Elgin Baylor: One-Man Franchise

[The blog is moving on to Elgin Baylor this week. We start with Baylor’s rookie season in 1958-1959 with the Minneapolis Lakers. This article appeared in Sport Magazine in late 1958. The byline belongs to the great Murray Olderman.]

It took Elgin Baylor just about three seconds to convince the National Basketball Association that he had made it. That was about as long as it took Jim Krebs to reach up for the center jump on opening night in the Minneapolis Auditorium last October 22 and flick the ball toward the keyhole.

A broad-shouldered figure in Laker blues darted across, swept the ball into his big hands, and with one surging leap was past Cincinnati’s Jack Twyman and under the basket to drop in an easy layup. Baylor had his first two points in the NBA. 

Behind the Laker bench, blond, snappy Bob Short gulped, tapped Johnny Kundla on the shoulder and gave the Laker coach the circle sign with thumb and forefinger: “This is it!”

Never before had a major sport franchise depended so much on the individual effort of one player. It’s an intriguing story, how Short, the novice basketball entrepreneur who waded into the Lakers two years ago to find out how quickly you can drop $100,000, pinned the future of his venture on Baylor. And how Elgin, a kid who confessedly hasn’t been nervous since his high school days, made Minneapolis with its Mikan-Pollard heritage, basketball-conscious again. 

“Baylor,” says straight-talking Paul Seymour, the coach of the Syracuse Nationals, “is the best rookie I’ve ever seen.”

“We’ve been starving,” says Vern Mikkelsen, the veteran captain of the Lakers, “for a guy that can do things with the ball like he can. This town is hungry for a winner. They’re dying for us to play good basketball. They let the Lakers of Mikan and Pollard get away without fully appreciating them. They were spoiled.”

Minneapolis in the fall is a football town. The University of Minnesota played Big Ten champion Iowa in the Homecoming Game last November 8, the big Saturday of the season. The same night, in the Auditorium, the Lakers played the New York Knickerbockers, bucking football enthusiasm head-on. They sold out the old hall, where a year before they couldn’t give the seats away. (That was actually the case when Short, the president of the club, tried to give tickets to his friends.) And the difference had to be Baylor, for he is the only change artistically in the Lakers of this year and last year. 

If you will rummage into the drawer where you keep your copies of SPORT, and take out the issue of February, 1958 , the one with Carmen Basilio on the cover, look at Page 31. At the left top of the page, Emmett Watson, who is to Seattle sportswriting what Red Smith is to New York, stated simply: “Elgin Baylor is probably the best basketball player in the world.”

We won’t say yea or nay to that because we want to stay friends with guys like Bob Pettit and Bill Russell, but we do know that the Lakers had to go in the hock $100,000 so they could get Baylor, and that will buy a lot basketball players. The $100,000 is what it costs Minneapolis to finish last a year ago, dismal winners of only 19 contests on a 72-game slate. 

“We,” Short acknowledges wryly, “earned the right to draft Baylor.”

The rookie Baylor maneuvering for a shot . . .

SPORT reveals here for the first time the delicate maneuvers by which the Lakers were able to bring the great rookie into their fold and thereby save the Minneapolis franchise. The Lakers a year ago were in a desperate situation—a bad team, no fan interest—and Short, who had been lured into the picture to invest his and his friends’ money strictly for the sake of civic pride, was looking to get out, but respectably. If anybody had come along with an offer big enough to give the Short group back their original investment ($250,000), the Lakers could have been had. Even Bill Veeck turned up in Minneapolis, but he forgot to bring his checkbook. Short, who operates a Midwest trucking concern, was stubborn enough not to write the Lakers off as a total loss, although he terms them even now “a lousy risk.” Since he wouldn’t give them away that meant reviewing the situation to see what could be done about jacking up the team. 

No. 1 on the agenda was: get yourself a star. 

“We considered Archie Dees of Indiana (now a Cincinnati benchwarmer),” Short recalls, “but opinion was unanimous all over the country that if Baylor would play, he was the best man.”

