G.O.A.T. in MPLS: The two transcendent seasons of Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor // Photo via the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1958, the once-proud Minneapolis Lakers, basketball’s original dynasty, the winners of five National Basketball Association championships, had fallen on hard times. The team was on the brink of bankruptcy, had the worst record in basketball, and didn’t even have their own arena.

But their reward for falling lower than they’d ever fallen before was the first pick in the 1958 NBA draft. There was only one player worthy of consideration.

“When I saw Elgin Baylor, that was an eye-opener,” wrote Hall-of-Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving, in the book “Basketball: A Love Story.” “Even till this day, Elgin’s game was probably the most influential—strong, rebounding the ball, handling in transition, making plays around the hoop, up and under, left hand, right hand, body control, hang time. Elgin, he was like a guy from another planet.”

Long before basketball fans debated whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan was a more game-changing player in the NBA, Baylor revolutionized basketball with moves never before seen. Unlike all of his predecessors, Baylor played above the rim, and for two shining years, he did it in Minneapolis.

Lakers owner Bob Short was desperate to change the fortunes of his franchise. He convinced Baylor to forego his senior collegiate season by offering a $20,000 salary, the largest-ever contract offered to an NBA rookie at the time. (That’s the equivalent of $177,000 today. For reference, 2018’s No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton received a salary north of $8 million last season.) It was a good investment.

“[Baylor’s] game was transformative. Nobody had ever seen anything like him and what he could do,” says Nick Smaby, a die-hard Minneapolis Lakers fan in the 1950s, who holds fond memories of sneaking into the Minneapolis Armory as a 12-year-old to watch Baylor play. “A big part of it was almost this mythic aspect of floating through the air. It wasn’t just slam-dunking. It was moving through the air. It seemed like he would jump and stay airborne forever.”

Baylor put the league on notice. Through eight games, the rookie was scoring like crazy and had the formerly pathetic Lakers playing .500 basketball. In his ninth game, he took on the legendary Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics.

Moments after tip-off at the Boston Garden, Baylor dribbled down the lane and found himself face-to-face with Russell for the first time. Baylor elevated with the ball palmed in his right hand. Russell jumped at the same time, both of his impossibly long arms straight up in the air, reaching more than a foot above the rim. Baylor’s arm soared just high enough for him to throw down a dunk. A thunderous dunk. Over Bill Russell, the best defensive player in the world. Something like this was never supposed to happen and Baylor made it look easy.

“The crowd goes silent. They can’t believe it,” Baylor writes in his memoir “Hang Time: My Life in Basketball.” “Bill can’t believe it. Takes me a second before I believe it. […] I jog nonchalantly back toward our basket, my heart thumping, the crowd now rustling and ‘ahhing’ behind me.”

Baylor and the Lakers came up short of a win, losing 116-113 in overtime. But Baylor’s aerial heroics and 36 points earned him a standing ovation from the opposing crowd when he fouled out in the waning seconds of the game. The league’s next great superstar had arrived and basketball’s greatest rivalry was born.

Baylor’s Lakers played fast-paced, exciting basketball powered by his outrageous numbers. By mid-season the team was in playoff position, attendance had nearly doubled, and Baylor earned co-MVP honors at the All-Star Game with league MVP Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks, making him the first rookie to receive the honor and the first time the game recognized multiple MVPs.

No one outside of their own locker room gave the Lakers good odds when they met Pettit and the defending champion Hawks two months later with a chance to go to the NBA Finals. St. Louis was too good and never lost at home; the Lakers were too young and finished 16 games behind the Hawks in the regular season. Baylor’s rookie year was a nice story, but the Lakers were a speed bump between the Hawks and another Finals matchup with the Celtics.

