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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

A superstar, Elgin Baylor, nobody knew; a Lakers team nobody saw

Fifty years ago, the Lakers hardly drew flies during their first season in L.A. So there were few witnesses to the greatness of Baylor, who was reinventing basketball almost nightly while averaging 34.8 points and 18.8 rebounds for a team that came within one game of the NBA Finals.

March 26, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Elgin Baylor began to establish himself as one of best small forwards in NBA history during the Lakers' first season in Los Angeles.
Elgin Baylor began to establish himself as one of best small forwards in… (Wen Roberts / Getty Images )

It was 50 years ago today, the Lakers' band began to play. . . .

As they do today, the Lakers had marquee idols at courtside — or at least one, Doris Day — and their own stars, led by, arguably, the best player of his day.

So much for similarities.

Everything else was different March 27, 1961, when the Lakers were in St. Louis to play the Hawks in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series.

Like, who cared?

New in town, and, unlike the Dodgers, uninvited, the Lakers were dropped off like orphans on the new Sports Arena's doorstep by owner Bob Short, who went back to his trucking business in Minneapolis.

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The announcement that the NBA had arrived got a one-column headline in The Times.

Players were sent out to do promotion, like the time Jerry West remembers, driving around in convertibles, waving.

"If they had thrown some hay in, it would have been like a hayride," West says.

Attendance averaged 5,045 — officially — with Short, back in Minneapolis, supposedly asking general manager Lou Mohs, "Can you double it for the press?"

Apparently, Lou did. As Chick Hearn would put it, "They didn't need a 15,000-seat arena for 200 people."

Hearn wasn't even doing their games.

No one was. Short wouldn't pay to get them on radio.

The Lakers had the majestic Elgin Baylor, wide-eyed rookie West . . . and high hopes.

This was the Elgin so few saw, the star of stars before undergoing major knee surgery in mid-career. He averaged 34.8 points, 18.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists that season.

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"It ticks me off when all of the so-called experts discuss the most outstanding players in NBA history and don't even mention Elgin Baylor," says Tom Hawkins, a forward on that team.

"For me, and I played against him — I had to guard him as the Cincinnati Royals' stopper — and I played with him, pound for pound Elgin Baylor was the greatest player to play the game.

"At 6-5, and barely 6-5, he averaged 27 points [in his career], 14 rebounds, could dribble and pass with anybody and was the outstanding creative force.

"He ushered in an era of creative basketball that the game had never known before."

For West's part, he'd have been wide-eyed if this were Cincinnati.

"The whole thing was a shock to me," West says. "Playing three nights in a row, taking the first plane out in the morning.

"It was like a feeling of wonderment. I had been wondering if I could play with these guys, if I belonged in the league."

West became a starter at midseason as they finished 36-43 . . . making the playoffs since only two of the eight teams didn't when the joke was, "The NBA plays a whole season to eliminate the Knicks."

Beating Detroit, the Lakers advanced to the Western Division finals to meet powerhouse St. Louis, which had won the 1957 title and lost to the Celtics in the 1958 Finals.

In a surprise, the Lakers beat the Hawks in Game 1 in St. Louis before losing Game 2.

Coming home — which had been moved to the little gym at Cal State Los Angeles — the Lakers won again in front of 5,006.

The Hawks came back to win Game 4 there in front of 4,923.

Heading back to St. Louis with Lakers fans on fire . . . or at least with some awareness the Lakers existed . . . team doctor Ernie Vandeweghe, a former NBA player, begged Short to put Game 5 on radio.

When Short did his turn-his-pockets-inside-out act, Vandeweghe put up the money himself, did the color commentary and brought in USC's play-by-play man . . .

The one and only Chickie.

"He was quieter then," West says. "He wasn't familiar with the players.

"Later he was like the life of the party on the plane. He used to say he was unbiased. I would tell him, 'You're the most biased unbiased person I know.' "

In Hearn's brief diffident phase, he still made the Lakers' 121-112 victory, with Baylor going for 47 and 20, feel as if it happened in fans' living rooms.

A Sports Arena-record crowd of 14,484 packed the place for Game 6, surprising the home team.

"To come home and have a big crowd, it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, what are these people doing here?' " West says.

"It was like the start of a new era."

Hearn had a job, literally for life, and the Lakers had a following forever after.

There was even a fairy tale ending . . . if decades off.

Leading the Hawks, 3-2, they lost Game 6 in the Sports Arena and Game 7 in St. Louis . . . followed by six losses in the Finals to the Celtics in the '60s and another in the 1984 Finals, before turning their history around in 1985 when they came back from the Game 1 Memorial Day Massacre in Boston.

Fifty years later, West and Hawkins can't remember anything about Game 5. Baylor is in court suing Donald T. Sterling. Hearn has passed away, as have Short, Rudy LaRusso, Ray Felix, Jim Krebs and Coach Fred Schaus.

Hot Rod Hundley, Slick Leonard and Frank Selvy are still around, as is Vandeweghe, 83, who saw his son, Kiki, become an NBA star.

Here's to you guys.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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