When Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor played professional basketball, his game knew no horizons. Small for a forward at 6 ft., 5 in., Baylor made up for it with a combination of strength, leaping ability, and great body control. He was also one of those rare players who instinctively do the right thing almost every time. After a great college career at Seattle, Baylor arrived in the National Basketball Association in 1958 fully prepared to play the pro game. Indeed, in his rookie year with the old Minneapolis Lakers, Elgin averaged more than 24 points a game and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds.
Given those credentials, it is not surprising that the current vice-president and general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers is upset at the high number of modern college stars who enter the league each year with only a smattering of fundamentals.
``What people don't seem to realize is that you play basketball with your head as well as your body,'' Elgin told me. ``Even though instincts are important when a certain play has to be made or the clock is running out, if the fundamentals aren't already there, you're probably not going to be successful.
``There is a right way and a wrong way to do things in basketball, and without having learned the basics, no player is able to fit comfortably into a team concept,'' he added. ``Most rookies I see today rely too much on their natural ability and not enough on making the game's fundamentals work for them.
``I'm not arguing the fact that today's player is stronger, can run faster, jump higher, and probably shoot better than the majority of men I played with and against. But most rookies don't know how to run a fast break or finish off a play, and not too many of them have a very good overall knowledge of the game. Often they don't even take good percentage shots, and there's no excuse for that.''
Asked if today's high school and college coaches aren't to blame for most of this, Baylor would only pull at his dapper cap and shrug his shoulders.
Elgin says that when he played in the 1950s and '60s, most NBA coaches devoted the bulk of their practice time to going over fundamentals. It didn't make any difference how many veterans were on the team, a repeat of the basics always came first, even before the offense was installed. If a rookie had a weakness on defense, his coach worked with him until he either corrected his problem or was cut from the roster.
``Except for Wilt Chamberlain, nobody dunked much in my day, because even if you had your man beaten for an easy layup, you knew you were going to be fouled and hammered physically from behind,'' Baylor recalled. ``There were no easy baskets then. There was no gentleman's agreement like there is today, where players don't foul each other if the upcoming dunk is obvious.
``Because most players didn't get a lot of money, we played harder to protect what we had,'' Elgin continued. ``There was a closeness between players then that isn't evident now, because we roomed in pairs, we ate together, and after a game we would sit down as a group and talk things over. Part of that was because, with only eight teams in the league, you had to keep reminding yourself what it took to beat certain clubs.''
Baylor played his entire 14-year pro career with the Lakers, the first two years in Minneapolis, then the last 12 here after the team moved to Los Angeles. A prolific scorer, he three times averaged more than 34 points a game for an entire season, the individual-game climax coming in a 1959 contest against New York in which he poured in 71 points. He was also a tremendous force on the boards. His 1,447 rebounds during the 1960-61 season, for example, were more than anything Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has ever recorded.
``One thing that worked to my advantage was that back then, teams didn't have as many good shooters as they have today,'' Elgin said. ``So the Lakers would often clear out a path for me on one side of the floor or do other things that would isolate me from the flow of the game. They did this because in almost any one-on-one situation, they knew I would be able to score.''
As a reporter, I can still remember Carl Braun, when he was player-coach of the New York Knicks, standing up at a press conference and declaring:
``For doing everything, Elgin Baylor might have been the best forward ever to play this game. He can take the big man and beat him with his quickness, or the small man and simply overpower him. He can play inside or outside. He can take you out of a game with his shooting, or hit the open man if you try to double team him. And his second effort under the boards goes on as long as he's in the game. You keep wondering how a man night after night can get so much out of himself.''
Since becoming general manager of the Clippers in April 1986, Baylor has cleaned house until only two players, center Benoit Benjamin and guard Norman Nixon, remain from the team he inherited.
Although the Clippers still have a long way to go before they become even a .500 team, Elgin is not responsible for the owner's high-powered advertising campaign that proclaims ``The Future is Now.''
Even now that L.A. has signed forward Danny Manning, its No. 1 draft pick, it could take three more years to blend the franchise's many young players into a winning unit.
Building basketball teams is not like pouring hot water into a plastic container and getting instant soup!