The Lakers' Elgin Baylor Set NBA Records While Splitting His Time In The US Army

Elgin Baylor was having an exceptional year. The NBA had named the Laker Rookie of the Year for 1959, and he averaged 24.9 points, 15 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, according to his 2018 book "Hang Time: My Life in Basketball." So it seemed a little odd when the team owner, Bob Short, suggested Baylor join the U.S. Army.

Born in Washington D.C., in 1934, Baylor led his team at Seattle University to their first NCAA championship game before being drafted by the Lakers — which were then in Minneapolis — in 1958, per CBS News. He hit the ground running, which may have been why the U.S. government had its eye on him. Between 1948 and 1973, the country had a national draft that included peacetime periods, according to History. "You're going to be drafted. Just like Elvis. Could be anytime now," Short told Baylor, per "Hang Time." "The army's looking to draft celebrities and big-name professional athletes."

Elvis Presley affected his decision

Bob Short knew what he was talking about. In his varied career before becoming the Laker's owner, he'd been a Navy commander during World War II and served as undersecretary of the Navy, per Legends of Basketball and the Society for American Basketball Research. Elvis Presley had been drafted the year before, and Elgin Baylor had followed the news about the rock 'n' roll singer. The Army had offered Elvis special treatment that included staying in the U.S. in special housing while performing for his fellow troops, but he refused and instead served like any other soldier while stationed in West Germany, per "Hang Time."

Baylor couldn't play basketball if he was serving overseas for two years as Elvis was doing, so he took Short's advice to instead join the Army Reserve, which meant a six-week stint in basic training followed by six summer assignments and six months of active duty at some future, unspecified date. But as Baylor sat in the recruiting office, he couldn't figure out why the Army would want him. "I may be somewhat known in basketball circles, but I'm no Elvis Presley," he thought to himself, per "Hang Time."

Baylor served his country while serving up wins 

Elgin Baylor had a rough time of it in basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, since, at 6-foot-5, the Army couldn't find him a uniform that fit or provide a bed for his large frame, per "Hang Time." But he made it through, and thanks to Bob Short, who moved the Lakers' summer training camp to San Antonio, Baylor didn't have far to go, per NBA. During Baylor's first game that next season, he led the Lakers to a resounding win against the Boston Celtics — to whom they'd lost four times the previous season — and scored 64 points, beating an NBA record that had stood for a decade, per

In 1961, after the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, the Army called Baylor up for active service. He was allowed to report for duty on January 2, 1962, and was able to travel for weekend games, during which he averaged 39 points per game, per Baylor played with the Lakers for 14 seasons before retiring in 1971. The 11-time NBA All-Star was inducted into the Hall of Fame and later served as the New Orleans Jazz head coach and vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers, per CBS News. He died of natural causes on March 22, 2021, at age 86.