On December 30th, 2012, Lebron James will be 28 years old; at age 28 he is a one of a kind phenomenon in the NBA. James possesses incredible physical attributes blended with a skill level which puts him among the greats in NBA history. James stands 86-,265 pounds all muscle and possesses great jumping ability. His speed and strength generate great power when moving at full speed with a basketball in his hand.
When Lebron James sees an open lane to get to the basket and score, it is like a freight train moving at a break neck speed to its next destination. Who can stop it? Incorporate Lebron’s finesse with his big strong hands, great touch in his fingertips that allow him to make shots, rebound, coupled with the vision to dribble and pass to the open man at the right time makes him a triple threat. Lebron’s basketball IQ and his understanding of the game of basketball is what has helped produce a King on the court. Thus “King James”; who can compare?
Elgin Baylor! I still remember when I first heard that name as a young kid; the way the men talked about him and what he could do on the basketball court I thought he was a giant, like Wilt Chamberlain. Elgin Baylor was not a giant, as I grew up I learned that he only played like one. By the time Elgin Baylor reached age 28 he was a King on the hardwood.
“There are two Elgin Baylor’s; one before knee problems and one after, you need to see the one before.” This statement has been quoted and paraphrased by many players, coaches and fans from Baylor’s generation that saw Baylor when he entered the NBA at age 24 to the age of 28.
Baylor was a mere 6-5 but he would dunk on Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and everyone else who encountered him around the basket. Baylor had every bit of what we marvel at when see “King James”. The difference was it was packed in a smaller frame, but the results are undeniable.
Has Elgin Baylor’s legacy and ranking among the best of all time been properly characterized? Are there missing facts and realities that need to be revisited? Baylor has been overlooked. I am elated that a great and special player in today’s game like Lebron James has forced us to look back at Elgin Baylor before the ship called Time leaves the dock forever and we miss this opportunity to right the ship.
I knew Elgin Baylor was one of the greats of the NBA; after all he is in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer. Despite his Hall of Fame status I must admit that I am totally amazed at what I have read and heard about Elgin Baylor during my research for this article. We need to revisit this gifted basketball genius.
In order to do justice to this comparison there are a few variables, myths and facts that must be acknowledged to bring clarity to those who may not know the history. The NBA game and the players of Elgin Baylor’s time in the late 1950s throughout the 1960’s, and into the beginning years of the 1970s and Lebron James’ NBA of today are quite different.
One myth that runs rapid among many of today’s evaluators of the NBA is that the players during of the fifties, sixties and seventies played little defense which made it easy for each other to score; thus the high game score totals and Hall of Fame scoring records and statistics produced by the greats of the game are not valid. Maybe those evaluators need to speak to Tom “Satch” Sanders of the Boston Celtics for a lesson in the defensive prowess of the day.
The NBA of the '50s, '60s and early '70s was truly the best of the best. Once the racial barriers were open for African Americans to enter the NBA in the fifties, it became ground for the best talent available despite ones color or nationality. Most players came to the NBA through the college system. You had to go to college from high school and then play the first year on the freshmen team and then if eligible, the player would play three years on varsity before being able to be drafted and play in the NBA.
College players entering the NBA in these times had passed the test of continuous competition against other seasoned players who had come to college as teenagers and left college men before entering the NBA. The NBA was a league populated by grown men.
NBA players overall were masters at shooting the basketball inside, mid-range and long distance when necessary, (no 3pt. shot was in play). The pioneers of the NBA were proficient shooters from the free-throw line and they were skilled in the fundamentals of the game of basketball. The “Old School” generation were seasoned players with a mindset that competed by wanting to annilate their opponent whether friend or foe, game in, game out.
Time produces improvements. Players today are more athletic as a normal physical life progression. The players of today are enhanced by better nutrition, conditioning methods, training aids, more money, better traveling conditions and more opportunities to utilize film to visualize and understand how one is performing individually, with their team and against their opponents.
A quantum leap increase in salaries and the advanced medical and therapeutic treatment of injuries has helped today’s players return back to competition quicker than ever before. These medical advancements has increased the longevity and productivity of the careers of players today. The only thing that has not transferred over time, as a whole, is the skill level and mind set the players of the past possessed.
During Baylor’s career in the NBA, 1959 to 1971 the number of teams went from eight franchises to fourteen by 1971. The competition was tight during Baylor’s early years when he was at the top of his game. He was in the top five in four categories, scoring, rebounding, assist, and free-throw percentage. Each night Baylor was going against the best in the world of basketball.
The best way to attempt to portray Elgin Baylor during this creative peak is to blend the artistic interpretations of Jacob Lawrence with the dance genius of Alvin Ailey infused with the tactical mathematical genius of Berkeley’s Dr. David Blackwell.
We must hear the voice of those who can help us see Baylor through their words and their vantage point. My direct connection to Elgin Baylor is Sonny Hill. Mr. Hill is a walking basketball historian and former player who was there and saw Baylor up close. Hill is a former NBA TV analyst who worked along with Brent Musberger. For over forty years, Mr. Hill has been Philly’s summer league impresario giving youth to professional players, to fans, a safe, well organized environment for summer league basketball to prosper.
Sonny Hill is currently an Executive Advisor for the Philadelphia 76ers organization. The stories and perspectives Hill shares are unique descriptions that help those who did not see Baylor; the basketball one of a kind play.
