Elgin Baylor's Story
How He Juggled the NBA and the Army
June 5, 2014 by Jake Butler
In 1958, the Minneapolis Lakers' franchise was on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to find its way in the NBA as they finished in last place with a record of 19-53. That last place finish, however, meant they had earned the top pick in the NBA draft. They used that pick wisely by selecting Elgin Baylor, a small forward out of Seattle University, who would go on to a prolific and meaningful NBA career.
Playing in an era before major television contracts and 24-hour sports coverage, the impact Baylor had on the NBA might not be so obvious to younger fans. He battled through plenty of adversity in his 14-year, Hall-of-Fame career, including one season where he played just 48 games while serving on active duty for the Sixth United States Army.
Along with Bill Russell, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain, he was one of the founding fathers of the modern style of basketball, providing the league with the star power needed to propel it to the forefront of American sports culture. So today, as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan carry the torch as the NBA Finals tip off, we take a look back at Elgin Baylor’s career and all that he accomplished as an athlete, even while serving in the Army.
Baylor was always a gifted athlete blessed with acrobatic abilities that allowed him to play above the rim and dominate his opponents. The game came naturally to him on the court, but he often struggled in the classroom, which made his path to collegiate success a rocky one.
At one point as a teenager, he dropped out of high school and took up a job at a furniture store while playing basketball in his spare time in recreational leagues. Luckily, one of his friends had some influence at the College of Idaho and was able to get him a scholarship, despite his poor grades. After one season there, the head coach was fired and Baylor lost his scholarship.
He then sat out a year and spent his time playing AAU until he was eligible to join the Seattle University Chieftains. He led the NCAA in rebounding his first season there and led the team to the 1958 NCAA championship game in his second, where they fell to Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats.
Drafted by the Lakers
The Minneapolis Lakers finished the 1957-58 season with the worst record in the league. With the franchise struggling both on the court and off the court financially, they needed to turn things around. They were able to convince Baylor to skip his senior season and enter the NBA draft, where they selected him as the number one overall pick and signed him to a contract worth $20,000 per year. That may not seem like a lot of money now, but in 1958 it was a blockbuster deal.
Baylor’s impact was felt immediately. In his rookie season, he took the team from last place all the way to the NBA Finals, although they were swept by the Boston Celtics. He finished fourth in the league in scoring, third in rebounding, and eighth in assists en route to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Baylor’s career really peaked between 1960 and 1963, a stretch of three seasons where he averaged 35.7 points per game. He was in the prime of his career when the Army came calling early in the 1961-62 season. The Lakers, which had since relocated to Los Angeles, were off to a quick 9-2 start and looked like the team to beat in the Western Division.
But Baylor was a member of the Army Reserve and they called him into active duty to join the Sixth United States Army at Fort Lewis in Washington. Being stationed away from home didn’t keep him from playing basketball though. He was often granted a weekend pass, which he would use to fly coach on commercial airlines to meet up with his team wherever they were scheduled to play. Even while on duty for 5 months, he was still able to play 48 games and score 1,836 points – that’s a mind-boggling 38.8 points per game. That year, he also led his team to another NBA Finals, where he scored 61 points in game five. To this day, that’s the most points anyone has ever scored in a single game in the NBA Finals.
It’s really remarkable when you consider just how much traveling was involved and how well he was able to play despite the adversity. He would often play back-to-back games each weekend and then fly back to Washington on Sunday night or early Monday morning. And at 6 feet 5 inches, he would have been ineligible for service if he was only an inch taller.
You can’t really say enough about how Baylor impacted the NBA in the 1960s. He and Jerry West turned the Lakers’ franchise around, creating a foundation that they would continue to build upon in the coming decades. Here are just some of his many accomplishments during his 14-year career:
- Voted an NBA All-Star 11 times
- Once scored 71 points in a game, a record that stood for two years before being broken by Wilt Chamberlain
- Still holds a single-game NBA Finals record for 61 points
- Averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for his career
- Retired as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, although he’s now 28th on the list
- Led the Lakers to seven appearances in the NBA Finals, although he was unable to ever win a championship
- Had his number 22 jersey retired by the Lakers
Baylor suffered a debilitating knee injury in the 1965 Western Division playoffs and, although he was still a great player in the years that followed, he was never able to average 30 points per game again. He played with nagging knee problems for another six full seasons before retiring early in the 1971-72 season. Ironically, that was the year they finally made it over the hump and won the NBA Championship. He received a championship ring for being a part of the team for so long, although he technically retired without ever winning a title.
He would later go on to a short-lived career as the coach of the New Orleans Jazz from 1974-1979. After taking a few years away from basketball, he returned as the vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers, where he spent 22 years. He won NBA Executive of the Year in 2006 when the Clippers won their first playoff series in 30 years.
As a player, he was truly one of the most underappreciated talents of his generation and his play on the court set the tone for how the game of basketball would evolve in the years that followed. Check out his career numbers below.