"I've roomed with Elg a lot of times," Rudy La Russo says, "and he literally talks you to sleep. You know, he may even talk all night, because he is going as soon as you wake up. He talks in Technicolor. He's just one of the world's great conversationalists." Lou Mohs, the Lakers' general manager, is on record that were he stranded on a desert island and had a choice he would select Baylor for company. It just seems that however much the invective, however repetitive the rhetoric or however aggravating its tenor, Baylor never really irritates the Lakers. It is a phenomenon at least equal to his court achievements.
Most of last year, of course, it was different and not much fun. He played when he could, but it was not Elgin Baylor. His right knee was a flame with calcium deposits, but still it was forced to cover for the left, which was split in two and held together by tendons reattached through bone holes. Through almost all of the season he was a tattered mediocrity, struggling to shoot, shamed by opponents who scrambled to end up opposite him. Baylor was scared to move, afraid that the next time he cut, a knee would go and it would all end there in a pitiful, writhing heap.
His knees have bothered him for several seasons now. "I wake up and the way they feel I can tell if it is a rainy day," he says. After the '64 season, Dr. Robert Kerlan, the renowned orthopedic, Koufaxedic surgeon, took charge of Baylor to try to strengthen the worn-out knees. " Baylor missed one day that whole summer," Frank O'Neill, the therapist and Laker trainer, says. "And just like Elg, all he wanted that day was to take his little boy to the zoo."
His conscientiousness was rewarded, and Baylor's knees endured the entire '65 season until the first playoff game against Baltimore. Baylor came down for a jump shot. "Something pulled," he remembers. "I didn't know what it was. I forgot about the ball as soon as I felt it. But I could run. I went up and down the court a few times, but it hurt so much and I didn't know what it was, so I decided I better get out."
How he ran a single step no one knows. It seemed impossible, because somehow the top third of the left patella had broken completely off from the rest of the kneecap. Kerlan operated the very next day, put the knee back together, sewed Baylor up and told him they all hoped he would play again someday.
This time, the summer of '65, it was not to strengthen a knee; it was, almost, to have one or not. The problem, O'Neill emphasizes, was as much mental rehabilitation as physical. "I'd never broken anything before," Baylor says, "so at first I just didn't know what to think, whether to be scared or what. Dr. Kerlan kept assuring me, but as soon as I'd get some confidence something would go wrong again. Finally I just accepted the fact that I would never play again. I just worried about being a normal person—could I fish or play golf, just move around ever again? I thought that way. And then, just about then, it all got better." He was in the starting lineup when the season began last October.
It was, however, a sad false promise. Baylor was so unsure and so bad that he overcompensated for the left knee. The right one—still full of calcium—could not accept the stress. Late in November, Kerlan had to put a cast on the right leg. Baylor was out for a month, and when he came back he was out of shape, unimproved and more timid.
Finally Kerlan called Baylor to his office one day. "It was about a month before the season ended," the doctor says. "I sat him down and told him it was now—he had to find out right now. I told him that he either had to go out and test it and find out, or otherwise he might as well come over and rest with me."
Baylor took the gamble, and for the balance of the regular season and the playoffs he averaged almost double what he had before—more than 25 points and 14 rebounds a game. "It was an amazing recovery, certainly," Dr. Kerlan says, "but only if you consider it as simply overcoming an injury. The man is often the most important thing, and in view of the sort of man that Elgin is, then maybe we should have even expected it." Baylor has maintained his brilliant spring performance in exhibitions this fall. "I would have to guess," Dr. Kerlan says, grinning, "that Elgin is just not ready to come over and rest with me."
And as Elgin Baylor came back, so too did Elg. By the playoffs he was his gracious old abrasive self again. He rounded up his teammates for a tour of the St. Louis zoo and also thoughtfully provided them with a complete, if rather captious, commentary on all zoo facilities and every animal—bird, mammal and reptile—therein. Another day, as he led the Lakers through dinner conversation at their motel, he suddenly turned to La Russo and, as if it were the most appropriate thing in the world to ask, loudly demanded: "Who'd win in a fight, a lion or a tiger?"