March 22 marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of Los Angeles Lakers legend Elgin Baylor. His innovations and athleticism influenced generations of pro athletes. His efforts placed him on the NBA 75th anniversary team, marking him as one of the 75 best players in league history.
Along with being a prolific basketball player, he was a Baptist Christian who attributed all his success to having a strong prayer life. In the face of racism, Baylor stood up for himself, which ultimately made changes in the NBA.
The nickname, “rabbit,” was bestowed upon him due to his agility; Baylor enjoyed driving to the basket to make creative shots. His vertical leap while shooting made it seem like he was defying gravity.
Baylor is still the all-time franchise leader in rebounds with 11,463 and he is the fourth all-time leading scorer of the Lakers with 23,149 total points. On November 15, 1960, Baylor scored 71 points against the New York Knicks, which still holds as the second-highest in single-game points for the Lakers. Baylor is also ranked seventh in the franchise in assists with 3,650.
Baylor’s 71-point game against the New York Knicks on November 15, 1960, is still the second-highest scoring performance during a single game in Lakers’ history.
“It’s a natural thing, it’s a gift from God; it’s nothing that you can work on or try to develop,” Baylor said. “The only thing you can do is try to create different shots from different positions.”
Baylor was an 11-time NBA All-Star who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977. His talents and efforts helped the then-financially ailing Minneapolis Lakers, allowing them to move to Los Angeles in 1960.
A Washington D.C. native, he learned of his speed at an early age. Baylor played basketball for the first time at a Whites-only park with his older brothers. It became his obsession and he competed for local recreational centers.
He attended Phelps Vocational High School and Spingarn High School. By then, he had a certain flair when he played, having already developed his own shooting style and having a lengthy hang-time when shooting. He also played for a club team called “The Stonewalls.”
During his senior year at Spingarn, Baylor averaged 36 points per game. In 1954, he was elected as the best basketball player in the Washington D.C. area. He played for the College of Idaho for his freshman year. He averaged 31.3 points per game and became a small-college All-American.
However, the College of Idaho discontinued its basketball program, leading Baylor to transfer to Seattle University. During his first game with the Seattle University Chieftains, Baylor scored 40 points and 18 rebounds. That season, the Chieftains had a 24-3 overall record. As a junior, he led the Chieftains to the NCAA Championship game; although they lost 84-72, Baylor won the 1958 Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
Baylor soon after entered the NBA Draft, going first overall to the then-Minneapolis Lakers. His $25,000 contract made him the highest paid rookie in the NBA at the time. Baylor began scoring in the double digits during games, ultimately leading the team in scoring with 24.9 points per game. Baylor helped the Lakers return to the NBA Finals for the first time in five years.
Because of his performance, Baylor was named Rookie of the Year for the 1958-1959 season. He was also the Co-MVP of the 1959 All-Star Game.
While he succeeded on the court, Baylor had to navigate race-related issues off the court. When the Lakers had a game against the Cincinnati Royals in Charleston, West Virginia, the hotel they were going to stay at refused to admit the Black players on the team. Angered by his treatment, Baylor decided to not play in the game as an act of protest.
The one-game protest led to Charleston Mayor John Copenhaver giving Baylor a personal apology and the NBA making a rule that forbids hotels from discriminating against any members of the league.
After his rookie season, Baylor was drafted into the Army and became a medic. He served his military time during the weekends as he had to complete six weeks of basic training and six years of summer assignments.
As a sophomore in the NBA, he led the team in scoring 29.6 points per game. Having a strong prayer life came in handy for Baylor in January 1960 when the Lakers traveled through a snowstorm in a DC-3. Regardless of the plane losing electricity, Baylor believed that the plane would land safely. The plane ultimately made an emergency landing in Carroll, Iowa.
Baylor’s talents helped ease the financial problems of the franchise and gave former franchise owner Bob Short an opportunity to notice how well-received basketball was on the West Coast. The Lakers competed against the then-Philadelphia Warriors at the L.A. Sports Arena and the matchup attracted 10,100 attendees. Los Angeles newspapers beckoned for the Lakers to make the move out West and by the 1960-1961 season, the franchise started anew in Los Angeles.
In his third season, Baylor was leading the Lakers with 34.8 points per game. Throughout the early 1960s, Baylor and NBA legend Jerry West led the Lakers in scoring. From 1960-1970, they helped the Lakers make seven NBA Finals appearances. Unfortunately, NBA legend Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics thwarted the Lakers’ chances of a championship six of the seven times.
Early in the 1971-1972 season, Baylor retired. The Lakers went on to win the NBA Championship. By the 1974-1975 season, Baylor was an assistant coach for the then-New Orleans Jazz and ascended to head coach by 1976. However, the team did not have much success and Baylor was let go in 1979.
Baylor then worked as a general manager of the L.A. Clippers for 22 years and saw the racist and oppressive tendencies of Donald Sterling firsthand. His dedication to his work as a general manager was recognized when he became the 2006 NBA Executive of the Year. The Clippers removed Baylor from his general manager position in 2009 and he sued Sterling for wrongful termination.
The Lakers retired Baylor’s No. 22 jersey on November 9, 1983. He was also named to the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History during the league’s 50th Anniversary. On April 6, 2018, The Lakers franchise unveiled a statue of Baylor in front of the then-Staples Center. Speakers at Baylor’s statue ceremony included Lakers greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant along with West, and iconic recording artist Bill Withers.