Having just started reading the Julius Erving autobiography this week, it’s been an intriguing look at the man who defined the high-flying style of play for millions of basketball hopefuls.
Twice in the early portions of the book, Erving brings up the first influence on his style of play. When he tore up his knee as a youngster in Hempstead, Long Island, he could only sit and watch the game from out of his bedroom window. Yet, in that time, he also became fixated on the style of a future Hall-of-Famer:
I tune to watch a young black player in the NBA who starred in college at Seattle University and led his team all the way to the NCAA finals before losing to Adolph Rupp and his all-white Kentucky Wildcats. Elgin Baylor would be drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers and, to a greater degree than even his fellow superstars in Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, would give me an idea of how basketball could look effortless and beautiful. Elgin taking the rebound and dribbling through traffic is something that I begin doing in my feverish daydreams as I wait three months for that cast to be removed. I feel myself leaping - and taking the rebound and then dribbling downcourt and leaping - rising! I see the movement, reenact it in my mind, and I can't explain it to anyone, not Marky (brother), not Freda (sister), not Mom why this excites me but I see it somehow as liberating, the black body moving through white bodies, and the self-sufficiency of the act. For the first time, I have this idea that certain ways of playing basketball are more beautiful than other ways. That there is scoring, putting the ball in the basket, but also the artistry of how this scoring is done. This is a new idea, an idea I have never heard spoken aloud: that some basketball players look better than other basketball players because of the way they play.
I want to look better.
But now I can only dream. I can't play.
Occasionally in the social media sphere – Twitter, really – the question comes up of who is the least respected or appreciated figure the NBA ever had. The responses vary from the relatively quiet Tim Duncan to the near myth that was Wilt Chamberlain to the normally forgotten Oscar Robertson.
It’s interesting that Elgin Baylor doesn't comes up. Ever.
With the understanding that he retired more than 40 years ago, generations of NBA fans that came after Baylor’s last game only really knew of him through highlights and an uneasy, but lengthy, tenure with the once-perennial laughingstock.
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Maybe a major reason that Baylor isn’t discussed as often among fans is that most under a certain age remember him as the forever forlorn EVP of player operations/general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. For much of his 22 years as the team’s top executive, instead of being the puppet master behind title contenders and a perennial playoff presence, Baylor was a fixture in Secaucus, N.J., for the NBA Draft Lottery. The Clippers were routinely awful, and with only two winning seasons in those 22 years, Baylor's lone management highlight was winning Executive of the Year in 2006, when the team won its first playoff series since moving to California — the former Buffalo Braves last won a series in 1976.
Maybe another reason that he’s not as pondered upon is the infamous misfortune of his career arc. He retired nine games into the 1971-72 season, and the next game, the Lakers began what would become the league-record streak of 33 consecutive wins. Despite appearing in eight NBA Finals in 13 seasons, the Lakers never won a single crown until that very '71-'72 season in which he retired. Perhaps in those days, as was the case for pre-dynasty Michael Jordan or Erving of the post-NBA/ABA merger, the questions about individual greatness versus team cohesion and performances against the dominant teams were thrown at him at every turn.
Never mind that he is credited as the reason the Lakers still exist as an NBA franchise or that the Clippers were neutered by bad luck and the ownership of Donald Sterling.
All of that shouldn't take away from his vast influence on the game. That the Doctor himself pattered much of his style after Baylor speaks volumes. That nearly every significant scorer who has played in the Association since looks to players like Erving (rightly) as a model of their games should say even more about the Laker great. That even the most famous Boston homer in sports media today acknowledges Baylor's imprint on the modern game should make us wonder why he's not even an answer to our hackneyed "best ever" debates.
And let's not forget this staple among the best guards and small forwards in the game today:
(Note: the first-ever biography on Baylor will hit bookshelves this May. Considering that there's a biography and "tell all" books on just about anyone these days, an exhaustive look into Baylor has been a long time coming.)
Nice piece, well written...and I have the good Doctor's book on deck- if it's full of that kind of prose, I can't wait to read it!
Dope words, Jason.
The modern game begins with Elgin Baylor, simple and plain. He was a revelation at a time where Bill Russell was just a defensive terror, Elgin showed America that a black dude with offense could be exciting, entertaining and successful. And here we are 50 years later seeing the fruits of Elgin Baylor's labor.
I certainly admit that if you asked me to name the legends of the game when I first started learning about basketball growing up, Baylor's name wouldn't have come up. I think that in unfortunate ways, we are conditioned to only remember those who won championships and cast aside those who fell short. And though this is for good reason more often than not, in select occasions, we only remember those whose life away from sports stood for so much more (Russell for civil rights, for example).
Baylor came to my vision while in undergrad. People around me mentioned him as the lineage from Dr. J to LeBron, but I knew nothing about him. I believe that's the case with so many my age.
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