In last place, with the worst record in the league (19-53) at the end of the 1957-58 season, the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association were up for sale and there were no takers. All season they had played in embarrassing privacy, averaging about 2,000 spectators a game. They had lost more than $100,000 and had a six-inch stack of unpaid bills.
Unable to sell out, Lakers President Bob Short decided on two last-ditch stands. He talked the year's top college prospect, Elgin Baylor, into signing with Minneapolis (for about $20,000) and hired a local press agent named Phil Jasen to lure fans to games if the quality of the basketball should fail to do that. Jasen, ex-Cinerama and Around the World in 80 Days publicist, supplied the hoopla. On opening day he had players driven through the streets in a caravan of National Guard jeeps with Coach John Kundla leading the way in a tank. He organized the Lakerettes, a shapely group of dancers in short skirts, to perform at half time and during time-outs. Season ticket holders were escorted to their seats by models in cocktail gowns. A German beer garden, complete with oompa band, was set up after one game. And Minneapolitans came out to watch the fun. Last week Minneapolis revenue had reached $306,724, compared with the 1957-58 total gross of $174,000. Even Jasen, however, admits that basketball would be as dead as surf-riding in Minneapolis without Elgin Baylor. Instead, it is the world champion St. Louis Hawks who are now dead, knocked off by the Baylor-inspired Lakers who this week go on to meet the Eastern Division champions for the world title.
In one season Baylor's achievements threaten to supplant Paul Bunyan in Northwest mythology. He galvanized the Lakers' nondescript collection of rookies and revitalized two of the sport's veterans, Larry Foust and Vern Mikkelsen, who had apparently been staggering down the road to retirement. But primarily, and incredibly so in a game which requires a five-man cooperative effort, he has been a one-man team. He became only the third rookie in the NBA's 13-year history to make its All-Star team and he was the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year.
Baylor has been winning this kind of acclaim since his high school days (at Spingarn in Washington, D.C.), though few expected him to do so well so quickly in the pro league, against former All-Americas every time he set foot on a court. He began his college career at Idaho State, left there at the end of his freshman year when the sport was de-emphasized and his coach was fired. He turned up next at Seattle University, sat out a year of ineligibility because of the shift and then began attracting crowds all over the area with the touring Chieftains. Last year he brought Seattle to the NCAA finals against Kentucky at Louisville and won the Most Valuable Player award though his team lost. It is possible that Baylor, only a junior, would have stayed on at Seattle but for the fact that the school was put on two-year probation for recruiting infractions (not involving him) and was therefore unable to participate in postseason tournaments. This took away much of the glamour of college ball for Baylor. However, it left him in a good bargaining position with the Lakers. If they were not prepared to satisfy his salary demands, he could finish school. Obviously, Bob Short was able to satisfy him.
Baylor's incalculable asset is the fact that he can play any position on the court in a sport which, like most others, has largely been taken over by experts in each department. At 6 feet 5, he gives anyone (including Boston's Bill Russell) a battle for the tip-off. He brings the ball upcourt and sets up plays with the speed and deception of a backcourtman like Bob Cousy. His strength, agility and willingness to match muscle under the boards enable him to rebound with the best. He has every shot in the book and has demonstrated the imagination to invent new ones. Finally, like the stopper every baseball team needs to win an important game on pitching alone, Baylor has repeatedly held the rival high-scoring star to a bare minimum of points through tenacious defensive play.
Last week, having led Minneapolis into the Western Division playoffs, Baylor dazzled the St. Louis Hawks with a series of brilliant all-round exhibitions.
St. Louis Coach Ed Macauley sums up Baylor's skills thus: "He forces an opposing coach to do a lot of thinking because you have to be very careful who you play against him. Put a small, fast man on him and Baylor will overpower him. He'll get five or six points quickly and you're out of business. Put a bigger man on him and maybe he won't score that quickly, but he'll beat you some other way. He handles the ball better than Pettit and dribbles better than Hagan, and he kills you on the boards. He has no area of weakness. We can't put two men on him, but we sort of one-and-a-half him."
One-and-a-half wasn't enough to stop Baylor in the Lakers-Hawks playoffs. He scored 170 points in the six games and held first Pettit and then Hagan to some of the lowest totals of the season for them. He rarely repeated himself on offense—hooking from 20 feet out, driving in for a layup, jumping for two from the top of the key or softly pushing the ball in from a corner.
For spectators probably the most pleasure-yielding move this graceful young man makes comes when he brings the ball upcourt alone and, unable to spot a free teammate, decides to work his way toward paydirt without help. He turns his back to his defensive man and begins a series of rhythmic dribbling feints from side to side, all the while sliding steps closer to the basket, protecting the ball with elbows and shoulders. If another opposing player moves in to double-team him, Baylor leaps high and hits his free teammate with marvelous accuracy. If the defensive man gets no help, Baylor nearly always drives him, with continuous feints, to distraction and an error, and slips by for a twisting layup. In this climactic move he hangs in mid-air seemingly for long seconds while he makes up his mind whether to shoot or pass off, so that to the very end the defense is mystified. It is the kind of man-to-man situation that brings out the best in Baylor and epitomizes even for the casual onlooker the superlative array of skills possessed by this great athlete.
In the final game against St. Louis, Baylor was high scorer with 33 points and Pettit was held to 24. He hit on 13 of 23 field goal attempts and seven of eight free throws—excellent percentages under the pressure of tournament competition. It is the largest of understatements to say Minneapolis enters the playoffs for the world championship this weekend with all hope resting on the broad, ebony shoulders of one player.
Bob Short's last-ditch investments now look like blue chips.