By Game 5, the series was knotted at 2-2 with the home team winning in all four games. Pettit and the Hawks had won 19 consecutive home playoff games, but they would not make it to 20. Baylor played arguably his best game of the year that night, scoring 36 points and providing the game-winning free throw in a 98-97 overtime thriller in St. Louis to bring the Lakers within one game of pulling off what Minneapolis Tribune writer Tom Briere called “the upset story of 1959.”

More than 10,000 Lakers fans packed the Armory dressed in their Easter Sunday finest for Game 6. As they had done all year, the Lakers made it interesting, but ultimately 33 points from Baylor and clutch rebounding down the stretch gave Minneapolis the western conference crown and one of the most unlikely sporting victories in the city’s history.

“There have been better Laker combinations over the colorful history of this local crew,” Charles Johnson wrote in his game story for the Minneapolis Tribune. “But the triumph over the St. Louis Hawks brought on basketball madness among the fans. Seldom have we seen more enthusiasm from a local crowd than was demonstrated Sunday afternoon. The winning celebration of the players and the rooters has not been equaled often in this pro sport here.”

Hawks coach Ed Macauley wasn’t shy in his analysis of the upset. “No rookie ever played like that in league history,” Macauley said. “He’s the greatest.”

The Lakers ultimately ran out of juice in the Finals and were swept by Boston. Baylor battled through a sore knee to keep them in each of the four games, but the team just didn’t have enough to keep legendary coach Red Auerbach from puffing on his signature victory cigar. The ’59 Finals marked the first of 12 Finals meetings between the two teams.

Boston may have made quick work of the Lakers in that first Finals meeting, but the next time the two teams met on the hardwood, Baylor would make history.

March 30, 1959 Lakers Elgin Baylor drives, fakes St. Louis’ Bob pettit into premature defensive move, and goes up for two of his 33 points Sunday. Photo by Paul Siegel via the Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Unbelievable Elgin Baylor of Minneapolis,” Briere’s recap in the Tribune read, “staged the greatest one-man scoring fireworks in National Basketball Association history with a record 64 points at the Auditorium Sunday night.” Baylor’s 64 was one better than the previous mark set by Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors, who scored 63 points in one game in 1949, and the Lakers finally got past the Celtics by a score of 136-113.

Baylor kept his hot hand for all of the ’59-60 season, but the team struggled. Hall of Fame Coach John Kundla had left for the head job at the University of Minnesota, and the organization was still in financial desperation. Karma even appeared to be against the Lakers as Short’s personal DC-3 nearly crashed while carrying the team home from St. Louis and had to make an emergency landing in a snow-covered cornfield outside of Carroll, Iowa.

The Lakers endured and scraped together enough wins to force a playoff rematch with St. Louis. Baylor averaged more than 30 points a game in the series, but it wasn’t enough. The Hawks won the series in seven games and brought the first chapter of NBA basketball in Minneapolis to a disappointing close.

None of the 7,544 in attendance at the Armory for Game 6 of that series knew they had just witnessed Baylor play his last home game as a Minneapolis Laker. Short had guaranteed the team was here to stay just a year earlier, but the NBA’s migration west, especially to Los Angeles, loomed large. The Lakers, with their breathtaking young star and no home arena in their own city, were a perfect fit. The team moved to Los Angeles before the start of the ’60-61 season.

Many Minnesotans never got over the heartbreak, but the feeling Baylor inspired in those who watched him play lives on.

“Every once in a while someone comes into your life who changes how you look at the world. That’s what he did for me (and Minneapolis),” Smaby recalls today. “When you have that kind of experience it’s not just about basketball. It’s about understanding that you don’t know everything. There was so much more to see and learn and it takes someone like Elgin Baylor to impress that upon you.”

Baylor never won an NBA championship; maybe if he had, someone today would make an argument for him as the greatest to ever play, like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and other high fliers Baylor blazed a trail for. Maybe not. It’s really not too important: Baylor doesn’t need to be remembered as the greatest to ever play the game. He’s remembered as the one who opened its airways, and his airborne revolution started right here in the Twin Cities.