LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Former Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, regarded as one of the game’s all-time great forwards, died of natural causes at the age of 86 on Monday, the NBA team said.
The Washington, D.C.-born Baylor was the No. 1 draft pick in 1958 and National Basketball Association Rookie of the Year in 1959. He spent 14 seasons with the Lakers and is considered one of the greatest players never to win a championship.
A gifted shooter and rebounder despite his 6-foot-5-inch frame, Baylor holds the record for most individual points in a single game in the NBA Finals, scoring 61 against the Lakers’ archrivals, the Boston Celtics, in 1962.
“Elgin was the love of my life and my best friend. And like everyone else, I was in awe of his immense courage, dignity and the time he gave to all fans,” his wife, Elaine, said in a statement.
Baylor’s No. 22 jersey was retired and hangs in the rafters of Los Angeles’ Staples Center, while the 11-time NBA All-Star was immortalized in a statue that stands outside the arena.
“Elgin was THE superstar of his era, his many accolades speak to that,” Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss said.
“He was one of the few Lakers players whose career spanned from Minneapolis to Los Angeles,” Buss added. “But more importantly he was a man of great integrity, even serving his country as a U.S. Army reservist, often playing for the Lakers only during his weekend pass.”
The Lakers moved to Los Angeles ahead of the 1960-61 season and became one of the league’s dominant teams, led by Baylor and Hall of Fame guard Jerry West. But the club came up short in eight NBA Finals during Baylor’s tenure, including seven losses to the Celtics.
After his retirement, Baylor coached the New Orleans Jazz before he was hired as general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, spending 22 years in that role.
“RIP to the NBA’s first high flyer, Lakers legend and Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor,” former Lakers guard and former team President Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter.
“Before there was Michael Jordan doing amazing things in the air, there was Elgin Baylor.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Baylor set the course for the modern league as one of its first “superstar players,” but added he was more than that.
“He was a leading activist during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and an influential voice among his fellow players,” Silver said.
The National Basketball Players Association said he played a vital role in the formation of the union.
“We are forever grateful for his courage and contributions,” the NBPA said.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru and Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Clare Fallon and Peter Cooney)