In November 1971, Elgin Baylor, the Lakers first superstar, made the ultimate team decision. Baylor knew he was at the end of his career. He couldn’t get as high off the ground and couldn’t hang as long in the air when he got there as he used to.
The Lakers had a good, young rookie, Jim McMillan, who needed to play on a regular basis.
It was early in the 1971-72 season and the Lakers had a talented team.
Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich were all future hall of famers. Happy Hairston was a great rebounding forward who could also score when necessary. Pat Riley provided scrap off the bench.
Many thought the Lakers were finally ready to break through and win that elusive championship. And less than a month into the season, Baylor decided to step away from it all and announced his retirement from the NBA.
McMillan was inserted into the starting lineup, replacing Baylor the next game and the Lakers took off on a 33-game winning streak — still the longest winning streak in professional sports history — and went on to win the 1972 NBA title.
They might have won the title with Baylor, only a shell of his greatness at that point, but he selflessly stepped away for the good of the team.
It was the last great thing Baylor did for the Lakers and the team finally honored him April 6 when they unveiled a statue of Baylor outside Staples Center.
It doesn’t seem right to this old Lakers fan that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — great Lakers in their own right — got statues at Staples before Baylor.
If it wasn’t for Baylor, the Lakers might be a footnote in NBA history. He was the first overall draft choice of the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958. The Lakers had been a dominant team earlier in the decade but were now in danger of going broke.
Baylor rejuvenated the franchise. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1958-59.
After one more year in Minneapolis, he was the superstar of the team when it moved to Los Angeles and teamed with a rookie guard from West Virginia, West, to become the second best team in the NBA.
Unfortunately, the best team was the Boston Celtics and they always seemed to have the Lakers number in the postseason.
Six times the two teams play played in the NBA finals in the 1960s and all six times the Celtics won.
Baylor was a player who could do it all. Although a small forward who barely stood 6-5, Baylor averaged 13.5 rebounds a game for his career, while scoring 27.4 points a game, the third highest in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan
In 1960-61, he averaged 19.8 rebounds a game and followed that up by averaging 18.6 rebounds the next season.
That season, Baylor was on active duty with the U.S. Army reserves and was only available to the Lakers for 48 games. In those games, he averaged 38.3 points.
And it wasn’t just the statistics he compiled. Baylor played with a flair. He was the first shooter to hang in the air to avoid getting a shot blocked, defying gravity at times. He could leap with the best.
Julius Erving and Jordan both borrowed from Baylor’s repertoire in establishing themselves as basketball showmen in later generations.
Baylor was the first.
He still holds the NBA record for most points scored in a playoff game, 61.
After retiring as a player, he coached the New Orleans Jazz for three seasons and later served as general manager of the Clippers for 22 years.
“I appreciate all the wonderful things people have said about me, but without the wonderful teammates this certainly would not have been possible,” Baylor said at the April 6 ceremony preceding the Lakers game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “After about six decades of being around the NBA, I stand here before you today humbled, thankful, grateful for this recognition.”
Baylor was joined in speaking at the ceremony by four of the five Lakers legends with statues in Star Plaza — his teammate of 12 seasons, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal.
Kobe Bryant also spoke via video.
Baylor was among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History selected in 1996 in conjunction with the league’s 50th anniversary and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977.
And now he has a statue outside Staples Center. It took a while, but Elgin Baylor is where he belongs outside Staples with the other Laker greats.
TRAILBLAZER HONORED: Violet Palmer isn’t as well known as Venus and Serena Williams, but she has made her mark in the sports world as indelibly as the two sisters who grew up in the same Compton neighborhood as she did.
Palmer was one of the first women to officiate an NBA game. She lasted in the league for 16 years, officiating 919 games, including nine playoff games and the 2014 NBA All Star Game.
Last weekend she was inducted into the California Basketball Officials Association Hall of Fame.
Palmer’s basketball playing career included two NCAA Division II titles in 1985 and 1986 for Cal Poly Pomona where she was a point guard.
After her playing days ended, she officiated high school and college games until 1997 when the NBA contacted her and made her one of two women officials hired by the league.
The other woman, Dee Kantner, lasted three years. Palmer worked 16 until knee problems forced her to retire prior to the start of the 2016-17 season.
She now works in the NBA office as a manager of referee operations.
PLAYOFF TIME: When the NBA playoffs begin this weekend, Southern California will be out a rooting interest. For the first time since the 2004-05 season, neither the Lakers nor the Clippers will be playing in the NBA playoffs.
The Clippers were eliminated from playoff consideration over the weekend; the Lakers much earlier.
The Clippers were beset by injuries all season; the Lakers suffered more from youth and inexperience.
They might have a better chance than the Clippers of making the playoffs next year, because the Clippers don’t know if DeAndre Jordan is going to opt out of his contract this summer.
They also have no idea if Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley and Danilo Gallinari are going to bounce back from injuries that kept them sidelined most of this season.
Head coach Doc Rivers did a great job keeping the Clippers in contention all year after the team traded Chris Paul in the offseason and then got rid of Blake Griffin before the trade deadline this year. That was the heart and soul of the team.
Without their two stars, Lou Williams turned into the sixth man of the year and Austin Rivers proved that he belonged in the NBA and wasn’t in the league because his father was the head coach.
But the Lakers had three rookies who turned in solid season to add to the young talent that was already there; talent that should continue to develop and mature.
With Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, the Lakers have five solid players with four years or fewer experience. Add the potential that young center Ivica Zubac brings to that mix and the Lakers have enough players to lure Paul George to the team in the offseason.
That makes the Lakers a borderline playoff team next season, depending on what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka do in the offseason
Earl Heath contributed to this story.