The Agony of West and Baylor, 1968

[Flipping through old basketball magazines, it’s amazing how many articles about Jerry West feature the word “agony.” The word suggests two things: West’s unfulfilled quest for an NBA championship and all the injuries that sidelined him. The agony is also portrayed as unique to West, like a cancer patient with a terminal diagnosis that only he will endure and make peace with.

West’s Laker co-star Elgin Baylor also got plenty of ink for his serious injuries. The articles highlight the tragedy of it all, the rips and tears and pops that unfairly threatened to ground one of the game’s unique high-flying acts too soon. But these articles always took time and great care to celebrate Baylor’s pride and extreme determination to return to his all-star form. Baylor had proved the critics wrong once, twice, three times. Don’t bet on him failing to prove them wrong again. 

In this article from the magazine Pro Basketball Almanac, 1968, writer Dave Sendler distills these familiar themes into one block headline, “The Agony of West and Baylor.” Sendler does a nice job of showing just how challenging it was for both in the twilights of their storied careers to live up the high expectations. It’s a perspective that many of us today overlook as we celebrate their time-tested legends. The Logo. Mr. Clutch. Baylor put the float in the game. This excellent article pumps out some of the legend to come and brings two of the game’s greatest superstars back to life as nursing fragile careers and uncertain about their futures.]

Newsmen were needling the Los Angeles Lakers last season as the Western Division champs of 1965-66 plunged to a third-place finish. “It’s all a hoax,” one reporter charged. “You guys are just developing the losing habit so you can finish last in ’68-69 and draft (seven-footer Lew) Alcindor (of UCLA).”

Laker general manager Lou Mohs, who was to pass away this past August, smiled sadly at the joke and shook his head. “No,” he replied, “I’m afraid we wouldn’t be starting this soon.”

Kidding aside, this proud Laker team was so recently considered a coming dynasty that ’66-67 had to be considered a nightmarish season. It was especially so for the team’s two glamour boys, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. 

You may question the agony involved when West averaged 28.7 points a game as the National Basketball Association’s fourth-leading scorer—and when all poor Baylor could score in his 70 outings was 26.6 points per game. And you may doubt all that postseason suffering when each felt neglected at his $70,000 salary level. And when each coyly talked about a $90,000 annual income for ’67-68 and let Laker management fret over the more generous offers the infant American Basketball Association might tender.  

Yet there was pain, the pain of wounded pride. And threatened careers. L.A. pays West and Baylor handsomely to make the team a winner, and there were faint, but telling, indications that the two superstars might no longer be able to carry the club as they once had. 

What the watchful noticed about West was how the grind of NBA play finally began to reduce his productivity. Angular Jerry (6-foot-3, 186 pounds) seemed to lead the league in best moves to the hospital—with a broken nose, broken hand, and damaged heel—but seemed less and less skilled at swift returns to the court. He had to sit out 15 full games and all but one minute of the playoffs. The result: Jerry West scored approximately 600 points less than he had in ’65-66. 

Now the experts stop snorting at what “crackpot” sportswriter Arnold Hano had predicted in a 1962 issue of SPORT Magazine. Hano had said Jerry wouldn’t survive as an NBA superstar for more than five years. West, Hano reasoned, drove his fragile body at too relentless a pace for the punishing brand of basketball in the NBA. As Jerry’s scoring average dipped from 31.4 to 28.7, the experts began to whisper like disciples of the “crackpot.”

Baylor’s ‘66-67 trials were different. Many people had already said he was used up after injuries restricted him to just 16.6 points per game in ’65-66. On sheer statistics, Elgin truly made such obituaries seem like ghastly misjudgments last season. On sheer statistics, that is. For physically, even spiritually, Baylor found the night-to-night going not the frolic it used to be. 

There was, for instance, that night of October 28, 1966. L.A. was playing New York, and Baylor was extending himself almost beyond capacity because West was out with an injury. With two minutes to play in the first half, Elgin had 19 points, taken 10 rebounds, and assisted on five baskets. 

Then, suddenly, his unremitting hustle cost him. Elgin dove to the floor for a loose ball and, in the scramble, the Knicks’ Dick Van Arsdale accidentally rammed his shoulder into Baylor’s right knee. You could see Elgin wince and grab for the knee, and most observers thought that a wonderful career had finally ended. “I almost cried,” teammate Walt Hazzard said later. 

Baylor didn’t cry. He persevered—and mended. He came back, but everyone knew then and knows now that he is vulnerable. Agile forwards like Van Arsdale drive on him, and big cornermen like New York’s Willis Reed overpower him. Defenders know that Elgin can’t drive to his left the way he used to. So, there are great moments for Baylor now—and a lot of despairing ones. That magnificent 6-foot-5, 230-pound body may not hold out for too much more basketball. 

