Ask any true NBA fan who Elgin Baylor is, and they’ll tell you he was one of the greatest players to ever don an NBA jersey.
However, if you ask a more casual basketball fan, especially a younger one, there’s unfortunately a good chance they might not know much about him aside from his name.
Baylor played for the Lakers throughout the 1960's - an era in the NBA best characterized by Bill Russell and the Celtics’ domination of the league. During that decade, Baylor was exceptional to say the least. He averaged 27.4 points and 13.4 rebounds per game over the course of his career, including three seasons where he averaged over 30 points a game.
Baylor scored an NBA Finals record 61 points against the Celtics in Game 5 of the 1961 NBA Finals, and also scored at least 30 points in each of the seven games in that series, which is also an unbroken NBA record. In addition, he was an 11-time All-Star and was one of the game's first high-flying, above-the-rim leapers.
The list of Baylor’s incredible feats are voluminous, and is comparable to any other NBA legend. That is, aside from one glaring absence: NBA Championships.
Baylor had Jerry West at his side, but the pair could not get over the hump against the domineering Bill Russell in the seven times they faced Boston in the NBA Finals. Three of those losses involved Game 7 defeats.
Elgin’s incredible career simply occurred in the wrong decade, and had the horrible misfortune of ending before the Lakers glorious championship run began in 1972.
Baylor only played two games in the 1970-71 season due to a torn Achilles tendon, and only nine games the next season before retiring. His timing couldn’t have been worse, as the team went on to win their first NBA title, which included an NBA-record 33-game regular season win streak.
Thanks to terrible luck and circumstances completely out of his control, Baylor’s name is all too often thrown into the infamous ring-less category of NBA greats such as Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley.
His NBA legacy has been often overlooked as a result. Even his teammate Jerry West has asserted as much.
After the upcoming auction this weekend, hopefully that will change.
In conjunction with Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, Baylor is auctioning off a mass of personal memorabilia that he accumulated over the course of his illustrious 14-year NBA career. Of the total 358 items being auctioned, some notable items include his 1958 All-Star Game trophy, an autographed piece of hardwood from the 1971-72 Forum floor, and a lithograph from 1997 of the NBA’s 50 greatest players signed by 49 of the 50 players.
However, the most significant item is one that also may come as a surprise to most who think they know Elgin Baylor: An NBA Championship ring.
It turns out while Baylor only technically played nine games in the 1971-72 season, he remained on the roster and was awarded a ring at the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, the ring is the most valued item of the auction, estimated to fetch a whopping $60,000.
While the featured memorabilia is fascinating simply in how it all lends itself to the prestige of Baylor’s legendary career, some of it also illuminates Baylor’s significance in the context of 20th century American history.
After all, Baylor played from the late 50's to the early 70's, a period of immense cultural and political progress in the United States. Elgin wasn’t simply a bystander during this period.
Baylor famously made a staunch protest against segregation and racial prejudice in 1959, when he refused to play in a road game after he and his two other black teammates were assigned to stay in a separate hotel from the rest of the Lakers players. The auction showcases Western Union telegrams sent to Baylor from various public figures praising Baylor for his courageous stand for justice and equality.
These items hold so much historical significance, one can only wonder why Baylor would want to give them away in the first place. It’s a reasonable question, and while Baylor denies that there is any financial motivation, the question still lingers.
Even if the auction has any financial motivations, there’s unquestionably a silver lining that comes with the distribution of the NBA legend’s precious artifacts to the buying public:
A legacy that will become more widespread than ever, and passed down for generations to come.
By Max Rucker
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald