Jesse Owens. Jackie Robinson. Bill Russell. Jim Brown. Elgin Baylor. Oscar Robertson. Muhammad Ali.
Elgin doesn't belong on the list. That's what you're thinking. Not the guy who wore goofy sweaters to the NBA lottery every year. Not the unofficial caretaker for the worst franchise in professional sports. You might accept him on the "Worst GM" list, or even the "Celebs Who Looked Most Like Nipsey Russell" list. But not the list above. Not with Jesse and Jackie and Russell and Brown and Oscar and Ali. That's a stretch. That's what you're thinking.
So come back with me to 1958, the year Elgin took Seattle University to the NCAA title game and then skipped his senior season to join the Minneapolis Lakers. If you don't think Minneapolis is teeming with black people now, you should have seen the city in 1958. America hadn't really started changing yet. Blacks were still referred to as "Negroes" and "coloreds." They drank from different water fountains, stood in their own lines for movies and were discriminated against in nearly every walk of life. When Elgin entered the NBA, the unwritten rule was every team could employ only two black players. Nobody challenged it. The St. Louis Hawks even captured the 1958 title with an entirely white team.
Elgin came into a league where guys shot running jump hooks and one-handed set shots. Teams routinely took 115 shots a game and made less than 40 percent of them. Nobody played above the rim except Russell; nobody dunked, and everyone played the same way: Rebound, run the floor, get a quick shot. Quantity over quality. That's what worked. Or so they thought. Because Elgin changed everything. He did things that nobody had ever seen before. He defied gravity. Elgin would drive from the left side, take off with the basketball, elevate, hang in the air, hang in the air, then release the ball after everyone else was already back on the ground. You could call him the godfather of hang time. You could call him the godfather of the "WOW!" play. You could point to his entrance into the league as the precise moment when basketball changed for the better. Along with Russell, Elgin turned a horizontal game into a vertical one.
It's impossible to fully capture Elgin's greatness five decades after the fact, but let's try. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds and carried the Lakers to the Finals as a rookie. He scored 71 points against Wilt's Warriors in his second season. He averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in his third season -- as a 6-foot-5 forward, no less -- and topped himself the following year with the most amazing accomplishment in NBA history. During the 1961-62 season, Elgin played only 48 games -- all on weekends, all without practicing -- and somehow averaged 38 points, 19 rebounds and five assists a game.