During the 2020 NBA Finals I had a chance to talk with the 11-time NBA All-Star, 1959 NBA Rookie of the Year, Los Angeles Lakers legend, Elgin Baylor.
In your first year you won the All-Star Game MVP, became Rookie of the Year, and led your team to the NBA Finals. What gave you the confidence to perform that well at such early stage of your career?
I do not know. My parents would always tell me: “go and do the best you can do”. I played as hard as I could and tried to do the best I could do. I just gave it all I had.
In 1959 you set the NBA record for most points in a single game with 64 and beat it a year later with 71. What in your opinion was the key to be such a great scorer in an era without the 3-point line?
I took good care of myself, was strong, so when I played, I just played. and was always in good shape. I love basketball and played all the time, ever since I was a kid. In doing that, I developed really good skills. So, when it was time to play, I just played.
You know, I never really thought about it. When I would go there to play, I just go out there and play. And when the opportunity came along for a shot or a play, I tried to take advantage of it. Because you never knew what was going to happen, when you go out there and play. You just hoped that the things go well, that you were going to get into groove, make some shots, plays. Just go out there and give it all you got.
Over 58 years after your 61-point performance in the NBA Finals, the record is still there. Do you think that someone can beat it anytime soon?
I do not know, I guess so. There is so many young good players coming along now, so I guess so. The records are made to be broken, so I guess it could possibly happen.
Just five minutes in the 1965 Playoffs, you suffered a severe knee injury. How difficult was it for you to come back, without all the medical equipment and techniques that are available nowadays for the athletes?
It was very difficult. The surgery was new, and rehab was almost nonexistent compared to today. My rehab was mostly sitting on a kitchen counter lifting ankle weights. But I had a great doctor, Robert Kerlan, who encouraged me on. But now it is so much better.
Well, I think now it is better, because the technique and technology are so much better now, than it was then, when I was playing. When you got hurt, you did not know how long you will not be able to come back. But now the technology is so good, it is very easy to do the treatment. When I played and guys got hurt, they knew it would take some time, we did not have the technology that they have now.
Damian Lillard led the NBA this year with 37.5 minutes per game. During your first seven seasons, you averaged over 41 minutes per game. What allowed you to spend so much time on the court, play efficiently, and avoid injuries?
I was strong and in good shape, and I loved to play. I also prepared myself. I’m also very competitive and don’t want anybody to beat me.
Well, just going out there. You just got to have your mindset, when you go out there, that you are going to give the best you can. You would study your opposition, so you knew a lot about the player that you played against. So, you go out there and you had information, and you knew exactly how you were going to play against him, you knew what you can, or you cannot do. You did that by just watching other players.
Which type of loss in the Finals was more difficult to deal with – a sweep, or a loss in a seven-game series?
Anytime you lose it is bad. We had to go through all of those things, but it is just tough. It is very, very difficult. We gave it our best shot.
In one of his interviews, Jerry West said that because of so many losses to the Celtics, he never wears green color. Do those Finals losses hurt you as much as Jerry?
Not that much. Bill Russell and I are great friends.
Jerry was a grinder; I have never seen anyone play as hard and take win or losses like Jerry. He just treated it like someone shot his best friend, or something like that, when he lost a game. He was a great guy to play with, teammate. He took it very, very seriously when we lost. But eventually he got over it. I guess so, I hope he did.
In 1968 Wilt Chamberlain teamed up with you and Jerry West. Even though you reached the NBA Finals twice, you did not win the championship. Do you think that you underachieved?
No. I don’t think I underachieved. My record shows that. Basketball is a team sport. One person can’t win a game alone.
Well, we thought that we had a good enough team to win a championship. But there were some things that happened – injuries and stuff like that. We gave it our best shot, you are not always going to win, but we gave our best.
Even though you retired in 1971, way before the 3-point line was added, you still have the third highest career scoring average, behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. What does it mean to you to be among the all-time greats after so many years?
It is a great honor; I have had great teammates. It is truly an honor to have achieved what I have done. I am just very pleased with the things that I was able to do.
In 1978-79 season, as a head coach of the New Orleans Jazz, you led the team to a 39-43 record. You did not reach the playoffs despite defeating many very strong teams during the regular season. Why in your opinion this team played great against the best teams, but struggled against other rivals?
Well, it happens. You cannot do much with it, because other teams know exactly what they do, certain players. They really had to study and see how they had to play against certain individual players, what they can do, what they cannot do, and their weaknesses. It takes a lot of work.
When you think about your legacy, having a statue in front of Staples Center, and being an inspiration for so many players – did you even dream at the beginning of your career, that you will achieve so many accolades and mean this much to the history of the NBA?
No way because I did not even know that I was going to make the team! I had to worry about that and make the team. Thank God who blessed me with the ability to achieve and do these things. It was surprising to me, because as I watched those guys play, it was very difficult. So, I got there, played, and found out that I could just stick with them, and even beat them.