NBA

Jerry West remembers friend and Lakers great Elgin Baylor: ‘A great, great player and a better teammate’

The pain sounded evident in Jerry West’s voice as he talked over the phone.

While withholding tears, West spoke stoically about former Los Angeles Lakers star Elgin Baylor shortly after Baylor died Monday at age 86. The Lakers said in a statement that Baylor died "peacefully" and of "natural causes."

"He had not been doing well for the last year. It’s a very sad day," West told USA TODAY Sports. "Forget him as a player. He was a great, great player and a better teammate."

Baylor earned numerous accolades that captured his greatness during his 14-year NBA career with the Lakers. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1959. He made 11 All-Star appearances. And after finishing his career with 23,149 points, 11,463 rebounds and 3,650 assists, Baylor was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1977 and had his No. 22 Lakers jersey retired in 1983.

But after playing with Baylor on the Lakers for 11 seasons and remaining a close friend afterwards, West has strongly argued over the years that Baylor’s contributions to the NBA were never fully appreciated.

"I don’t think he ever got his credit," West said of Baylor. "I don’t think anyone ever got their credit back then. The game was a completely different game. He was one of the game’s modern players. I think I was, too. We were athletic, could run and jump and do things other people couldn’t do. Yet people look at his accomplishments and because there weren’t championships associated with it, there wasn’t that kind of recognition."

In Memoriam: Elgin Baylor (1934-2021) pic.twitter.com/Gq8U2t3RWP

Though Baylor became one of the first NBA players to excel with athleticism, flair and footwork, he had a subdued personality off the court.

"He had this serene way about himself," West said. "He just was a great person. He was very balanced in life. He never, never called attention to himself. He was just infectious, quiet and stately off the court. He never expounded about his greatness as a basketball player during that time. He was just classy."

Though Baylor appeared in eight NBA Finals, he was only part of one championship team and became hobbled with various knee injuries. He played only two games in the 1970-71 season after tearing an Achilles tendon. He played only nine games the following year before retiring. That coincided with the Lakers cementing an NBA-record 33-game winning streak and their first championship in Los Angeles. As much as he played and won in Baylor’s honor, West still felt empty without Baylor playing with him. West retired two years later. Over five decades later, West cannot help but lament how much more they could have accomplished had Father Time not greeted Baylor so early.

"I often wondered if we had the same training resources we had today," West said. "And if we didn’t have to work in the offseason to make ends meet, I just wonder how some of the players would’ve prospered in the modern conditions."

Nonetheless, the Lakers eventually recognized Baylor’s contributions to the franchise. Three years ago, Baylor became the sixth Lakers luminary to have a statue outside Staples Center, including West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and former team announcer Chick Hearn.

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were teammates on the Lakers for 12 seasons from 1961-72. (Photo: Reed Saxon, AP)

As West spoke at the ceremony, he teared up before calling Baylor "one of the best men I ever met in my life." West argued that Baylor "started this franchise in Los Angeles." West wasn’t exaggerating. After they selected Baylor with their first pick in the 1958 NBA draft, the Minneapolis Lakers signed him to a $20,000 contract. Had Baylor turned down the offer, former Lakers owner Bob Short admitted the franchise would have gone bankrupt. Instead, the Lakers relocated to Los Angeles in 1960.

"He was beyond thrilled when they put the statue up of him," West said. "I knew how proud I was for him and how it made me feel. He should’ve been the first statue up there before anyone else. It just took so long. Finally, people can relive him forever with that stature down there and look at his accomplishments as a player."

West was one of those admiring observers before becoming Baylor’s teammate. Toward the end of his four-year collegiate career at West Virginia, West often watched footage of Baylor and marveled at his athleticism and scoring punch. West often thought to himself, "I hope I can get to a point where I can be a basketball player like him."

Shortly after, the Lakers drafted West with the No. 2 pick in 1960, a year before the franchise moved to Los Angeles. By that point, Baylor had already won the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in the league in scoring (24.9 points) and led the Lakers from last place the previous year to the NBA Finals. But Baylor did not greet West by marking his territory. Instead, Baylor greeted West with open arms.

