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An Appreciation

Elgin Baylor was the standard in a gold uniform

The Lakers great was the stylistic role model in the NBA long before Showtime

Around the NBA, the ballplayers referred to him as “The Big Hurt.” His contemporaries deferred to him regarding their fashion choices. And he was the league’s unofficial distributor of nicknames (“Tweety” for Jerry West because of his twang, “Headquarters” for Darrall Imhoff because of his cranium). But even before Elgin Baylor cemented his cultural status as the arbiter of pro basketball, his rise to stardom engendered a change in the geography of the NBA, akin to the Louisiana Purchase for the United States. He is the reason the league moved to Hollywood.

His ascension began at Seattle University, where Baylor was the first and last player to lead a Pacific Northwest university to a national championship game in 1958. The 2021 Gonzaga team is looking to duplicate that. In Baylor’s wake, a stream of blue-chip ballplayers such as Eddie Miles, Dave Hicks and Tom Little took their games to Seattle (the only school to defeat eventual NCAA champion Texas Western in 1965-66).

Consider that in 1957, when class was dismissed at the University of Kansas, Jayhawks big man Wilt Chamberlain, rather than head to his hometown of Philadelphia, motored from Lawrence, Kansas, to Washington, D.C., in search of pickup basketball games against Seattle star Baylor. Not long after, Chamberlain served as Baylor’s best man.

In 1958, the Minneapolis Lakers chose Baylor with the first pick in the draft. He was only the second Black NBA player drafted to be a headliner. The Rochester Royals had selected Duquesne’s Sihugo Green No. 1 overall in the 1956 NBA draft.

Before Baylor, nearly all Black players in the NBA had been selected as bangers or defenders: Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, Ray Felix, Walter Dukes and Bill Russell. Lakers owner Bob Short signed Baylor (who turned down an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters) to score and shine. Murray Olderman of Sport magazine said in 1958 of the pick, “Never before had a major sports franchise depended so much on the individual effort of one player.” The 1957-58 Lakers had reported a loss of $100,000. Sportswriters said Short would have accepted $250,000 for his stake in the franchise.

In 1958, New York Knicks (and Madison Square Garden) owner Ned Irish offered Short $100,000 for the right to draft Baylor. Short turned him down. In 1959, Irish offered Short his best two players and $75,000 cash for Baylor. Short had other designs for rookie talent. In the winter of 1960, Short scheduled two Laker games in Los Angeles. When the games drew well, he petitioned his fellow owners on Feb. 24 of that year for the right to move the ballclub there. The other owners not only resisted Short, Irish offered $250,000 to the financially challenged team. In those days, there were no NBA teams west of St. Louis.

Short held out. If not for the games Minneapolis played in LA that season, the team would have finished in the red. His peers wanted to keep LA open for future opportunities, and didn’t want to pay the additional travel expenses involved in playing a Southern California team. Before a second ballot, Short devised a compromise. He’d foot the expenses of anything above what it cost opponents to fly into Minneapolis. The Lakers moved in 1960.

Baylor became such a happening at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, actress Doris Day was a fixture at games. Then James Garner. And Danny Thomas. And Bing Crosby. Baylor’s acrobatic play drew high-profile fans. It also captivated youth.

Cal-Berkeley, coached by Pete Newell, was the class of the Pac-8 Conference before Baylor arrived in LA. The Bears played in the 1959 and 1960 NCAA Final Fours. Coach John Wooden’s UCLA team, meanwhile, was 14-12 in 1959-60. Enter Baylor, and with him, newfound interest in basketball among Southern California youth. In 1964 and 1965, UCLA won back-to-back national men’s titles, which attracted a 7-foot-1 recruit from 3,000 miles away, New York City’s Lew Alcindor (today Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Athletes as varied as Otis Taylor, Dave Bing (who wore No. 22 at Syracuse University because of his admiration for Baylor, who preceded him at Washington’s Spingarn High School), Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, Abdul-Jabbar, George McGinnis and Lou Hudson have said they grew up trying to imitate the elusive moves of Baylor. Most also said their coaches discouraged such twists, midair changes of hands and double clutches.

Baylor was not only a stylistic role model on the court, but also away from it. He critiqued the attire of both teammates and opponents. Russell once joked of a player’s choice of clothing “meeting Mr. Baylor’s approval.” In the early 1960s, the Boston Celtics’ Bob Cousy said, “They should call him ‘Elegant Baylor.’ “

Around the team, he was the jovial ringleader of the card games. He peppered his airplane seatmates with trivia questions about everything, including aircraft (after all, he spent his college days in the city where Boeing was headquartered). Baylor had a white roommate long before sports fans saw the made-for-TV movie, Brian’s Song.

Elgin Baylor, (right), of the Los Angeles Lakers, tries to maneuver the ball around Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics during second half quarter action.

Elgin Baylor

He was the first Black team captain in the NBA. He stood his ground during the threatened players’ walkout at the 1964 All-Star Game, even as Short shouted in the bowels of the Boston Garden loud enough for the West All-Stars to hear, “If any of my guys are in there, they’re finished.” Baylor sent a message to the corridor for his owner to “go f— himself.” Author Harvey Araton attributes today’s astronomical NBA salaries to that moment.

It was Baylor’s league. Everyone else was just playing in it.

Baylor’s regal air may be somewhat attributed to his mom and dad’s origins in stately Caroline County, Virginia. From there they moved to the nation’s capital, where his mom worked for Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Baylor’s older brothers stood 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-6, respectively, and starred for government departmental basketball teams. They also played (sometimes with their kid brother) on a powerful Washington semipro team called the Stonewalls.

The Baylor household was about high standards. No one was going to treat Elgin like an animal. Not the Charleston, West Virginia, hotel (and later that night, a nearby diner) which denied him service the January of his rookie year because he was Black. Not LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whom he sued in 2009 for racial and age discrimination after being fired as the team’s general manager.

In the Charleston incident, Baylor explained to teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley, a former University of West Virginia star, “I am not an animal let out of a cage.” Baylor sat out that game – the first pro athlete in a major team sport to do so. With Sterling, Baylor objected to the Clippers’ owner bringing lady friends into the team’s locker room while the owner remarked about the bodies of the players. As if they were animals.

Baylor was active in LA voter registration drives and for other causes of his time. He attended the March on Washington in his hometown. During the Berlin Crisis, when Baylor played only 48 of 80 scheduled Lakers games because he was on Army reserve duty, President John F. Kennedy signed a political cartoon about Celtics athletes and Coach Red Auerbach complaining about Baylor being granted weekend leave to play in games. He sent the cartoon, framed and personalized, to Baylor. President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Baylor and his then-wife to a state dinner for the prime minister of Thailand.

In 1971, New York Magazine published a profile of Andy Warhol, in which the term “superstar” was said to have been coined to describe the celebrity pop artist. Sports Illustrated‘s Frank Deford wrote a letter to the editor, correcting New York Mag that the term “superstar” first entered the lexicon as a means of categorizing Elgin Baylor.

Showtime predated Magic Johnson. Hang Time predated Dr. J. Sartorial splendor in the NBA predated Michael Jordan. Speaking of Jordan, you know how he posts up during The Last Dance, checking out footage on his digital pad, and holding court on footage and opponents’ recollections? How guys flocked to the set of Space Jam, because, you know, Mike? Hit rewind and pause when you get to 1962. That’s Elgin.

Bijan C. Bayne, a frequent contributor to Andscape, is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How A Resort League Defied Notions Of Race & Class.