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The legacy of Elgin Baylor, the man who transformed the NBA

Elgin Baylor, the Lakers legend who passed away Monday at 86, was more than a great player: he changed basketball forever

It is true that Elgin Baylor changed basketball, though such a statement undersells the impact he had. Baylor did not introduce a new move, a variation on a pre-established style of play;  instead, he reconceptualized the sport of basketball altogether. A game that had been previously played on a horizontal plane was elevated to a vertical one. Defenses and strategies that had been effective against every previous player were no longer useful in light of the changes Baylor brought about. Baylor, who passed away on Monday at the age of 86, was a one-man revolution, combining size, speed, and agility in a way no basketball player before him ever had.

When the Minneapolis Lakers selected Elgin Baylor first overall in the 1958 NBA Draft, their dynasty had collapsed. In the 1957-58 season, just four years removed from winning their fifth BAA/NBA title in six years, the Lakers had the worst record in the league going 19-53. They hoped Baylor could be the player to return the Lakers to glory. In college, Baylor had led the otherwise undistinguished Seattle University basketball program to the national title game so his ability to single-handedly turn around a team was clear. In his rookie season, he did precisely that, helping lead the Lakers back to the Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come.

Elgin Baylor helped establish the Los Angeles Lakers as one of the NBA’s most iconic franchises

The same summer the franchise moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, the Lakers added Jerry West in the 1960 NBA Draft, making West and Baylor one of the best duos in league history. Yet the two would never win a championship together. Despite a number of deep playoff runs and seven trips to the Finals in nine seasons, they were perpetually stymied by Bill Russell and the Celtics. Even though he failed to end any of his seasons as an NBA champion, there remained plenty to celebrate: 10 appearances on the All-NBA first team, a record 61 points in a Finals game, and a season where he averaged 38 points and 18 rebounds per game despite being on active duty in the US Army Reserves and could only play in games when he could get a weekend pass.

Baylor’s prime was shortened by injuries and the fact that he did not play in an NBA game until he was already 24 years old. In the 1965 Western Division Finals, he suffered a knee injury that required surgery and cost him much of his athleticism. Despite that, he still managed to make four more All-Star appearances and three more All-NBA teams — even a diminished version of Baylor was still one of the five best players in the NBA. However, Baylor ruptured his Achilles at the beginning of the 1970-71 season and would play just nine more games before retiring. The tragic endnote to his career is that, immediately following his retirement, the Lakers went on to win 33 straight games and ended the season by winning the championship that had always eluded him.

Baylor, while possessing a previously unseen mix of abilities, did not rely on athleticism alone — if he had, he would not have remained such a great player following his mid-60’s knee injuries. He was a phenomenally skilled player whose footwork and body control were years ahead of his contemporaries. When one watches footage of him, one can see him maneuver around defenders in mid-air, stepping around them to get to the hoop, fooling them with feints and tricks that no one else would have thought to attempt if not for seeing him do it first. You can see him employing a rudimentary version of the Euro Step and adjusting his body in mid-air to avoid defenders. It’s easy to imagine the shock and dismay opponents must have felt as they saw their well-worn defensive strategies falling apart possession after possession as they were confronted by a player without precedent. He was also aided by a facial tic, which further confused defenders as they tried to read his face for clues to see what he was planning next only to be thrown off by an involuntary contraction of muscles in Baylor’s visage.

While Baylor was one of the best NBA players ever, he also achieved much off the court as he fought for greater player rights and racial justice. In his rookie season, the Lakers were playing a game in Charleston, West Virginia against the Cincinnati Royals. When the team arrived at their hotel, Baylor and his black teammates were denied a room. The team collectively moved to a separate hotel where everyone would be welcomed, but the indignity was too much for Baylor to bear. Instead of suiting up that night, he sat on the bench, refusing to play in a place where his humanity would not be recognized.

Five years later, when the nascent NBA Players Association was attempting to win a pension plan, the league’s best players decided to threaten a strike right before the All-Star Game in order to force the hand of ownership. Baylor was decisive that night, providing the strength to convey the legitimacy of the players’ threat. As the scheduled tip-off approached, Lakers owner Bob Short came to the locker room door, threatening Baylor and his teammate Jerry West. Short told them to “get their fannies on the court if they knew what was good for them.” Baylor’s reply was both short and impactful: “Go tell Bob Short to go f**k himself.” The players got their pension. Also, after years working for the Clippers as a front office executive, Baylor unsuccessfully sued former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racial discrimination. While his suit was unsuccessful, his claim that Sterling was a racist and a bigot have been validated many times over since and it’s a shame that the NBA was slower to recognize Sterling’s racism than Baylor was. Baylor was also, along with Bill Russell, one of the NBA’s first two Black superstars. Their mere presence, in addition to the stylistic innovations they fostered, changed the nature of the NBA while opening it up to many who would follow in their footsteps.

Baylor retired without a ring but remains one of the most victorious athletes of his era. He fought for the expansion of rights for players and Black athletes, all while redefining the way basketball is played. When watching old clips of him driving to the hoop, one can see how future players such as Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James were influenced by him. Once one has watched Baylor drive toward a leaping Bill Russell, twisting his body to avoid him and convert a reverse lay-up, it’s hard to claim his stylistic descendants ever improved upon his earlier blueprint. Even as the NBA continues to evolve, Elgin Baylor remains a player modern stars still owe a debt to, a foundational ancestor whose relevance and influence has yet to fade away. It’s hard to imagine it ever will.