“Before Dr. J, before Jordan, there was Elgin Baylor”: Baylor, the forgotten Laker Legend, dies at 86

Elgin Baylor, the Lakers’ Hall of Fame forward, has died at the age of 86.

For years it was the saddest sound in Los Angeles sports, the public greeting of the retired Elgin Baylor at a Lakers home game.

Simply silence.

The ovation given other Lakers legends was absent. The affection showered upon all former Lakers was missing. Nobody stood. Nobody cheered. Nobody loved.

There is a statue of Elgin Baylor taking his famous sweeping hook shot outside of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was unveiled in April 2018. But it was a long-overdue honor that came after other notable Los Angeles sports legends – Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

For Baylor, it was par for the course. His NBA career often didn’t get the respect it deserved. Whether it was racism and bigotry he faced throughout his playing career, the unfortunate fate of losing to the Celtics in the NBA Finals every year, or being the forgotten Lakers great, Baylor had become immune to the idea of getting his deserved respect.

But today, as unfortunate the circumstance, Baylor is finally getting his roses. Too bad its a little too late.

“Before Julius Erving, before Michael Jordan, there was Elgin Baylor,” Hall of Famer Spencer Hayward said. “He never got the respect he was due for what he brought to the game. The best small forward to ever play.”

Baylor was an 11-time All-Star, averaging 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game for his 14 year career. He is one of only four players in league history to average at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. Baylor once scored a career-high 71 points in a game in 1960.

In his best scoring season in 1961-62, Baylor averaged 38.3 points a game … yet he missed nearly half the games because he was serving in the Army. He still holds one of the NBA’s most revered scoring records with 61 points in an NBA Finals game.

Despite all of those accomplishments Baylor is the forgotten NBA star, the forgotten Laker great.

Baylor truly never complained; he was kind and gentle soul who never wanted to call attention to himself. He would outjump you, outplay you, outsmart you, but he never allowed himself to outshine you. He was always just Elgin.

“You get him one on one, talk to him, and he would tell you point blank — ‘There was nobody better than me when I was playing out there,’” Marques Johnson said. “But publicly, he wasn’t the guy to get out there and toot his own horn … always playing second fiddle, no matter how great you are.”

Today it is unthinkable to imagine the Los Angeles Lakers being a minor winter attraction while baseball was in its offseason. But when Baylor began his career, that’s what the Lakers were. Baylor was the Laker who bridged the gap between Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

The lone thing he failed to accomplish was winning a NBA championship.

The Hall of Famer went to eight NBA Finals, but never won a championship. He retired due to knee injuries early in the Lakers’ 1971-72 championship season. The very next game the Lakers embarked on their record 33 game win streak.


“When he retired, we won 33 straight games. I wonder what he felt like,” West said by phone. “With me, I would have probably felt like, ‘Oh, my God, how can I be just this incredible player and without me, we win 33 straight games and win a championship?’ I could never bring myself to ask him that. Never.”

That 1972 championship was not all it could have been and should have been for the players in the Lakers locker room. And it was because Baylor was not there to be apart of it.

“Winning that championship was marred for me by the sad, conspicuous absence of Elgin Baylor,” West recalled in his memoir “West by West” (2011), “The guy that shared all the blood, sweat and tears wasn’t there to realize what it felt like.”

While the media and fans had left Baylor in the past with his playing career, NBA players had not. Both active and retired players reacted to the death of Baylor the same way, with sadness and regret. Sad that he’s gone, regret that they didn’t praise him some more.

But Magic Johnson, who became good friends with Baylor all those years crossing paths in down town L.A., recognized Baylor’s true greatness.

At Baylor’s statue unveiling in 2018, Magic gave Baylor the ultimate respect.

“You did some things that Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Kobe, myself, we couldn’t do,… I really believe he was the first Showtime.”

To only mention Baylor’s on court accomplishments would be an unjust lens to view his career and life through.

In Baylor’s rookie season of 1959, he took one of the strongest stands by an athlete the world had ever seen. He boycotted the then Minneapolis Lakers game against the Cincinnati Royals in a neutral-site game in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 16.

At the time West Virginia was segregated, meaning Blacks were forced to stay in different hotels and eat at different restaurants than white people.

The Lakers were staying at a local hotel, where they were told the team would not be segregated, but they refused to serve food to Baylor and Black teammates Ed Fleming and Boo Ellis.

So the Lakers rookie sat out the game.

He was heavily criticized by local and national media but he didn’t care. He was standing on his morals and principles.

“Elgin was a man of principle,” NBA Commissioner AdamSilver said. “He was a leading activist during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and an influential voice among his fellow players. After his retirement, Elgin remained a part of the NBA family as both a coach and an executive, imparting his wisdom to generations of NBA talent.”

After playing through the segregated 1960’s, Baylor found himself in a lose-lose situation for 22 years.

Beginning in 1986, Baylor did something that none of today’s athletes would have to do, work for Donald Sterling.

After he was forced out in 2008, Baylor’s pain came pouring out when he filed a racial and age discrimination lawsuit against Sterling. He accused Sterling of saying he wanted to fill the team with “poor Black boys from the south and a white head coach.” He charged that Sterling once said of Danny Manning, “I’m offering a lot of money for a poor Black kid.”

At the time, before the world knew about Sterling, many questioned Baylor, and even mocked him for staying in that environment for 22 years. Little did we know Baylor was fighting the fight from the inside out, being a leader, a care taker for the Clippers players who had to deal with Sterling’s blatant racism.

By the time Sterling was banished from the league, Baylor had cleansed himself of the Clipper logo he had for 22 years, and simply lived life as a Laker.

And til the day he died, and forever going forward, when you see the Lakers you will see Elgin Baylor.

The Lakers’ blue “City Edition” uniforms this season were designed in Baylor’s honor, as throwbacks to when he first arrived here with the team from Minneapolis.

When fans finally are allowed inside Staples Center, here’s guessing those uniforms will get a standing ovation.

Maybe, hopefully, somehow, Elgin Baylor will hear it.

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