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Elgin Baylor holds back tears during statue ceremony

‘I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. But it was a big, emotional moment.’

LOS ANGELES – There were no tears.

Elgin Baylor was determined not to cry during a ceremony Friday night to unveil his statue outside Staples Center, and the former Los Angeles Lakers great again delivered as he did regularly throughout his stellar 14-year career. As for everything else Baylor hoped to accomplish – clearly articulating his gratitude for the honor, remembering to thank those closest to him, allowing himself to enjoy the moment – the Basketball Hall of Famer nailed all of that as well.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. But it was a big, emotional moment,” said Baylor, who played for the Lakers his entire career. “You can’t do anything without your teammates, no one in basketball can, and I’ve always appreciated the guys I played with. There are just so many people you want to thank. So many people you need to thank. It was great.”

In an hourlong ceremony, Baylor sat patiently as a procession of Lakers luminaries – Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West shared the dais with the man being honored – recalled his spectacular play and continued impact on the game almost 47 years after he retired. Baylor pulled on a cord that brought down a massive gold tent. It had hidden a nearly 16-foot-9-inch, 2,300-pound bronze statue that depicts Baylor in mid-drive.

Baylor joined fellow franchise icons West, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal and announcer Chick Hearn in bronze.

A rookie of the year, 11-time All-Star and 10-time first-team All-NBA selection, Baylor once scored 71 points in a game, which is tied for the league’s eighth-highest total. His 61-point performance in an NBA Finals game is a record.

Baylor’s unique highlight-reel-worthy scoring moves were copied by generations of younger players, including Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Then after Dr. J incorporated aspects of Baylor’s game into his play, other younger players used the moves. The line, however, started with Baylor.

“For those that know, for players that grew up studying the game, we know what Elgin was, and we know what he is,” Kobe Bryant said in a video tribute to Baylor. “That’s the reason why every time I see him, I light up and I make sure to go talk to him and ask him questions.”

Said Johnson of Baylor, “You did some things that Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Kobe and myself couldn’t do. And I tried to do it. I just couldn’t hang that long in the air.”

Spin moves, double-pumping, hesitation dribbling, changing direction after jumping – Baylor had a first-of-its-kind offensive repertoire. And at 6 feet 5 inches and around 225 pounds for most of his playing career, Baylor was a matchup nightmare even for the game’s toughest defensive players.

Eight times, former Lakers shooting guard Michael Cooper was selected either first- or second-team all-defense. Cooper feels for anyone who was ever assigned to guard Baylor.

“He was really a player who was kind of unguardable, the likes of a Jordan or a Kobe,” said Cooper, the NBA’s 1986-87 Defensive Player of the Year.

“He’s a player who had good size and he was always able to get his own shot. He never let the defense dictate his shot. Those are tough people to guard. And hang time. He gets up in the air, you go down and he’s still shooting his jump shot. Just really, really difficult to guard.”

Today’s NBA superstars owe their eight-figure salaries to pioneers such as Baylor, O’Neal said.

“Most of these young guys today don’t know what Elgin and guys like him did to make the game what it is. And I was once one of those young guys, so I know,” O’Neal said. “I remember when I took a lot of flak from [Hall of Famer] Spencer Haywood because I didn’t know the impact he had.

“The first guy I noticed and loved, and is still my favorite guy, was Dr. J. So anybody before Dr. J, I would have to do my homework on ’em. I would have to Google ’em. So a lot of young fellas don’t know. But Elgin is one of those guys who did great things. And young guys should go find out about that history. They could learn something.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.