team’s status in the City of Angels and beyond.
As the late, legendary writer Frank Deford stated in a letter to the editor to New York Magazine in 1970, “I cannot offer proof of authorship, but I have often heard that the word superstar was first applied to basketball hero Elgin Baylor — at least the word first supposedly gained regular currency with regard to Baylor.” Bayne cited Deford tracing this nickname to the late 1950s.
By reading this book, one clearly comes to understand that Bayne has a great admiration for Baylor as a player and as a man. He illustrates this repeatedly with a carefully crafted narrative that focuses on Baylor’s lifetime in the game, including the pitfalls of working for dysfunctional owner Donald Sterling of the L.A. Clippers for 22 years as general manager. Sterling’s reputation as a cheapskate indeed hindered Baylor’s ability to build consistent winners.
Throughout Sterling’s reign of repeated errors and apathy, Baylor’s dignity carried him through difficult times until the end, when he was dismissed in 2008, and Bayne examined this crazy era with a deep-probing eye for details.
He highlighted Baylor’s post-playing career, including stints as a sports analyst and head coach of the New Orleans Jazz on two occasions in the 1970s.
Before that, he chronicled the intense rehab efforts that Baylor made after knee injuries slowed him down, but never rendered him ineffective for long, toward the middle of his career. Bayne explained also how Baylor’s contemporaries lamented how his physical ailments robbed him of his full power.
“Opponents noticed the hesitancy in his game — some of the assertiveness was gone,” was the way Bayne described it.
“The lion has a thorn in his paw,” Murray wrote in one column. “It’s heartbreaking to see the jackals come out of the woodwork in the forest. Guy who used to take a head cold on the nights they needed to stop Baylor now volunteer.”
Baylor, of course, endured — and excelled — for several more seasons and remained one of the game’s elite players but with less spring in his jump. He made 10 All-NBA Teams and was an 11-time All-Star, and was a 1977 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Lakers captured their first title as residents of L.A. the season in which Baylor retired. He was worn down by persistent knee pain, and hung up his shoes for good famously nine games into the 1971-72 campaign, and the Lakers rattled off a record 33 straight victories after Baylor stepped aside en route to the championship over New York.
Yes, Baylor helped shape that team and left a permanent imprint on the way that group of players competed cohesively, with intelligence and with fierce determination. Those facts are relevant to Bayne’s treatise on the Hall of Famer.
He also brought deep moral convictions to the game, as evidenced by his participation in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-led March on Washington in August 1963.
Baylor was one of 250,000 Americans there, and it showed that he valued the message and the opportunity to support a peaceful event aiming to push for societal changes.
When Chamberlain was named player-coach of the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors in 1973 — he was not permitted to play due to his previous contract with the Lakers — Baylor voiced skepticism about his ex-teammate’s coaching chops.
Speaking to Jet magazine, Baylor made these remarks: “I don’t think he can coach. What could he possibly help a player with? He doesn’t have the temperament to be a coach. He never had any discipline. He hardly ever came to practice, and when he did, he didn’t work hard because he didn’t think he had to practice. He didn’t think he needed it.”
Baylor was a gregarious athlete, too.
Or as Chamberlain put it in “Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan’s Game and Beyond: “(Baylor was) a garrulous, fast-talking guy who likes to be the center of attention.” The author added: “Baylor was so found of quizzing, challenging and card playing with teammates, Laker Walt Hazzard said to Deford for his 1966 SI cover feature, ‘We call him the King of Gamesmanship.’ ”
There’s so much more you’ll discover about the great Elgin Gay Baylor as an American icon, sporting superstar and person within the 250-plus pages of Bijan C. Bayne’s thoughtful tome on the hoop legend. That’s why I highly recommend that you pick up the book and start reading it.
It’s an important book that combines a tireless reporter’s curiosity and a serious student of history’s appreciation for little nuggets of info and big themes that connect the dots on the fuller picture of a legendary athlete’s huge impact on basketball.
The book succeeds in telling us why Baylor matters as a key figure in basketball history at a time of major changes in U.S. history and in the sport and the pro game as well.
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