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Let’s Appreciate a Laker: Elgin Baylor, the most under-appreciated legend

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It is not an overstatement to say that the Lakers literally might not exist without Elgin Baylor. That is more than enough reason to appreciate one of the first transcendent NBA players.

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Elgin Baylor Leaps @ Hoop W/Basketball

Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking an almost daily look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Elgin Baylor.

When talking about the greatest players in Lakers history, there are usually a few names that come to the forefront of the debate right away. Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson. Jerry West. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O’Neal. When it’s all said and done, LeBron James (and maybe even Anthony Davis, depending on how his upcoming free agency goes) will join that discussion as well.

One name that doesn’t often jump right to the top of people’s tongues, however, is Elgin Baylor, which is kind of sad when looking at his contributions to the franchise’s history. He scored more points (23,149) with the team than all but three players (West, Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant), and was an 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection, Rookie of the Year and MVP with the team. So why doesn’t he get more love?

Part of it is, likely, the passage of time. Not only did Baylor play in the late 50’s (starting when the team was still in Minneapolis) to the early 70’s, when there wasn’t nearly as much media coverage of the NBA, but that was also a loooooooong time ago, meaning that his fans aren’t exactly frequent participants in the modern discourse about the NBA. Your dad or your grandpa may be happy to argue with you in front of the TV about how great Baylor was, but they’re less likely to log on to Twitter to stan for him (or even know what stanning for someone means, for that matter).

There is also the matter that Baylor played alongside one of the most famous teammates he ever could have had: West, who is literally the basis for the NBA logo. And while Baylor went on to be a longtime general manager for the Clippers after his career was over, West mostly stayed with the Lakers as a coach and executive until the last several decades, further securing his purple and gold legacy by building champions after his playing days were done (and thus staying active in fans’ minds) while Baylor’s teams were mostly just laughing stocks that shared an arena with the Lakers (which to be fair to Baylor, was hardly solely his fault with an owner like Donald Sterling running things).

But before their days running teams across the hall from one another, West and Baylor were one of the highest-scoring and most dynamic backcourts in NBA history. Baylor led the Lakers to the Finals in his rookie season, and upon being joined by West in 1960, the duo went to seven more Finals together, even coming within a single shot of victory in the 1962 edition. Unfortunately for them, and for Baylor’s ultimate legacy, they lost all of those series, even in spite of West playing well enough in 1969 to get Finals MVP in a losing effort (he is still the only player to ever do so).

Elgin Baylor with Coach and Teammate
NBA hype photos have changed a lot since the 60’s.

Baylor himself was incredible for most of those years. He had what stood at the time as the highest-scoring game in Lakers’ history in 1960, scoring 71 points against the New York Knicks in a performance that wouldn’t be topped until Kobe Bryant dropped 81 on the Toronto Raptors, nearly 46 years later. He averaged 38.3 points per game during the 1961-62 season, even though he was playing only on weekends because he was simultaneously enlisted in the Army Reserve and could only fly out and play in games on a weekend pass.

Let’s pause for a second. That is, legitimately, one of the most insane storylines in NBA history. Like, imagine if LeBron James could currently only join the Lakers for Saturday and Sunday games because he was currently in the army, or if Kobe Bryant had done so for one season. Forget DNP-Old. How about DNP-Army? Twitter would have been wild. Baylor’s NBA was truly a different time.

Elgin Baylor Lying on Army Cot
Yes, this is actually a photo of Elgin Baylor lounging around on an Army cot.

Baylor was also, by all accounts, a transcendent, ahead-of-his-time athlete who probably could have made the transition to the modern game a lot more seamlessly than many of his peers during that era. Sadly, and most crushingly for Baylor’s lasting Lakers legacy, knee injuries began to sap him by the end of his career. He averaged just 11.5 points over 11 games total in his final two seasons, retiring nine games into the 1971-72 campaign.

Unfortunately for Baylor, that was also the year the Lakers ultimately broke through and won their first championship in Los Angeles with a team centered around West and Wilt Chamberlain. While the Lakers gave Baylor a ring and he did technically play for the team that season, he’s not widely seen as a champion (despite the jewelry, his Basketball-Reference page does not list him as having won a title).

And fine, it’s not like Baylor gots no love among Lakers greats. He does have a retired jersey and a statue outside Staples Center, after all. But he doesn’t get discussed as frequently as a legend of his stature should when debating the greats of Lakers history, and he deserves more appreciation, especially considering that the Lakers literally might not still exist without him.

Yes, you read that right. While it’s nearly impossible to think about now, the Lakers (still in Minneapolis at the time) were struggling financially in the aftermath of George Mikan’s retirement. They had went 19-53 the year before Baylor arrived, and his jumping aboard may have legitimately saved the team from folding.

“If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business,” then-Lakers owner Bob Short told the L.A. Times in 1971. “The club would have gone bankrupt.”

So yes, it’s been a long time since Baylor played, and yes, he never technically won a championship. But it isn’t an exaggeration to say that without him, this franchise literally might not exist, and there would be no ongoing series discussing Lakers worth appreciating because those players wouldn’t have ever been Lakers in the first place. If that’s not an achievement worth celebrating Baylor for, I don’t know what is.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.