Named for a timepiece, Elgin Baylor’s timing on a basketball court was always pinpoint perfect. Whether performing a pirouette in midair under the basket or gliding across the hardwood in Fred Astaire fashion, Baylor would always lead his opponent by a step or two.
Baylor was the first player who could not be defended successfully. In an NBA finals game, Baylor scored 61 points against the dynastic Boston Celtics. After the game, Bob Cousy congratulated his teammate, the outstanding defensive player, Tom “Satch” Sanders, for his coverage of Baylor. Afterall, he held the great Baylor to 61 points.
Modern basketball began with Baylor. He took the game to a higher level – literally. Bill Russell referred to Baylor as “the godfather of hangtime,” for Baylor’s ability to hang in midair seemingly forever. Baylor saved a franchise and transformed his sport. The Minneapolis Lakers finished dead last the year before Baylor arrived, posting a dismal 19-53 record.
Baylor was the No. 1 draft pick in 1958. In 1959, Baylor would win “Rookie Of The Year” and lead the Lakers to the NBA finals. Lakers’ owner, Bob Short, told the Los Angeles Times, “If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business. The club would have gone bankrupt.”
The Lakers would move to Los Angeles in 1960. The Fabulous Forum should’ve been christened “The House That Baylor Built.” Chick Hearn, longtime Lakers broadcaster, said of Baylor that he “is the most complete player the game has ever seen.” Celtic legend, Tommy Heinsohn, said that Baylor was “the best forward I ever saw.”
Baylor was a perennial all-star who led his team to eight NBA finals. Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game for his career. His stats are even more remarkable when one considers that Baylor played his entire career before the 3-point shot was introduced.
On Nov. 15, 1960, Baylor scored 71 points, a new scoring record at that time, and grabbed 25 rebounds against the New York Knicks. Baylor’s finest season was 1961-62. Baylor was an active U.S. Army reservist, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington. Unable to practice with his team and only allowed to play on a weekend pass, Baylor played in 48 games and scored over 1,800 points. He averaged 38.3 points, 18.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
In a game 5 victory of the NBA finals that season, Baylor scored 61 points – still the record for points in an NBA finals game. Basketball historian James Fisher described Baylor’s season as “not bad for a part-time job.” Baylor has been referred to as Dr. J before Dr. J and Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. One could add Magic, Kobe and LeBron, too.
Elgin “Rabbit” Baylor was too quick to be guarded by a big forward and too strong to be defended by a small one. Heinsohn was right, Baylor was “the best.” He didn’t need to pump his fist, get in another player’s face or talk trash. His game was intimidating enough.
Baylor, basketball legend, was only a small part of his story. Baylor was a devout Christian and lifelong member of the Baptist church. Baylor and his wife, Elaine, shared a strong prayer life. God would guide Baylor throughout his career, achievements and life. He recalled, “whatever I did in life, I always prayed. I believed that I served a loving and forgiving God.”
Baylor did not play basketball until he was 14 years old, because there were not opportunities for black kids to play in segregated Washington, D.C., Baylor’s hometown. Baylor’s faith and prayer life would give him courage and confidence to rise above his circumstances.
On Jan. 16, 1959, Baylor refused to play a game in Charleston, after the reserved hotel refused lodging to Baylor and two black teammates. Baylor made it clear that “I’m a human being, I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.” Baylor was given great athletic talent by God. Baylor’s faith in God and prayer shaped him into a great man.
The Apostle Paul wrote of being “transformed into his image with an ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord.” Again, Paul added, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Pray and use your talents to bring glory to God and service to mankind.
Every time I see the logo of Michael Jordan soaring toward the basket, I can’t help but remember when Baylor accomplished the same, dunking over the outstretched arm of Bill Russell. May God lift you above this world. May he grant you “hang time.”
Ken Haskins is head pastor at First Christian Church in Carson City.