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Original showstopper

The Lakers' Baylor put up big numbers with style long before Jordan, Bryant

March 22, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

He was Kobe before Kobe, Michael before Michael, Dr. J. before Dr. J.

It has been just over two decades since Elgin Baylor joined the Clippers' front office and over 35 years since he retired from the Lakers, leaving him more than a generation removed from his glory days, an often forgotten superstar.

"I get so mad," said former Lakers teammate Tommy Hawkins, "when they come up with these lists of the five greatest players of all time because they always leave Elgin off. Pound for pound, I think he was the best basketball player in the history of the game."

While some may question that statement, none should question Baylor's talent.

Much is being made of the fact that Kobe Bryant is shooting for his third straight game of 50 or more points tonight when the Lakers play the Grizzlies in Memphis.

That would only equal a feat accomplished by Baylor in 1962.

He was an NBA pioneer, taking the league to new heights as the first of the gravity-defying stars, going where no player had consistently gone before. In an era dominated by two goliaths -- Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain -- the 6-foot-5 Baylor compensated for his lack of height with the ability to elevate his body to go over or around defenders and the strength to go through them.

"He had the hang time," Hawkins said, "and the control of the ball that enabled him to get up in the air, decide on a shot and then change his mind three times. He had the greatest variety of shots I've ever seen."

And a statistical resume that has stood the test of time.

Baylor scored 71 points in a regular-season game in 1960, then an NBA record. He still holds the record for an NBA Finals game with 61 points. He had two other games when he scored at least 60 points in the regular season and scored in the 50s on 14 occasions. Baylor averaged 38.3 points in the 1961-62 season. He was also a dominant rebounder, using his strength and determination to often beat players who towered over him to the ball. Baylor averaged double figures in rebounds in each of his first seven seasons, including a 19.8 average in 1960-61. He is the Lakers' career rebounds leader with 11,463.

"He was the best I've ever seen at getting his own rebound after taking a shot," said Hot Rod Hundley, another former teammate. "He would never take a fadeaway jumper."

In three consecutive games in December of 1962, Baylor swished the net a lot, scoring 50, 51 and 52 points.

What was that like? Don't ask him. "There's more chance I could tell you what I had for breakfast last week than what happened in those games," said Baylor, now 72. "Who remembers?"

If Baylor played today, the kids might be wearing Air Elgins, he'd be a nightly headliner on "SportsCenter" and some owner would pay him tens of millions of dollars.

Baylor just shrugs at the thought. "You can't compare eras," he said. "It's like trying to compare fighters from different eras."

Baylor has always shrugged off his accomplishments. He says he hasn't retained any newspaper clippings or memorabilia commemorating his three straight games of 50 or more.

He said he had forgotten he had even done it until Bryant's hot streak opened that dusty page in the Lakers' record book. "You just played hard and tried to win. No one really mentioned much about [the three-game scoring explosion]. It really made no difference," Baylor said.

"What's the big deal? Now look at Wilt. Look at the stuff he accomplished. He once averaged over 50 points a game. Now that's a big deal."

The big gap in Baylor's resume is the lack of a championship. The closest he came was the 1971-72 season. Nine games into that year, Baylor retired. The Lakers immediately started a record 33-game winning streak and would go on to win their first title in Los Angeles.

Baylor played in the NBA Finals seven times, losing them all. Six of those losses came against the Boston Celtics.

When Baylor scored his 10,000th point during a game in the 1962-63 season, play was stopped so that Detroit Pistons captain Bailey Howell could present him with the ball.

As the two men looked into a blinding wall of flashbulbs, Howell noticed Baylor had a frown on his face.

"Smile, Elg," he said.

"What for?" replied Baylor. "We're losing, aren't we?"

Hawkins, who runs a speakers' bureau, regrets that Baylor's milestones are no longer celebrated. "He was an incredible, creative superstar. It's a shame he's not given the respect and dignity he deserves."

Hundley, a broadcaster for the Utah Jazz, agrees.

"He's forgotten," Hundley said. "A lot of people I run into only know him from the Clippers, or have never even heard of Elgin Baylor."

steve.springer@latimes.com

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