Legendary basketball player Elgin Baylor passed away from natural causes on March 22, he was 86 years old. His acrobatic style of play impacted several NBA greats that came after him. His talents saved the Lakers franchise from bankruptcy, allowing them to move to Los Angeles in 1960.
Baylor was born on September 16, 1934 to Uzziel and John Baylor and was the youngest of five children. Soon after his birth, the Baylor family moved from Virginia to Washington D.C..
Baylor was a Baptist for his whole life, him and his wife, Elaine, attribute their strong prayer life to their success.
“I always believe that whatever I did in life, I always prayed. I believed that I served a loving and forgiving God,” Baylor said in an interview with the Sentinel in 2018.
At the age of eight, Baylor realizes his nimbleness and speed when a White teenager attempted to kidnap him. He compared his speed to that of a rabbit, which soon became his nickname.
Living in the time of segregation, Baylor and his two older brothers would sneak into a Whites-only park at night to play basketball.
“The Black kids didn’t have a playground with swings, swimming pool, tennis courts and volleyball like the White kids did,” recalled Elgin. “We played basketball with a tennis ball because we didn’t have a basketball. We would sneak into the White kids park at night to play on their nice courts and the police would run us off.”
He played for Phelps Vocational High School and for a club team called “the Stonewalls.” He then transferred to Spingarn High School and averaged over 36 points per game as a senior. Baylor started his college career at the College of Idaho and transferred to Seattle University. By that time, he was the second-best college basketball player in the country, the first being Bill Russell.
The next year, he takes the Seattle Chieftains to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. During his entire college career, Baylor averaged 31.3 points and 19.5 rebounds per game. In 1958, Baylor enters the NBA Draft and goes first overall to the Minneapolis Lakers.
The franchise offers him $25,000, which was the highest rookie salary at the time. He took a team that finished 19-53 the prior season to the NBA Finals, averaging 24.9 points, 15 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game during the season. During the Playoffs, Baylor scored 25.5 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. His performance saves the financially ailing franchise.
Being a reluctant aircraft passenger, prayer aided Baylor through many plane flights, especially a plane flight through a brutal snowstorm in 1960.
“Once, we crash-landed in a cornfield in Iowa in a DC-3. I’ll never forget. It was snowing and the plane started shaking and the wind was rocking it. We started going lower everybody was praying, making promises to God even though they hadn’t been to church in so long,” Baylor said.
Despite his success, Baylor endured discrimination. In his youth, white police officers harassed his family. With the Lakers, a hotel in Charleston, West Virginia refused to give Baylor a room. This led him to sit out an NBA game in protest.
Baylor got drafted into the military after his rookie season; he was required to complete six weeks of basic training, six months of active duty and six years of summer assignments. Active duty interrupts his ability to compete throughout the 1961-1962 season. He was only able to play 48 games, but averaged 38.3 points that season.
Baylor knew how to get the Lakers to the NBA Finals, but the franchise did not have an answer for Russell and the Celtics. His rookie season is the inception of the storied Lakers vs Celtics rivalry. Baylor’s Lakers would meet the Celtics in six NBA Finals series with the Celtics going undefeated. Despite taking the franchise to seven NBA Finals, Baylor did not lead the Lakers to a championship title in any of these series.
He retired early in the 1971-1972 season, the Lakers ultimately won the NBA title and rewarded Baylor with a championship ring. After 14 seasons, Baylor averages 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.
Baylor made 11 NBA All-Star games and has the second most All-NBA First Team honors in the Lakers franchise with 10. On November 15, 1960, Baylor scored 71 points in a game against the New York Knicks.
From 1974-1979, Baylor was the head coach of the New Orleans Jazz, he then worked with the L.A. Clippers as general manager for over 20 years. Baylor sued then-owner Donald Sterling for age discrimination after being fired but ultimately lost the court battle.
Baylor was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977 and his no. 22 jersey was retired on November 9, 1983. In April 2018, the Lakers honored Baylor by giving him a statue in front of the Staples Center.
He leaves behind his wife Elaine, his three children Alison, Alan and Krystle and his oldest sister Gladys.