Elgin Baylor, who led the Seattle University men’s basketball team to the 1958 NCAA championship game before becoming one of the greatest NBA players in history, died Monday. He was 86.
The Lakers announced that Baylor died of natural causes in Los Angeles with his wife, Elaine, and daughter Krystal by his side.
Baylor, an 11-time NBA All-Star with the Lakers who was ahead of his time with his acrobatic moves and ability to play above the rim, gained national acclaim when he led the Seattle U run to the NCAA title game against Kentucky.
The unlikely run captivated the city, but with Baylor saddled with early foul trouble against the Wildcats, Seattle U lost 84-72 in the title game.
“I was very lucky to have coached the greatest player in history,” John Castellani, the Seattle U coach that season, told The Seattle Times in 2018.
“He put Seattle U on the map, for sure, and even more than that, he connected with the program,” said Seattle U athletic director Shaney Fink. “He’s been really supportive of the students and generous with his time. He was part of the family. We are definitely going to miss him.”
Baylor, who grew up in Washington, D.C., came out West to play for College of Idaho during the 1954-55 season. When that school restricted basketball scholarships, Baylor elected to transfer.
He said he was intrigued by Seattle U because of identical twins Johnny and Eddie O’Brien, who had led Seattle U to new heights before graduating in 1953.
“I would hear people talk about them, and I said, ‘I have to see these guys,’ ” Baylor told The Times in 2018. “They were saying Johnny could dunk, and I said, ‘Wait a minute. How tall is Johnny? 5’9? And he can jump and dunk the basketball? White and 5’9?’ I was, ‘Come on, get out of here.’ I was so curious that I had to see that for myself.”
Baylor discovered that it was true and signed to play with Seattle U. He had to sit out a season because of transfer rules, and played club basketball in Seattle U with Westside Ford.
His coach was Johnny O’Brien, in his off-season gig after the baseball season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I used to tell people when I was coaching at Westside Ford that I was a helluva coach because all I had to do was put air in the ball and get Elgin to the game,” O’Brien, who became good friends with Baylor, said Monday. “As a player and as a person, he was one of the most unselfish people I ever met. He was like LeBron James. He made everybody around him a better player because of what did for himself and for them.”
Jim Harney, a starting guard on Seattle U’s 1958 team, saw the talent the first time he saw Baylor play at a practice.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, we are going to the Final Four,’ ” Harney said in 2018.
As a sophomore, Baylor averaged 30.6 points and a nation-leading 20.3 rebounds despite being just 6-foot-5. Seattle U went 24-3 before losing in the NIT quarterfinals.
As junior in 1957-58, Baylor averaged 32.5 points, and in one five-game stretch, he averaged 47.6 points.
In the second round of the NCAA tournament, Baylor made a 40-foot shot at the buzzer to sink fourth-ranked San Francisco, 69-67. After two more wins, Seattle U was in the title game.
But late in the semifinal win against Kansas State, an elbow to the midsection broke Baylor’s ribs. That, and three fouls called on Baylor in the first 10 minutes, hampered Seattle U’s chances against Kentucky.
“It was both, the injury that I had and the fouls,” Baylor told The Seattle Times in 2018. Still, he had 25 points and 19 rebounds and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Baylor left Seattle U a year early after getting drafted No. 1 overall by the Minneapolis Lakers. He averaged 24.9 points and 15.0 rebounds as a rookie. In his fourth season, he averaged 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds.
In 1960, he became the first NBA player to surpass 70 points with a 71-point game Dec. 11, 1960, against New York.
He averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds during a 14-year NBA career. In 1977, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1996, he was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. A statue of Baylor outside Staples Center in Los Angeles was unveiled in 2018. The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
After his playing career, Baylor spent a few seasons as coach of the New Orleans Jazz and 22 as general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Baylor said he started appreciating his time at Seattle U more in later life. He came to university fundraising dinners, and made himself accessible to the program, which named an annual tournament it hosts after him.
“When you are young, you take it for granted,” Baylor said in 2018. “But when you get older, you look back and say, ‘Dang, look at all the wonderful things that happened,’ and you appreciate your teammates, and the city. I came from Washington, D.C., which at the time was a very segregated city. And in Seattle it was totally opposite. People would invite you to their house for dinner. It was a wonderful time in life for me.”
O’Brien said he will miss his friend.
“He had no ego; he was just a good, solid person and always wanted to help other people and was a pleasure to be with,” O’Brien said. “He had a wry sense of humor. He was a guy you liked to be around.”
Frank Saunders, a childhood friend of Baylor’s, was coaxed by Baylor to follow him to Seattle U, and was a big part of the 1958 team. Saunders told The Times in 2018 that Baylor was “the best person I have ever met.”
“He was everything. Top scorer, top rebounder, top assist man and everything else. But he was a team player,” Saunders said. “That guy is just fantastically great, that’s what I have to say about him.”