The prized momentos plastered through two sets of rooms encapsulated everything that made Elgin Baylor such a great Laker.
The gold, wooden chair that Baylor sat on when the Lakers honored him in on March 22, 1969 dubbed “Elgin Baylor Night” at the Forum now sits in the center of the room. On one corner of the room, Baylor’s jacket commemorating the NBA’s 50 Greatest players (including himself) hangs on a rack. On another rack of the opposite side of the room features Baylor’s Lakers warm-up jacket.
On May 31st, Baylor won’t have those possessions. Instead, he will be auctioning those items off at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills with the proceeds benefitting to-be-determined charities.
“It’s been 41 years since I retired, but after a point in time people were constantly asking me,” Baylor said in an interview with this newspaper. “I decided fine. I’ll share some of this stuff and do it.”
It was only last week when Kobe Bryant filed a lawsuit against his parents in hopes to stop them from giving a New Jersey-based auction house more than 100 of his basketball memorabilia from both his high school and early portion of his Lakers career. Yet, Baylor hardly sounded sentimental on whether it’s going to be difficult parting with his belongings that span a storied 14-year NBA career with the Lakers.
“It’s not going to be that hard,” he said. “It’s not going to be everything. There will be a few things I’ll still have. But I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think it will be that hard. I’ll still have my memories.”
Still, Baylor’s collection features items from every stage of his career. His four trophies he won at Spingam High School in Washington D.C. rests in one of the cases. Baylor has his 1958-59 NBA rookie of the year plague and his blue and white he wore with the Minneapolis Lakers featured in another case. Trophies for the 1957 and 1969 NBA All-Star games rest nearby. He’s even auctioning off his NBA Executive of the Year award for the 2005-06 season when he served as the Clippers’ general manager.
Is Baylor doing all of this out of financial need?
“No,” he said. “Not at all. That has nothing to do with it.”
That had everything to do with his startup with the Minneapolis Lakers, though.
After they selected Baylor with their first pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, the Lakers signed him to a $20,000 contract. Even for a two-time All-American and NCAA tournament most valuable player at Seattle University, Baylor’s salary was considered a hefty sum in those days. Had Baylor turned the offer down, former Lakers owner Bob Short contended the franchise would have gone bankrupt.
Instead, the Lakers relocated to the Los Angeles.
Long before the days of Magic, Kareem, Kobe and Shaq, Baylor became the Lakers’ first most exciting player.
“Elgin Baylor literally took the game of basketball to new heights with his athleticism and incredible offensive skills,” Jerry West said in a statement. “He is without a doubt one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen. I was fortunate to be able to share many of his amazing performances and witnessed some of the greatest scoring efforts during his career.”
Baylor fulfilled that job description in many ways.
He finished with 23,149 points, 3,650 assists and 11,463 rebounds by setting the standard for the league’s small forwards. Baylor perfected the running bank shot. He defied gravity with his jumping abilities. Baylor bulldozed his way inside because of his strength. He relied on fundamentals by honing on footwork and pump fakes.
Yet, West has long maintained Baylor hasn’t received the due credit he deserves.
Baylor’s among nine Lakers players to have their jersey retired along the Staples Center rafter. But he has no statue. Baylor made 11 NBA All-Star appearances, but he has only one All-Star MVP (1959). Baylor averaged more than 30 points in three seasons and at least 20 in eight seasons. He dropped 71 points against New York in a regular-season game in his first season. Baylor posted an NBA Finals record 61 points in Game 5 of the 1961 NBA Finals against Boston. He led the Lakers to seven Finals appearances, but never won an NBA championship.
Does Baylor share West’s sentiment that many have overlooked his career?
“I never even think about that,” Baylor said. “I was happy with the fact that I had a good career. When I had the years that I did play, I stayed healthy enough for that.”
Persisting knee problems arose, though, beginning in the 1963-64 season, causing doctors to express skepticism that he’d even return to the court. Baylor still managed to play, averaging between 24 and 27 points per game in six of the next seven seasons. But Baylor sensed a noticeable difference in his game, most notably with his declined athleticism and lateral movement.
“I definitely wasn’t the same player,” Baylor said. “There were a lot of things that I couldn’t do. I wasn’t the same player, but I think I was a decent player.”
But the injuries kept piling up.
A torn Achilles tendon limited to two games in the 1970-71 season. Baylor only lasted nine games the following year before retiring. That marked the same season the Lakers won their first NBA championship in Los Angeles, a five-game series against the New York Knicks. West considered the title bittersweet without Baylor playing with him. But Baylor still found joy in still feeling part of what he called a “family,” including hanging out off the court and attending team dinners.
“I was close to the guys and it was a great group,” Baylor said. “I was hoping they would win. I was hoping it would be against the Celtics, but a win is a win.”
Unlike some of his teammates, though, those never-ending losses to the Celtics don’t still eat at him.
“Obviously they were the better team,” Baylor said. “They won because they had a great team. You look at who they had in the middle in Bill Russell. If you look at all the teams that won multiple championships, see what they had in the middle.”
The Lakers eventually landed a storied center in Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, which helped pave the way for a title four years later. But Baylor can help but wonder what Chamberlain’s arrival would have done had it taken place in his prime before his injuries.
“Suppose I had Wilt to play against Russell my entire career. We would’ve won a lot of championships,” Baylor said. “I didn’t have that luxury, though.”
Yet, he hardly sounds overly sentimental about it. Same with his adamance that he won’t return to a front office position after the Clippers unceremoniously fired him in 2009. Same with Baylor’s stance that it won’t be hard saying goodbye to some of his prized possessions.
“I’ve enjoyed it and appreciate the fact that people are interested,” Baylor said. “The memories are the good times I had with players and the relationships we established over the years. Once we auctioned everything else, I’ll remember playing with the guys I played with. It’s going to be fun.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org