IF was a big word here, since Elgin still had a year of eligibility at Seattle. He could be drafted, though since he was a transfer student from College of Idaho and his original class had graduated. But he had firmly indicated he would return to school to play his final year.

Remember, we said Short was stubborn. He flew first to Seattle to talk to the boy and to John Castellani, then his coach. “Elgin,” Castellani said, “is definitely coming back to school.”

John Kundla, the Lakers’ coach, was sent to the NCAA finals in Lexington, KY, last April to check Baylor’s basketball talents again—and to do some more talking. Elgin, a priest from Seattle U, and Castellani were still saying no. Kundla’s report back to Minneapolis also read: “By far the best player. Could we use him!”

. . . Baylor scores off contact.

Short consulted Abe Saperstein, the impresario of the Harlem Globetrotters, who keeps in touch with the future plans of the top Negro players. “No,” Abe advised, “he won’t turn pro.” Elgin has already turned down a handsome Globetrotter offer. 

Next, Short flew to Washington, D.C., home of the Baylor family, and Elgin happened to be visiting there on a Friday two days before he was to appear in New York with the All-America team on the Steve Allen television show. “Everybody was there,” Short remembers. “His mother, father, his fiancée (they were married soon after), and a close uncle, Curtis Jackson. We sat and talked for five hours. 

“I’d practiced law in Washington. I knew the ropes. The first thing I had to determine was how important money was to the Baylor family. I saw a twinkle in the father’s eye and in the mother’s eye. It was important. 

“I had a chance. But on Sunday, I’m sitting home in Minneapolis watching the television show and Allen asks, ‘Are you going to play professional basketball next year?’ And Elgin answers, ‘No, I’m going back to Seattle to finish my education.’” 

Now the chase began in earnest. Before it was over, it was to cost the Lakers at least $5,000 in expenses, not to mention the time involved. 

“Constant contact was maintained with Elgin’s immediate family and Uncle Curtis, who was really his advisor and a pretty sharp fellow,” Short said. “Every other owner in the league had interviewed him, too. Opinion was divided whether he would go pro, and it was almost time for the draft meeting in Detroit. 

“It’s like I’m sitting in a crap game with my last two dollars. I’m broke anyhow, if I play it conservatively. It’s Saturday and the draft is on Monday. I get Elgin’s uncle on the phone in Washington and tell him to get on a plane to Seattle, I’ll meet him there, and we’ll talk with Elgin again.”

They huddled all day Sunday the three of them. “Look,” Short pointed out to the youngster, “you’re at the peak of your career and commanding the top dollar right now. We’ll see to it you complete your education at St. Thomas College.”

“I also knew,” Short says now, with a wink, “that Seattle was on the verge of being slapped by the NCAA for recruiting practices and that the coach might be fired. By nighttime, I concluded it was only a question of how high we had to go to get the boy. 

“His uncle finally said, ‘Draft him.’”

Short flew immediately to the league meeting in Detroit and selected Baylor, although he had no formal agreement that Elgin would play. “If he had turned me down then,” the Laker president admits, “I’d have been out of business. The club would have gone bankrupt.”

Baylor later signed a one-year contract in excess of $20,000. “He was well informed,” Short says. “He knew that Russell was making $22,500 with Boston. He’s pretty close to Russell in salary.”

What have the Lakers got for their money?

“A real pro,” coach Kundla says. “I knew he was good, but I didn’t think he could catch on this fast.”

“If I had Baylor when I was coaching the Lakers,” George Mikan says, “I’d still be coaching. He can do it all.”

Baylor, a rookie who played and carried himself like a veteran.

Let’s dissect the Baylor talents as pros see them. First, take Mikkelsen, the Laker who bridges the present and the championship past in his 10 years. “Elgin’s not like the normal rookie. We have a boy, Alex Ellis, who’s well drilled and will come along. But he’s cautious. Elgin’s got no conscience. (And the way Mik says it, that’s good.) He’s a lot like Pollard, but more of an offensive player. He hits the open man very well, and he’s a good feeder. In practice, he didn’t look like a great shot from the outside. In games, though, he hits them. 

