Elgin Baylor: Record Book Worst Enemy, 1965

[Jim Murray was a fantastic sports columnist with the Los Angeles Times back in the day. In January 17, 1965, while on the road with the banged-up Los Angeles Lakers, Murray’s penned this excellent column on the supposedly washed up Elgin Baylor. For all Baylor lovers and vintage NBA fans, Murray’s snapshot in time is well worth the read. As is this 1965 ditty from reporter Jerry Wynn with the Pasadena Press-Telegram: He flows through the air with the greatest of ease/That daring young man with the calcium knees/He twitches his head like a girl-ogling sailor/But everyone knows he’s the great Elgin Baylor.]

****

Cincinnati—”Good morning,” sang out the girl on the hotel switchboard. “It is 5:45 a.m., and the temperature is 11 degrees. 

She neglects to mention it is also snowing, but, at that hour of the morning, you are grateful for any information you can get. Like, what town are you in, for instance. 

You have the hotel corridors to yourself in the predawn. The revelers have long since stopped spilling their drinks on the hotel carpet. The dealer from East Aurora who spent the night telling off the boss has not yet awakened to his hot steaming cup up of remorse and fear. The guy who sang “Sweet Adeline” or “When You Wore a Tulip,” in your ear till 4 in the morning will call the cops if you so much as stumble and make a noise outside his door at this hour. 

In the lobby, the sleepy athletes gather. The Los Angeles Lakers have had, at most, only four hours sleep themselves. But this is the way the NBA is. 

The game the night before was a scrimmage, and the teams only backcourt all-star player sports a nose like a plum. It has been broken for the third time in his career by a vagrant elbow thrown up by the enemy player, Ray Scott, of the Detroit Pistons.

He had to stay in Detroit for an operation, but he is up with the gang because you cannot sleep with a broken nose. You can hardly even breathe. 

****

Jerry West with a broken schnoz.

He plays for two quarters with a broken nose because it looks like just another bloody nose. Except Jerry West’s uniform is more red than blue when the horn sounds. 

He spends the traditional midnight “supper” hour in an emergency hospital with the coach, Fred Schaus, who has logged many an hour in the league’s emergency hospital. He is a den mother of a troop which is always walking in the poison ivy, stepping on snakes, or going into water over their heads. 

“Yep, it’s broken,” the all-night doctor, a guy who lost in the draw for that unenviable position, announces as cheerfully as if he just discovered how to cure cancer. Anyone who has ever passed hygiene in high school can see that. Jerry West’s nose is on a collision course with his left ear. It has more dents in it than a car driven by a guy in a black leather jacket. 

The Lakers crackle to life in the lobby at the sight of Jerry. “Hey, [boxer] Gene Fullmer,” Dick Barnett observes delightedly. “Carmen,” shouts his roommate, Elgin Baylor, “Carmen Basilio, who won, baby!”

Elgin is consoling. “Cheer up, baby,” he soothes. “you might come out of the operation pretty.”

“Jerry,” someone announces, “is the prettiest he has been in years. Ray Scott should charge him.”

“Scott’s on crutches,” someone else advises. 

The Lakers are now a one-lung team. Jerry West is staying in Detroit for an operation which will let him breathe without doing it through his ears. The season, for the moment, is up to Elgin Baylor. 

****

Elgin Baylor is a basketball player—and horse player—who announces in the car on the way to the airport, “I will give Jerry my nose any day for his knees. I need two good knees. My nose can take care of itself.”

He was also fiercely resentful of press stories that he is doing a day-to-day impersonation—that this is not Elgin Baylor at all, but Sammy Davis Jr. or Larry Storch, copying the mannerisms of Elgin Baylor without the talent of Elgin Baylor. You resist the temptation to say, “OK, now do Cagney or Edward G. Robinson.”

Elgin fights the notion. “Listen,” he says through set teeth. “I am playing better basketball than I have ever been playing. You have to watch action at both ends of the court. You have to look for statistics that no sportswriter ever looks for.”

It seems as if Elgin is running a one-man religion. Converts are hard to come by in the NBA. “Elgin,” they assure you, “was one of the greatest.” The implication is, so was Abraham Lincoln. Not to say, Dolph Schayes. 

“OK,” promises Elg. “Tonight, I show you.”

“Tonight” is Detroit. This is a team of happy-go-lucky freelance artists who came out of the dressing room shooting. They have nothing to lose. 

Elgin Baylor plays as if [historian] Arnold Toynbee were scorekeeper. He makes a second, third, and fourth effort under the basket. He almost personally beats Detroit, 104-100. He puts up 38 points, steals 30 more from Detroit via rebounds, offensive and defensive. 

“For one game,” the Detroit official confides, “Elgin Baylor can still be the best they ever put on the floor. For 80 games, I don’t know.”

****

Elgin Baylor doesn’t believe it. He has carried this team before. A man never really believes he can’t run up the stairs as fast at 50 as he did at 20. Age brings wisdom, but age brings illusion, too. The funny part of it is, the things you know now how to do or the things time robs you of the ability to do. It is a way nature has. If it makes you fair of face, it may make you deficient in mentality. If it makes you a mental genius, it may make you grotesque. 

Elgin Baylor has been many times blessed. But the march of time is in black-and-white. On November 15, 1960, Elgin Baylor threw 71 points through the basket. He was on a team which would throw a party if anyone else on it managed 10. 

But Elgin Baylor has been matched against 71 points, not rebounds, or assists, towels collected, or train schedules made. He was playing against 71 points. 

The record book is his worst enemy, not the press. From a high-point game of 71 in 1960, Elgin Baylor declined to 63 in 1961, to 52 in 1962, and way down in the fine print of 40 points in 1964. His average has declined from the high 40s to the low 20s. 

Elgin fights it. Like the hitter who can’t get around on the fastball anymore or the quarterback who can’t find anyone open, he feels that the skills of the mind will replace the skills of the body. But the facts of the matter are that it works in brain surgery more often than it works in athletics. When you can’t get around on the fastball anymore, no one throws you curveballs. 

With Jerry West in a nose guard—or a hospital—Elgin Baylor will need a 71-point night. Anything less, he will have to be explaining how clever he was under the defensive basket. 

He may be alone as Horatius at the bridge, Churchill at Dunkirk, or the first man on the moon. But Elgin Baylor thinks he has the secret of his game and even though there are not 71 points opposite his name, there may be more opposite the Lakers’ name. And, if this is, as it has to be, the object of the game, a 38-point Elgin Baylor may be better than the 71-point one. One guy who thinks so is Elgin Baylor—who may know better than anybody. 

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