The high-flying, multi-talented Elgin Baylor, who led the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers to eight NBA Finals, died Monday, March 22 in Los Angeles at the age of 86.
The Lakers announced the news of his death in a statement that did not verify the cause.
Meanwhile, scores of tributes to the NBA Hall of Famer continue to pour in from former players and longtime fans of the sport who acknowledged his many achievements.
Baylor, who wore the No. 22 on his jersey, spent his entire 14-season career with the Lakers after being drafted as the first pick in 1958 when the team was then based in Minneapolis. He served in the league as a player, coach and executive and in 1996, was chosen as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Long before players like Julius “Dr. J.” Erving or Michael Jordan entered the league and became superstars, Baylor had already made his mark as a forward who could soar high above the rim, defying the limits of gravity and astonishing anyone who had the great fortune to witness his skills as a shooter, rebounder and passer.
Born September 16, 1934, in the District, Baylor faced the hardships of racism but due to his athletic prowess, found a way to overcome the hurdles and succeed far beyond anyone’s expectations.
He grew up near a recreation center in D.C. but had limited opportunities to local basketball courts because at that time, Blacks could not use the facilities. So, he, like two of his brothers, honed his skills at the Southwest Boys Club and Brown Jr. High before playing at Phelps Vocational High School for two years (1951 and 1952).
Segregation within D.C. public schools would only allow Black youth to play against other Black high schools during Baylor’s formative years. Still, he would set his first scoring record – 44 points in a game against Cardozo High School. He dropped out of school (1952-1953) because of a poor academic record but continued to play basketball in city recreation leagues. However, he returned for his senior year in 1954 with the then-recently opened Spingarn High School – another all-Black school – where he would be named first-team Washington All-Metropolitan – the first Black player to garner the distinction.
Baylor set a D.C.-area record on Feb. 3, 1954, of 63 points while playing against his former Phelps team. But once again because of racism, Baylor’s accomplishment drew limited attention in the media because he had broken the point record of 52 set one year earlier by a white youth.
Upon his arrival with the Lakers, Baylor, along with point guard Jerry West, served as the foundation for the team’s future dynasty. Upon his retirement in 1971, the Lakers’ roster included players like Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich.
Basketball aficionados often count Baylor among players like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as examples of the greatest players in the league who never won an NBA championship.
But that never seemed to matter to Baylor. What remained tantamount for him, would be to continue to serve as an advocate for equality and justice – one who never stopped fighting to rid the league and the nation of the inequities associated with racism.