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NBA 75 Series: #24 Elgin Baylor

Next in my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time is the first graceful, high-flying wing, who dazzled with his all-around play and aerial artistry, Elgin Baylor. Baylor was born on September 16th, 1934, in Washington D.C., and passed away on March 22nd, 2021, in the city where he became a basketball legend, Los Angeles, California. Baylor didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 14, having a recreation center that banned African Americans from being able to use the facility, limiting his access to the basketball courts to improve his game due to racism.

He would attend Southwest Boys Club and Jr High to become a three-time All-City selection in high school. He played his first two seasons at the segregated Phelps Vocational High School in 1951 and 1952, only playing black teams at the time. He set an area record, 44 points against Cardozo High, and during his two years at Phelps, where he would be selected All-City twice, Baylor averaged 18.5 and 27.6 points per game respectively during his two seasons of action.

Despite his prowess on the court, Baylor struggled mightily academically his junior year, which resulted in him dropping out of school for a year to work at a furniture store and then eventually playing basketball again at a recreational league, helping to regain his love for the game. As a senior in 1954, Baylor played for the all-black Spingarn High School where he would be named first-team Washington All-Metropolitan, being named the first African-American player named to that team.

He also was named the best player of his area in 1954 by being the recipient of the SSA Livingstone Trophy. Baylor set a record in the DC area of 63 points against his old school in Phelps, which helped him finish with a 36.1 points per game average in the eight games he played in the Interhigh Division II league games.

Even though he scored 63 points in a game, Baylor somehow didn’t receive any major college offers! How? Because racism at the time made college scouts refuse to go scout talent at black high schools. After a failed attempt at Idaho, Baylor would wind up attending Seattle University to play for the Chieftains (now known as the Redhawks). The Minneapolis Lakers (now Los Angeles Lakers) drafted him 14th overall in the 1956 NBA Draft despite him opting to stay in school, which was allowed in those days.

In 1956-57, Baylor would show how incredible he is by pouring in 29.3 points per game, and snatching 20.3 rebounds per game for Seattle. In his sophomore campaign, he would become virtually unstoppable offensively, putting up 32.5 points per game to lead Seattle to the national title game where they would lose to the Kentucky Wildcats. In his collegiate career, was a machine, averaging 31.3 points and 19.5 rebounds per contest throughout his tremendous college career, leading the NCAA in rebounds per game in 1956-57 at just 6-foot-5!

Baylor would get redrafted again to the Lakers as the top overall selection in the 1958 NBA Draft and would instantly turn the franchise around in one of the greatest one season turnarounds in sports history, from the Lakers being 19-53 the year prior to his arrival (the worst in the league), to making the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics! They would lose to the overwhelming star power of the dynastic Celtics with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and others, but he put the league on notice that he was the real deal.

He finished fourth in scoring (29.4 points per game), third in rebounds (15 rebounds per game), and eighth in assists (4.1 assists per game). This elite level of production would help him garner an All-NBA First Team selection, as well as the 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

Despite his unbelievable records and feats, Baylor would become one of the most underrated and unfortunate legends of the game, he was unfortunate to never win a title because of Russell’s Celtics, as well as the Willis Reed, Walt Frazier-led Knicks despite appearing in eight finals appearances. He was the first high-flying forward who revolutionized the game once he arrived in 1958, paving the way for future stalwarts such as Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Vince Carter. His teammate Jerry West once said, “He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known,” He told Hoop Magazine in 1992.

He was a strong and graceful 6-5 and 225 pounds, being able to hold his own down low and being among the best rebounding forwards of all time, if not the best ever., averaging an astounding 13.5 throughout his career. He also averaged 27.4 points during his 14-year career with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, while also averaging 27 points and 12.9 rebounds in 134 career playoff games. From 1960-61 through 1962-63 he averaged 34.8, 38.3, and 34.0 points, respectively. He led the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times, was a 10-time All-NBA First Team selection, and played in 11 NBA All-Star Games.

Baylor also is a All-Star Game MVP (1959), the 1959 ROTY, and has the most points ever scored in a NBA Finals game ever with 61, which he scored in Game 5 of the 1962 NBA Finals against the Celtics, a game in which he also grabbed 22 rebounds in a 126-122 victory over the Celtics. He had great body control, being able to change where the ball went and was the pioneer of that. Knee troubles sapped what could have been a longer career and unfortunately retired at the beginning of the 1971-72 season when West, Wilt, and the Lakers went on to win the championship.

In all Baylor is a true legend of the game who helped revolutionize the style of play for future wing players.

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