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As first reported by Bill Oram of the Orange County Register on Tuesday morning, and later announced officially by the team, the Los Angeles Lakers will dedicate a statue to Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, an all-time franchise great who helped usher in a new high-flying age of NBA basketball in the 1960s with his strength, athleticism and scoring prowess.
A prep and AAU star who’d go on to rack up points at the College of Idaho and Seattle University, the then-Minneapolis Lakers chose Baylor with the No. 1 pick in the 1958 NBA draft. (They’d actually tried to take him two years earlier, only to find out that he’d only completed one year of college, and wasn’t yet eligible. Scouting’s come a long way.) He was an instant star in the NBA, averaging 24.9 points, 15 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game as a rookie en route to All-Star honors while leading a 20-win turnaround for the Lakers, who went from out of the playoffs to back in the NBA Finals, doing battle with the rival Boston Celtics.
The 6-foot-5 forward was never quite able to get over the top to the promised land; with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Red Auerbach and company in the way, hardly anybody else did during his time in the league. But retiring as a superstar leader of one of the greatest teams never to win it all didn’t diminish the individual brilliance of Baylor’s game, the level of respect he’d amassed among his peers, or his influence on the development of the sport as it progressed into a more creative, daring, improvisational and offensively potent pursuit.
Baylor made 11 All-Star appearances, along with 10 All-NBA First Team nods and seven top-five finishes in Most Valuable Player voting in his 14-year career, all of which spent with the Lakers. Even 45 years after his retirement, his name’s all over the NBA record books; he’s one of 14 players to rank in the top 30 all-time in career points (23,149) and rebounds (11,463). The Lakers retired Baylor’s No. 22 in 1983, a dozen years after knee injuries forced him to hang up his high tops … one game before the Lakers started their still-standing 33-game winning streak on the way to their first championship in Los Angeles. Talk about tough timing.
And yet, as monuments to L.A. sporting greats have begun to populate the area outside Staples Center over the years, Baylor just seemed to keep getting overlooked. No shade to the Laker legends honored with statues — Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal all deserve the recognition they’ve gotten, as do legendary broadcaster Chick Hearn (and ditto for boxer Oscar De La Hoya, former L.A. Kings forwards Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille, and Kings broadcaster Bob Miller). But it did seem an oversight that, 35 years after hoisting Baylor’s number to the rafters, Lakers fans wouldn’t be passing a statue in honor of “the most underrated player ever” as they walked across L.A. Live to go watch the purple and gold. Come April 6, that oversight will be rectified.
“I am thrilled that 60 years after the Minneapolis Lakers drafted Elgin, we are able to celebrate and honor him with a statue,” Lakers CEO and controlling owner Jeanie Buss said in a team statement. “Not only is Elgin a part of the Lakers family, his contributions to the game of basketball earned him a place in the Hall of Fame. His list of accomplishments are unparalleled and I can’t wait to see his statue at Star Plaza alongside the other Lakers legends.”
Rather than bristle at the time it took to get here, Baylor, now 83, seems content to appreciate the well-deserved immortalization. From Oram:
“I was just happy to be part of the organization for all those years,” he said, “just to be a professional player and play, but really I never have given it any thought about them giving me a statue or anything like that.” […]
Baylor recognizes that a shrinking number of fans are old enough to remember his playing days. When asked what he hoped people remembered about his career, he paused as he searched for an answer.
“Be honest, I never really thought about it,” he said. “Just that the fact that I went out, gave 100 percent, everything I had, enjoyed playing. I had terrific teammates, and just enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. And nothing else to say, but pleased that they’re building a statue and excited to see how it goes.”
So are we. We’re also glad that the Lakers have gotten this thing in motion now without waiting any longer. The ones who changed the game and paved the way deserve whatever praise and plaudits we can give them while they’re still around to hear it all and bask in the glow. The basketball world hasn’t really given Elgin Baylor his due these last few decades; now, come April, we’ll have occasion to revisit all he gave, and a testament to it all that will stand the test of time. Pretty good.
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