Among the Lakers’ retired jerseys is the no. 22 jersey which was worn by legendary player Elgin Baylor. He was drafted at a crucial time in the franchise’s history, back when they were the Minneapolis Lakers.
Baylor, also known as “Rabbit” for his speed and agility, became a small-college All-American at the College of Idaho, scoring 31.3 points per game. He then transferred to Seattle University, helping the then Chieftains reach the NIT quarterfinals in his first season.
The next season, his 32.5 points per game led the Chieftains to the NCAA championship game. Baylor won the 1958 tournament Most Outstanding Player award. Around that same time, the Minneapolis Lakers had a 19-53 overall record and was running low on money.
Former Lakers coach John Kundla had watched Baylor play during the NCAA tournament and believed that his talent would be a great asset to the franchise. Bob Short, who owned the Lakers at the time, met with Baylor and promised that they would draft him.
Baylor then entered the 1958 NBA Draft and became the first overall pick to the Lakers. Baylor was offered a $25,000 contract; this was the highest contract for a rookie during that time.
In his Lakers debut, Baylor scored 25 points; this helped the Lakers defeat the Cincinnati Royals 99-79. Despite adjusting to the league and suffering a six-game losing streak, Baylor normally scored in the double digits. Ultimately, Baylor led the team with 24.9 points per game during his rookie season.
Along with battling opponents, Baylor had to avoid Jim Crow while traveling in certain cities.
“Without ever discussing the choices, we avoid certain restaurants that we’ve heard refuse to serve Black people,” Baylor stated in his autobiography “Hang Time: My Life in Basketball.” “Especially in towns like St. Louis and Cincinnati.”
In a road trip where the Lakers were to play the Royals in Charleston, West Virginia, the hotel the team was to stay at did not allow the Black players to stay there. Angered at his treatment, Baylor chose not to play in that game in protest. This ultimately led the NBA to make a policy to prevent hotels from discriminating against players.
Baylor’s efforts on court earned him an invitation to the 1959 NBA All-Star game where he would become co-MVP. The Lakers would head into the playoffs with a 33-39 overall record.
The Detroit Pistons were their first opponent in a best-of-three series. The Lakers won game one and three in a highly physical and truculent series.
The next round was a best-of-seven series against the then St. Louis Hawks. Baylor scored over 30 points in at least two different occasions during that series. In six games, they eliminate the Hawks, becoming Western Division Champions.
For the first time in NBA history, the Lakers meet the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals with the legendary Bill Russell at the helm. Baylor plays with all his might, scoring 34 points in game 1, but the Celtics win 118-115.
Boston revved up their defense to hold Baylor to 13 points and 14 points in games 2 and 3 respectively. In game 4, Baylor scored 36 points, but the Lakers fell 113-118 and Boston won the NBA title.
Baylor became Rookie of the Year and was named on the All-NBA First Team that season. This was the first year two Black players were voted on the All-NBA First Team as Baylor and Russell were given the honor.