"He allowed me to grow as a player and there never were any jealousies or controversies with him and his teammates," West said. "Never. It’s pretty remarkable."

An NBA legend in action… @Lakers #22 Elgin Baylor.pic.twitter.com/woUvUXyKjL

Instead of becoming on-court adversaries, they bonded and became one of the league’s best duos. Baylor averaged more than 30 points in their first three seasons together (1960-63) and posted an NBA record of 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals. West then averaged more than 30 points in two of the next three seasons (1963-65). When Baylor suffered a knee injury during Game 1 of their playoff matchup against the Baltimore Bullets, West recalled that former Lakers coach Fred Schaus told him, "you’re going to have to carry us." West averaged 40.6 points per game during the postseason that year.

"Just being teammates with someone like him who basically took me under his wing and raised me for a couple of years was beyond special," West said. "As someone as great as he was would take the time with some young guy from West Virginia who was quiet, backwards and didn’t know anything and helped me to grow up. He helped me to learn what it was like to be a professional athlete."

What did those lessons entail?

Often, Baylor stressed to a high-strung West not to allow his emotions to dictate his mood after every win or loss. Easier said than done. Amid his various front-office roles with the Lakers (1982-2000), Memphis Grizzlies (2002-2007), Golden State Warriors (2011-2017) and Clippers (2017-present), West has preferred watching games at home than in person.

"I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t win every game," West said. "It was devastating to me to lose the game, even an exhibition game. He really taught me how to understand this long season is based upon competition among very competitive people playing a very competitive game. It still didn’t resonate with me. I hated losing. If I’m involved with anything, I hate losing today. I understand it. But he understood that part of it better than I did. I don’t think that part will ever leave me."

Baylor also taught West something more important than how to handle wins and losses. Although they often shared meals and humorous conversations after games and on road trips, Baylor and West often delved into serious topics involving racism. A season before West’s arrival, Baylor and his Lakers teammates once checked into a hotel for a neutral site game against the Cincinnati Royals, only for the hotel to forbid the team’s Black players from lodging there. So the Lakers, including the team’s white players, went elsewhere and Baylor refused to play in the game.

Members of the Lakers Family pay tribute to the great Elgin Baylor 🙏 pic.twitter.com/Tw8vM47VdY

"I learned a lot from him on how to interact with people and learned a lot from him about racial issues at that point in time. I was just so oblivious to everything that was going on in the world. The only thing I really cared about was just being a basketball player and trying to win," West said. "We talked about a lot of things he saw in his life and things I saw and things I didn’t understand. I’ve always felt you should treat people the way you want to be treated. I think I learned more from him growing up in a big city, and I grew up in a small place. But I saw the same things that he did. I learned."

West was then pained to see his close friend experience racism when he worked for 22 years as the Clippers’ general manager (1986-2008).

Three years after winning the NBA’s executive of the year award in 2006, Baylor filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the Clippers, alleging that he was underpaid, fired because of his age and race and accused owner Donald Sterling of havinga "plantation mentality." Baylor later dropped the racism claim, but a jury rejected the other claims in 2001. But after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver forced Sterling to sell the Clippers in 2014 after making racist remarks on an audio tape, Baylor said in a CNN interview that "the things I said before about Donald are absolutely true." West said he "conversed a lot" with Baylor about Sterling and the Clippers.

"I felt horrible at the end of the day with how he was treated," West said. "That’s what I felt awkward about — he was not treated like a person should be treated. He was not. I don’t know if Don treated anybody well. But it was sad for me."

Whenever West spoke with Baylor during and after his NBA career, however, he sounded more at peace with what he accomplished than what he had not.

"I never heard him complain about anything," West said. "I never saw him attempt to capture the limelight. He just played and let his play do his talking. Very special person."

West and Baylor stayed in touch regularly. West visited Baylor nearly 2½ months ago. By that point, West sensed that Baylor was struggling with his health. But nothing could prepare West for losing his close teammate and friend on Monday.

"I was blessed to share so much with him. I absolutely love that man," West said. "In my lifetime, I’ve never met a teammate like him. I’ve never met a nicer person than Elgin Baylor."

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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