Together, West and Baylor have led L.A. to four Western Division titles. Though the Lakers never quite beat the Boston Celtics for the league championship, still, it was thought that Los Angeles was the vital, coming team of pro basketball. West and Baylor were usually good for some 60 points a game, and they made a devastating pair in those last few minutes of the close ballgames. Gang up on Elgin, and there was Jerry beating you with his quick jump shots. Concentrate on West, and there was Baylor breaking free for the acrobatic layup and drawing the foul besides. There seemed to be no defense to cope with the clutch exploits of the two superstars. 

Until last year. The supporting cast was weakened by trades and the expansion draft. So, it was up to West and Baylor to show the way to young players like Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, and Jerry Chambers. 

What happened to West last March 7 suggests just the kind of painful price a star must pay to keep himself and his team from decline. Los Angeles was fighting to get a tie with St. Louis for second place and had run up a 16-point lead over New York. Then Jerry, while trying to stay with his man on defense, ran right into the elbow of Willis Reed. The blow fractured Jerry’s nose, and, bleeding profusely, he was led away. 

Though dizzy, Jerry wouldn’t leave the bench. He watched unhappily as Los Angeles squandered its lead. With six minutes left in the game, New York had rushed to within six points of the Lakers. L.A. coach Fred Schaus looked over at West and quietly asked if he could play. West’s answer? He merely stood up, removed his warm-up jacket, and went out on the court with packing in his nose. (“You swallow some blood and get nauseous,” says Jerry. “That’s the hardest part of it.”)

West missed his first shot, then swished his next two. L.A. won and, in the dressing room, teammate Tom Hawkins said, “It’s a tremendous lift when a player is injured like Jerry was and you know he’s possibly endangering himself further by playing again. It’s a moral lift for you.”

But the point is that there seem to be more and more injuries for West, and, as Lou Mohs said, “He just doesn’t bounce back as quickly as he used to when he is hurt.”

West has suffered six broken noses and assorted other injuries in his seven NBA seasons. He knows no other way than going at full speed, even when it means driving in on a basket zealously guarded by much heftier men. The question is:  How much longer can he stand up to such punishment or how good can he be if he plays more cautiously?

The wearing down of West goes gradually. Baylor seemed to go all at once. In ’64-65, he had part of his kneecap torn away while leaping for a rebound in a playoff against Baltimore. He was given only 1 chance in 100 to ever play again. 

Dr. Robert Kerlan operated on the knee the next day, and the attending doctors doubted that Baylor would ever get full freedom of movement in the knee again. But Elgin drove himself through five months of daily therapy to stretch the tendons and stabilize the knee. That he reported for training camp in ’65-66 was a miracle. Still, it looked as if Baylor would not be of much use. 

He limped. He couldn’t accelerate, couldn’t jump. He nursed himself along, not precisely sure what would happen when he tried to go full speed. Seeing Baylor struggling was not a pleasant sight, for here was one of basketball’s all-time greats—and a proud man—floundering on the court. 

The season started, and Baylor was still less than half the basketball player he once was. He didn’t seem to react on defense when rivals made their fakes and drove to the basket. He couldn’t stand the wear and tear of the constant leaping needed to be effective off the defensive boards. Offensively, he was getting his one shot, but he didn’t muscle to the backboards for the follow-up the way he always had.

Mohs watched Baylor in the throes of his uncertainty on the court. The general manager didn’t mean to make light of Elgin’s physical and mental anguish, but one day in February he called Baylor in for a talk. Mohs felt that Elgin hadn’t put himself to a real test. He challenged the Lakers star. 

“You’re not straining,” Mohs said. “It’s getting to the time when you’ve got to show me.”

“Mr. Mohs,” Baylor said, “would tonight be soon enough?”

Baylor went out that night and scored 28 points in 45 minutes. He finished out the season strongly, and then did even better in ’66-67. “Elgin’s about 80 percent of the Baylor we used to know,” said Mohs, “and for short periods, he can be 100 percent.” That’s good enough to make him an All-Star (he scored 20 points in the All-Star game last January), but not good enough to satisfy him. 

He wants those great days with Jerry and that Laker dynasty, and he wants it all right now. He and West aren’t sure they can wait for Alcindor. But the question is: Can 80 percent of the old Baylor and an injury-haunted Jerry West revive a budding dynasty? It doesn’t really seem possible, and deep down the two superstars must sense it. That—more than the physical pain—is the greatest agony. 

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