“Give me my flowers while I yet live, so that I can see the beauty they bring.” James Cleveland, lyrics to Give Me My Flowers
I wasn’t’ even born when Elgin Baylor became the first overall pick by the then Minneapolis Lakers in 1958.
I was months old when Elgin Baylor was selected Rookie of the Year in 1959.
I’ve only seen grainy black and white footage of the man responsible for bridging the Lakers from the Great Lakes to Los Angeles.
From all that I have learned since then tells me that Elgin Baylor was the original NBA superstar.
Baylor signed with the Lakers June 14, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minn for rumored $17,000 to $20, 000 which today would calculate to $183,432.39
He was a man whose accolades were off the charts; Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 1958 averaging 31 points per game for Seattle University in a losing cause against Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats; College Basketball Hall of Fame; Pro Basketball Hall of Fame; 11 time NBA All Star; All-NBA First Team 10 times; holds the all-time record for most points in an NBA Finals game (61); Baylor was the first player in NBA history to score more than 70 points in a game. He scored 71 against the New York Knicks on Nov. 15, 1960; In his best scoring season in 1961-62, Baylor averaged 38.3 points a game, but missed nearly half the season because he was serving in the Army.
“Before there was Michael Jordan doing amazing things in the air, there was Elgin Baylor!” Johnson tweeted. “A true class act and great man.”
Although he won an All Star Game MVP in his rookie season, Baylor played in 8 NBA finals and never won one, a dubious distinction that often defines the legacy of great athletes.
By the time I met Baylor he was the general manager of the Clippers, the brunt of league wide jokes.
This was during the era of diabolical racist Donald Sterling and the Clippers were consistently the laughing stock of the league but the blame rest at the hands of the man who was the NBA’s first signature star.
During his playing day Baylor was a high flying, slashing scoring machine. During his post playing career as head coach of the New Orleans Jazz from 1976 to 1979 and GM of the Clippers he found success to be fleeting.
His coaching record with New Orleans was an abysmal 86-135. Then with the Clippers from 1986 to 2008 he only had two winning seasons in 22/1/2 years, but earned NBA Executive of the Year in 2006.
Baylor was destined to failure with the Clippers because of the ineptness of Sterling’s ownership, but his pioneering instincts kept him in that post knowing just how rare such opportunities came along for Blacks.
Essentially Baylor had the same temperament as Jackie Robinson when he broke baseball color barrier, accepting the insults and ridicule with dignity and grace because he was comfortable in his own skin.
“Elgin Baylor set the course for the modern NBA as one of the league’s first superstar players,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “In addition to his legendary playing career, Elgin was a man of principle. He was a leading activist during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and an influential voice among his fellow players.”
He’s wasn’t dismayed when his grandeur was not celebrated or saluted and did not run away nor was, he combative when criticized.
His even keeled temperament made him the humblest of all superstars.
Staples Center is known for being statue row, with all of the figurines of the greats in Laker lore bronzed in sculptures erected. West, Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Chick Hearn and Baylor.
However, by the time Baylor received his honor in 2018, Mexican boxing star Oscar de la Hoya had a statue for more than a decade.
When news spread this week that Baylor had died of natural causes on March 22, in Los Angeles with wife Elaine and daughter Krystal by his side, it closed the chapter on a glorious life of which 60 was invested in the game he so loved. He was 86.
The ironic cruelty is that he left never fulling receiving the appreciation he deserved.