Basketball, Native Americans

He Had Game

And His Name Was Elgin

Some boys with a beat up basketball to dribble, a rim – hopefully with a net – in the driveway to shoot at and a little imagination can become a Michael Jordan or Jeremy Lin. At least you can dream of such things. For me the ideal was No.22 in Laker blue, the great Elgin Baylor.

Mom and dad thought I was sleeping on those long winter nights, but I was only pretending to doze with the radio turned very low, listening to the extraordinary voice of Chick Hearn calling the Laker games over KNX in L.A. I never wanted to miss the introductions of the game starters since – silly boy – the intro to Elgin made me quiver.

“At forward, 6’5″, from Seattle, No. 22, the Captain of the Lakers – El-gin Baylor.”

The announcers never mentioned that Baylor spent a year playing ball at the College of Idaho in Caldwell where he average more than 31 points and nearly 19 rebounds per game. He took Seattle University to the national title game in 1958 and was the tournament MVP. Seattle lost that game to Kentucky and has never been back to the finals.

I’ve been thinking about ol’ No. 22 this week amid the recollections of Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100 pointgame in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1962. Wilt’s remarkable accomplishment stands on its own, of course, but it’s worth noting that he broke the single game scoring record that had been set in 1960 by Baylor – 71 points. The case can be made, I think, that Elgin Baylor ushered in many aspects of the modern pro game. His turning, twisting reverse layups and running jump hooks were early versions of Jordan and Erving. Baylor was a great passer and handled the ball with skill and style. In fact, someone said if Erving was the doctor, Elgin was the surgeon.

Like Chamberlain’s 100 point game that went almost unnoticed at the time, Baylor’s career has never been fully appreciated. The guy was one of the all-time greats. Jordan broke Baylor’s single game playoff scoring record that had stood for 24 years. Baylor averaged more than 27 points and more than 13 rebounds a season in a career that spanned 14 years. Not bad for a guy who never played hoops until he was 14 and went to C of I on a football scholarship.

Baylor played in the era before the really big money, before players were able to hold their own with owners – although he helped usher in that era, too – and before African-American players enjoyed the respect, indeed the common courtesy, they receive today.

Elgin Baylor is probably the greatest NBA player to have never won a championship. He deserved one, but the great Laker teams could never get past the even greater Boston Celtic teams.

So, I can still close my eyes today and drift back to 1967 and hear ol’ Chick Hearn tell me that “the Lakers are moving left to right across your radio dial and the ball goes to Baylor on the wing. He’s on the dribble across the lane, he puts it up and he scores!”

Some things only get better with age and, in my memory at least, I’ll always wear No. 22.