My dad used to always tell me: Pound for pound, Elgin Baylor was the best to ever play.
It didn’t matter that Baylor had about 25 pounds on Michael Jordan, this was, as they say, “his truth.”
I didn’t have much of an argument, though, because I never got to see the man play. But to the older folks concerned that us kids were unaware of the greatness of Elgin, who died Monday of natural causes at age 86, worry not — his legacy is generational.
I grew up in Los Angeles, where it took a Hall of Fame career to get your jersey hung from the rafters in the Great Western Forum or Staples Center. One man, longtime Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn, saw just about all of them come through. But it wasn’t Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Kobe Bryant or Magic Johnson who earned the highest praise from the broadcasting legend. It was one Elgin Baylor.
“Chick Hearn said he was better than anybody he had ever seen,” former Laker and Hall of Famer James Worthy said at Baylor’s statue unveiling at Staples Center three years ago.
Such high praise might seem far-fetched to those who saw players such as Magic and Kobe win five titles apiece during their time in Tinseltown, but Baylor’s achievements seem downright cartoonish. At 6 feet 5, he averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in his third year in the NBA, then followed it up with 38.3 and 18.6 the next season.
The craziest part about Year 4? He posted those numbers while on active duty with the Army and playing with the Lakers on the weekends.
These were the kinds of scoring and rebounding feats you’d see from seven-footers such as Wilt Chamberlain. But for someone to produce these numerical mountains while playing on the perimeter? You just didn’t see it in those days — or any days, really.
One could make the case that Baylor had the greatest playoff game of all time, when he scored 61 points vs. Boston in the 1962 Finals. Yes, Jordan would score 63 in a postseason game 24 years later (also against Boston), but he needed two overtimes to do it.
In a sense, Baylor was Jordan before Jordan, Dr. J before Dr. J — a high-flying highlight reel who preceded the days of the dunk contest or one-handed alley-oops. As Johnson said Monday on Twitter: “Before there was Michael Jordan doing amazing things in the air, there was Elgin Baylor. A true class act and great man.”
Of course, Seattleites got a taste of him before he launched his NBA career. In his first year at Seattle U, Baylor averaged 29.7 points and 20.3 rebounds. The next year he averaged 32.5 and 19.3 while leading the Chieftains to the NCAA men’s championship game. In a losing effort, Baylor was still named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
In a way, that NCAA tournament foreshadowed Baylor’s NBA career. Incessantly hailed as one of the league’s top players, Elgin (alongside teammate Jerry West) regularly led the Lakers to the Finals, where they lost to the Celtics six times and once to the Knicks. In fact, Baylor’s lone championship came in the 1971-72 season, when he played just nine games — none in the postseason.
This shouldn’t take away from his legend, though. He just consistently ran into a Boston team that won 11 championships in 13 years. As West said in a statement Monday: “(Elgin) was one of the most gifted and special players that this game will ever see, and he has never gotten his just due for what he accomplished on the court … he was a prince both on and off of the court. There are no words to describe how I feel at this time.”
Baylor’s post-playing career wasn’t always inspiring. For 22 years he served as general manager of the Clippers, who made the postseason just four times during his tenure. But his contributions on the court overshadowed any shortcomings he may have had off it.
Whether you’re talking L.A., Seattle or the sports world at large — an all-time great passed Monday. And rest assured, one didn’t have to see him play to grieve the loss.