Remembering Elgin Baylor

Bill Simmons has done yeoman’s work recovering the memory of Elgin Baylor’s career. Given that Simmons believes a fairly strong form of the thesis that players are much better today than they used to be, this is notable. Baylor was a spectacular player who has been disturbingly forgotten by modern basketball fans. Following Simmons I’d like to draw a bit of attention to one extraordinary year of this early NBA legend’s career.

1962 was an freakish year in NBA history, comparable to 1930 in major leagues.  It was a year of astounding offensive totals, highlighted by Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double for the entire season and Wilt Chamberlain averaging more than 50 points per game.  Yet Baylor just might have had a better year. The 1961-62 season was Baylor‘s 4th, and he was quickly rounding into one of the game’s absolute elites. He improved from 24.9 ppg as a rookie to 29.6 in his second season to 34.8 in season 3. His rebounds per game improved from 15 to 16.4 to 19.8. Each of his first 3 years, Baylor played 70 or more games. Then life intervened in a way that is unheard of today. Baylor was in the Army reserves, and he was called to active duty. Because he was on active duty in the United States Army, he had to get permission to leave base in order to play in occasional basketball games. He served his term in Washington state, yet he played for the Los Angeles Lakers. Because of his duty, Baylor only played in weekend games and missed every practice of the season. Of course, his numbers duly collapsed. Or not.

In 1962, Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 points per game, the highest total ever produced by a player not named Chamberlain. He also stuck up 18.6 rebounds per game. Ponder those numbers for a minute. A player who never practiced and played only on the weekends after flying in from Washington stuck up 38 and 19. A player who puts up 20 and 10 is very good, and a player who can average 25 and 15 is elite. Baylor blew those marks out of the water while playing every game, essentially, on the road. How did he follow-up this regular season? He played 13 playoff games, leading all playoff scorers with 38.6 ppg and also averaging 17.7 rpg. He did while facing the 3-time defending champion Celtics and Bill Russell, probably the greatest defender in the NBA’s history. The Lakers pushed the Celtics to 7 games in the NBA finals, losing Game 7 in overtime 110-107 after Frank Selvy missed an open shot at the regulation buzzer that would have won the Lakers the NBA title.

Sometimes, history reminds us to marvel at the things athletes can achieve. In an era before weight training, nutritionists, and the ability to fly in anything but coach, Elgin Baylor endured through some of the most grueling conditions imaginable to play basketball as well as it has ever been played. Enjoy watching Lebron and Kobe because they are truly transcendent talents. Please, though, don’t forget the work of players like Elgin Baylor that allowed for the modern game beloved by so many.

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