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Elgin Baylor was the most influential basketball player of the past 60 years

Elgin Baylor (right, being guarded by Boston's Satch Sanders in 1970) did things on the basketball court no one had done before.
Elgin Baylor (right, being guarded by Boston's Satch Sanders in 1970) did things on the basketball court no one had done before.Danny Goshtigian/Globe Staff/Fil

Hank Luisetti introduced the one-hand shot.

Origin of the jump shot is a subject of debate, but what we can say is that Joe Fulks and Paul Arizin did the most to popularize it.

Bob Cousy, godfather of all point guards, gave the world behind-the-back maneuvers and look-away passes while creating an entire mentality for that position.

Bill Russell made the blocked shot an intimidating art form.

And Elgin Baylor revolutionized individual offense.

Elgin Baylor died Monday at age 86. He was starting to fall through the cracks of basketball history, which is alternately amusing and sad. The simple truth is that Elgin Baylor was the most influential basketball player of the past 60 years. He took a game that had been horizontal, and only a wee bit vertical, and made it both diagonal and a whole lot more vertical.

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Elgin Baylor’s progeny include Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Elgin Baylor was the original high-flyer. Elgin Baylor was the master of the reverse layup, the up-and-under, the stutter-step, and the idea that a shot did not need a fixed release point.

The basketball world had never seen a man score points in so many different ways. And his value didn’t end there. Elgin Baylor was a powerful 6-foot-5-inch guy who in his early NBA days put up back-to-back rebounding seasons of 19.8 and 18.6 per game. He could, and would, pass, averaging 4.3 assists per game for his career.

No man was ever more dangerous after missing a shot. He had both exceptional spring and an extraordinarily fast takeoff. He could go up three times to his foe’s one. He also was the first player known to toss the ball off the backboard in order to get his own rebound for an easy layup or dunk.

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He first attracted attention in his hometown of Washington, D.C., where he was a star at Spingarn High School. But it took few more years for the world to catch on. There had been interest from some big schools, but they were scared off by his bad grades, a product not of stupidity but admitted indifference.

He was thinking about entering the service when he got a phone call from a man named Sammy Vokes, head coach at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho. Vokes had been tipped off about Elgin by one of his players, Warren Williams, a buddy of Baylor’s.

Elgin Baylor drives past Chicago's McCoy McLemore and Flynn Robinson during a 1967 game in Los Angeles.
Elgin Baylor drives past Chicago's McCoy McLemore and Flynn Robinson during a 1967 game in Los Angeles.

Baylor spent a year in Caldwell, where a teammate was future 49er R.C. Owens, the famed “Alley Oop” man. But when the school decided to deemphasize basketball, Baylor transferred to Seattle University, where, on the second day of practice, coach John Castellani gushed that Elgin Baylor was “point-blank, the greatest ballplayer I have ever seen.”

The Seattle-Baylor relationship culminated with a trip to the 1958 NCAA title game, where the Chieftains were beaten by Adolph Rupp’s final Kentucky championship team. It was well-understood there was only one reason why Seattle U. had gotten that far.

“Once you see him in action,” Castellani said, “you are converted to Baylorism. He has the grace of a gymnast and the accuracy of an adding machine. With it all, he’s the perfect team man.”

Let us fast-forward to Nov. 11, 1958, the occasion of Baylor’s first visit to the Boston Garden. The Celtics prevailed over Baylor’s Minneapolis Lakers in overtime, 116-113. Baylor introduced himself to the Celtics with 36 points and 23 rebounds.

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“He got my attention, obviously,” recalls Cousy.

He also had the attention of venerable Globe basketball writer Jack Barry, an NBA sage who came up with the concept of a turnover and who had been in attendance at the Celtics’ first practice 12 years earlier. Wrote Barry, “The victory took some taking, however, as coach Johnny Kundla of the Lakers introduced a one-man gang in rookie Elgin Baylor out of the University of Seattle. Baylor accumulated 36 points and took 23 rebounds in a superb exhibition for a first-year man.”

Elgin Baylor stands next to a statue honoring the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers great outside Staples Center in a 2018 ceremony.
Elgin Baylor stands next to a statue honoring the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers great outside Staples Center in a 2018 ceremony.Reed Saxon

Clif Keane was another veteran observer. He covered that game for the Evening Globe, and here is his take: “Baylor again tormented the Celtics in the [overtime] five minutes before he fouled out with a minute remaining. The crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation. Nobody has ever made such a first-game impression.”

And, oh, how the world has changed. Another player making his Boston Garden debut that evening was Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 50 points for the Harlem Globetrotters in the first game of the doubleheader. (Yes, they won.) Now there’s a program worth saving.

Coach Kundla was asked to describe his new phenom.

“A style of his own,” he said. “Sometimes he plays like Jim Pollard, then he plays like a guard, then he can pass off great — probably going to be our best assist man this season [he was].”

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For the record, Jim Pollard was a 6-4 forward with uncommon hops for the time. But we’re talking, at best, a Triple A Elgin Baylor here.

Elgin would have many a big night in Boston, most notably his 61-point, 22-rebound dazzler in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals. That was the capper of the strangest season Elgin Baylor, or any great player, ever had.

Baylor played only 48 games that year, and it had nothing to do with injury. It had to do with the whim of his Uncle Sam. In the wake of the Berlin crisis, Baylor was one of many healthy 20-something American males called into Army service. (Paul Hornung was another.) He was stationed as a reservist at Fort Lewis, Washington.

“I would get a weekend pass that began at midnight Friday, and I had to be back at midnight Sunday,” he explained. “I’d take the red-eye Friday to wherever the team was.”

One might assume that such a disruptive lifestyle would hamper an athlete’s performance. And perhaps it did. We’ll never know if, absent the, shall we say, interruptions, he might actually have done better than settle for the nightly 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds in the 48 games Uncle Sam allowed him to play. And the Celtics might have appreciated it had Baylor not been granted an 18-day leave in order to participate in those 1962 playoffs.

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Cousy had enormous admiration for his old friend.

“In terms of skill,” Cooz says, “he was a forerunner of the Dr. J’s. He was just exceptional.”

Baylor and Jerry West never did beat Cousy and Bill Russell’s Celtics.

“You know how Arnold [’Red’ to everyone else] hated to have anything to do with opponents,” Cooz says. “But in the privacy of my own thoughts, I do feel a pang of empathy for Elgin and Jerry. I could never admit that to Arnold.”

There will be a lot of statistical talk surrounding Elgin Baylor, all well-warranted. But numbers do not define him. His legacy can be seen in just about every professional, collegiate, and high school basketball game played anywhere. There is basketball B.E., Before Elgin, and A.E., After Elgin.

Never forget it.