“I reported late to camp and I wanted to see if he could take it. We were paired off in a scrimmage. He’s rough, all right. He’s not perfect. He will forget sometimes to come back on defense.”

Basketball, theoretically a non-contact game, isn’t played that way by the pros. The fellow who can’t be physically aggressive won’t last. At 6-5, broad-shouldered, thick-thighed and well-filled out at 225 pounds, Baylor can handle himself. 

“When they come into the league,” says Jim Loscutoff of the Celtics, one of the so-called hatchet men who thrive on chopping down the stars, “you see what they can do, if they discourage easily. Baylor will do. What makes him so effective is that the Lakers work all their patterns around him. A guy who gets the ball that much has got to score. He’s a clever passer. When he drives in and you pick him up, he’ll pass off for a layup.”

“Throw a press on the Lakers,” says Slater Martin of the St. Louis Hawks, “and Baylor will bring it up—not Bob Leonard or Dick Garmaker, their backcourt men. He’s a great dribbler, with good control of the ball. You’re not going to take it away from him.”

“He’s faster with the ball than he is without it,” says the Nats’ Paul Seymour. “But then, a thief always runs faster when you chase him.”

The thread running through all these comments is that Baylor is the take-charge guy of the Lakers, and it’s a pattern that holds true when you go into the area of statistics. 

Baylor is, first of all, a great scorer. He poured in 25 points in his very first game as a pro, against Cincinnati, and maintained that tremendous pace over the first half of the season, running second or third among the high scorers of the league. 

Because of his versatility, Baylor is compared most often to ill-fated Maurice Stokes of the Cincinnati Royals, who was struck down with a brain injury last spring. Stokes as a rookie had the same impact on the league as Baylor does now—a natural team leader who excelled in every phase. Yet before his rookie season was half over, Baylor was being conceded the edge. 

“This kid seems to have a little more ginger,” says volatile Red Auerbach, the coach of the Celtics. 

“If that’s the way he plays all the time,” Ed Conlin of Syracuse said the first time he saw Baylor in action, “the only way you’re going to stop him is with a gun.”

With a rookie, the pros always caution: “Wait until he’s been around the League a couple of times.” Since his sensational debut, Baylor has been around the league a few times. And coach Johnny Kundla is still shaking his head and saying, “Nothing’s changed.”

Not even Elgin. During one of the Lakers’ trips into New York, we dropped into his room at the Paramount Hotel on 46th Street. The hotel has long beds for basketball players, and Elgin was relaxing before the game. 

He speaks sparingly, but congenially, and with frank assurance. “My defense,” he said, “isn’t the best, and it isn’t the worst. The trick is not to let the man with the ball get the baseline from you. ‘Cause then there’s no way to stop him from going around you with a free alley to the basket. So, you try to drive him down the middle, where he might get jammed or one of your teammates can pick him up, too.

“On offense, I had to learn all over again how to play the frontcourt after being a middleman in college. I had to learn to push and shove in rebounding. In pro ball, you have to learn to fight your way through to the basket. 

“The referee calls ‘em a lot closer up here—that surprised me. They call quite a few charging fouls.”

What in pro ball does he find toughest? “Not getting enough sleep. Seems like you travel all the time. But I like being with the fellows.”

That last sentence startled some of the Lakers because they are not sure they had been able to get through to him. Baylor is a natural deadpan who keeps himself under restraint, on or off the court. On the Lakers’ first trip to St. Louis, they kidded him, “Pettit’s going to throw you right through the hoop.”

“I liked that,” said Elgin, with a trace of a smile. 

We checked Mikkelsen to find out what did happen when Elgin came up against Pettit. 

“That was the game,” the balding Dane said, “he proved it to me with one play. His reactions are so quick, he can make a mistake and have time to recover. On this play he was on Pettit, and he loafed coming back. Bob had a shot at the keyhole. He went up in the air for his pet jump, and you know how tall he is (6-9). From nowhere, it seemed, Elgin appeared in midair, too, caught Pettit at the top of his jump and shoved the ball down his throat. 