Hill shares that: Jerry West played forward at West Virginia and when he joined the Lakers he was moved to the guard position. During Jerry West’s transition to guard, Baylor took on some of the dribbling and playmaking responsibilities as West adjusted to his new role… Wow.
Hill spoke about Gene Shue the former NBA player and coach who told him that in the locker room prior to games against Baylor that the guys would be trembling in the locker-room, especially the player guarding Baylor that night because, “Elgin can give you, (embarrass you), with fifty, sixty or seventy points on any given night”. Baylor could consistently make every shot in basketball, as well as, the impossible ones while gracefully hanging and maneuvering in the air around defenders only to release for two points.
Hill remembers how players in Philadelphia and other city playgrounds around the nation who tried to imitate Baylor’s famous head faking he would do especially when he had the basketball in his hands.
According to Hill; Jerry West knew how strong Baylor’s hands were, so strong that West would set people up by betting them that they would not be able to knock the basketball out of Baylor’s hands no matter how hard they tried. Jerry West never lost a bet.
On Baylor’s passing, Hill stated; “He was not just a good passer, he was a superb passer.” For years Baylor was in the top five or ten in assist in the NBA.
Elgin Baylor is the “Greatest Laker of Them All!”This was the answer to the question Hill would ask the late great Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn whenever he was in his presence. Hill said he would ask Chick Hearn sometimes in front of witnesses, some whose names we would know, about Elgin Baylor just to hear Chick say those words without hesitation; Elgin Baylor, “Greatest Laker of them All.” Chick Hearn saw all of the Lakers’ greats from George Mikan to Kobe Bryant. If anyone would know who was the best and could speak on it with great credibility, it was Chick Hearn.
Tommy Hawkins Baylor’s former teammate, broadcaster, “The Voice”, (Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra would not mind), was quoted: “Pound for pound Elgin Baylor is the best to ever play the game.” “Elgin certainly did not jump as high as Michael Jordan,” Tommy Hawkins told the San Francisco Examiner. “But he had the greatest variety of shots of anyone. He would take it in and hang and shoot from all these angles. Put spin on the ball. Elgin had incredible strength. He could post up Bill Russell. He could pass like Magic [Johnson] and dribble with the best guards in the league.”
A player is special when the financial well being of an entire franchise is saved by the allure that one player brings to the bottom line of the business, in this case, the people came to see the wonders of Baylor while he helped the team win. Elgin Baylor was that savior for the Minneapolis Lakers’ organization. Without Baylor’s decision to forgo his senior year at Seattle University there would be no Los Angeles Lakers as we know it today. No West, no Sharman, Wilt, no Jabbar, no Magic no Riley, no Shaq, no Kobe and no Jackson without Baylor.
A few years removed from the great George Mikan years the Minneapolis Lakers were in dire straights and ready to fold. The owner of the team Bob Short had vision and he saw Elgin Baylor as his salvation from bankruptcy. Baylor single handily carried the Lakers franchise from the bottom the previous year, to the top in his rookie season. Baylor took the Lakers to the NBA finals, losing to the Boston Celtics who were in the early stages of their dynasty in the NBA.
Bob Short, the then owner of the Minneapolis Lakers expressed it the best: “If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business,” Minneapolis Lakers’ owner Bob Short told the Los Angeles Times in 1971. “The club would have gone bankrupt.” Baylor was seen as the kind of player who could save a franchise. He was and he did.
During Baylor’s top scoring years he never won a scoring title. He would come in second on several occasions because he always had to deal with Wilt Chamberlain being in the way of his winning a scoring title(s). Even when Baylor scored his best regular season average of 38.4 he came in second to Wilt. Baylor experienced a similar roadblock when he and Jerry West teamed up to make it to numerous NBA finals, only to lose each time to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in close fought games.
Baylor’s career has no comparison to the television game exposure and commercials, technology, social media marketing and branding Lebron James receives daily, Baylor’s biggest asset was the power of the “Word of Mouth” factor. I have tried to equal the playing field to help bring to your imagination the impact of the amazing things Baylor was doing on the basketball court from those who witnessed the Baylor artistry.
In our technological world, we can see hear and read about Lebron James’ accomplishments and statistics whenever we want; they have been well documented on ESPN, Fox & TNT, online web-sites with social media all over the Internet and with cell phone applications that provide access to learn or see anything you want know about James as a player.
In tribute to Lebron James also being one of a kind like Baylor; Sonny Hill said of Lebron James: “No one in the history of the NBA with the body size of Lebron James, can compare to what Lebron James does athletically on the basketball court but one, Wilt Chamberlain.”
Elgin Baylor and Lebron James were selected N o. 1overall in the NBA draft and both went on to be Rookie of the Year selections. From the time Baylor and James entered the NBA to age 28 they both would respectively be in the top ten in almost every important statistical category in the NBA, i.e. points per game, (Baylor over 30 plus, James right around 27), rebounds per game, (Baylor around 16, James about 7), assist, (Baylor around 5, James around 7), minutes played, and shooting, free-throw percentage, . . . you get the picture.
Two Kings of the game of basketball. King Baylor’s history has already been written but he is a Hall of Famer who needed to be revisited for proper high-definition acknowledgement and ranking. King James’ appointment to the Hall of Fame has been set, but his history is still being made day by day.
Now each king reigns in their kingdom in time called NBA history and they are comparably the best in their time and maybe all-time.