“There’s nothing more discouraging to a basketball player than to catch a man out of position and end up still having him jam the ball in your face.”

Elgin has just enough showboat in his style of play to be a crowd-pleaser. The main trouble he has found is getting the Lakers to adjust to his quick reflexes. His pass-offs sometimes are so slick, they fool the Lakers, too. He has all the gimmicks—the shifting the ball from hand to hand in mid-air, that behind-the-back flip. He is at his best maneuvering in the area right around the basket, where he seems to have an instinctive feel for openings. 

He uses the flashy stuff strictly for utility, though. He learned his lessons years ago as a freshman at College of Idaho when the Harlem Globetrotters came in for a game. Elgin, already a local hero, was going to match them trick for trick. “Listen, kid,” they growled. “We put on the show around here.” In playing the fine, straight basketball they are also capable of, the Trotters ganged up on him and gave him one of the most miserable nights of his career. 

It was so bad that at the final whistle, he went with the Globetrotters to their dressing room, broke down and cried. “I’m ashamed to go to my own team’s room,” he sobbed. 

The Baylor you see today is poised and mature after two All-America years at Seattle University, capped by his single-handed feat of taking the Chiefs to the final round of the NCAA last year. He considers his greatest accomplishment was scoring 26 and 35 points on consecutive nights to beat California and San Francisco in the West Coast regionals. 

The only emotion Baylor betrays is a nervous tick of his head that gained him notoriety on his first exposure in the East as a sophomore at Seattle. This curious, involuntary jerk of the head, in which he appears to be trying to tuck it into his shoulder, occurs only under stress and was one of the factors that ruined his Madison Square Garden debut against St. Bonaventure in the 1957 National Invitation Tournament. 

“They said I was pretty bad,” Elgin says with a shrug. “I don’t know. I had 25 points and 23 rebounds. Could I be disappointed with that?”

The tick, however was emphasized enough for him to consult a neurologist in Washington. “I told him I’ve been doing it since high school,” Baylor recalls, “and it only showed up during a game. He told me to forget about it.”

Significantly, the pros are scarcely aware of this idiosyncrasy, which seems to be diminishing. “We played him two games before I ever even noticed it,” the Celtics’ Loscutoff says. 

“We kid him about it,” Kundla says. “He’s the only man I know with a built-in head fake.”

Elgin claims it’s about the only fake he uses in the pros. “In college, you can hold the ball,” he explains. “Here you gotta go. There’s no sense in messing around faking.”

The fast pace Elgin has set in pro ball has caused some concern about burning himself out prematurely. Because of Minneapolis’ great dependence on him to lead the attack, Elgin has been averaging a staggering 41 minutes of play per game. Yet he claims he’s not as tired after an NBA game as he was in college. He has the physique to stand the gaff. “Oscar Robertson,” say some pros, “is a small 6-4 and might have trouble. Baylor is a big 6-5. He won’t wear out.”

Elgin and Ruby Baylor—he was married last summer, with Wilt Chamberlain as his best man—live comfortably in a duplex they personally hunted down on Fuller Avenue in adjoining St. Paul. Ruby is attending the University of Minnesota, an education major in her junior year. Elgin will go back to school at St. Thomas when the season is over. 

In addition to the team improvement caused by Baylor—they’re not too far off a .500 pace and are sure to win a playoff berth—the Lakers boldly jacked their prices up to almost double, from $2.40 top to $4.50 in an attempt to gain solvency, and found fans clamoring for expensive seats.

Nothing, of course, helps like doing it on the court, and that’s where Baylor has made the Lakers respectable again. He’s not alone. Bob Leonard and Dick Garmaker are slick backcourt men with good shooting touch, and Hot Rod Hundley may settle down. Larry Foust is an old head in the pivot, abetted by younger Jim Krebs still learning the ropes. Mikkelsen does a rugged job up front, in his tenth year. But the welding substance is Baylor. When he’s on, the Lakers look like a team. Does this cause resentment by the veterans? “We know where our bread is buttered,” they answer. And that’s it.  

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