CALDWELL — The path for one of the greatest players in NBA history to make a stop in Caldwell came way back in 1891 in two opposite parts of the country.
It was 126 years ago in Springfield, Massachusetts, when a man named James Naismith invented the game of basketball. Nearly 2,600 miles away in Caldwell, the College of Idaho opened its doors for the first time.
The two historic moments were highlighted Friday night as part of the induction ceremony for Elgin Baylor into the College of Idaho Athletics Hall of Fame.
Baylor, who went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977, played one year at the College of Idaho during the 1954-55 season and went on to become one on of the top players in the history of the sport.
Friday’s ceremony inside the sold out Simplot Dining Hall marked his first trip back to Caldwell since he left in 1955 — a span of 62 years.
“It’s been a long time,” Baylor said. “I was honored and grateful that they remembered me and wanted to do this. It’s quite an honor when you think about it. Growing up you never think you will achieve the things I’ve achieved. I’m very honored to have done it.”
A release announcing Baylor’s induction called him “arguably the greatest athlete in C of I history” despite only spending one year on campus.
The 6-foot-5 small forward averaged 32.8 points and 18.9 rebounds during his only season with the Yotes in 1954-55. He earned first-team All-American honors after scoring at least 40 points in six different games. His 53-point game against Whitman on February 6, 1955, remains the school record for most points in a game.
Baylor still holds several other College of Idaho single-season records including points per game average (32.8), field goals made (352) and field goals attempted (651).
A number of former teammates and friends from his time at the College of Idaho surprised him for Friday’s ceremony. It was the first time he had seen some of them in 62 years since he left.
“It’s really special for our program to get Elgin back here at the college,” current College of Idaho coach Scott Garson said. “It’s amazing and to come back here and feel so welcomed, you see it last night when we had a get together with some people that were back here when he was going to school. It was neat to see him smiling and so excited.
“For him to be excited to be back here, he hasn’t been back in a really long time, so it’s cool for us and really special for our program.”
Baylor transferred to Seattle University after his first season at C of I when coach Sam Bokes — the one that convinced him to play basketball and not football for the Yotes — left the University.
He eventually went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1958 NBA Draft by the Minneapolis Lakers and was the NBA Rookie of the Year the following season.
Baylor was an 11-time NBA All-Star and led the Lakers to eight appearances in the NBA Finals. He still holds several NBA Finals records including the 61 points he scored in Game 5 of the 1962 series against the Celtics.
He retired during the 1971-72 season as the third-leading scorer in NBA history.
“This is a guy who many argued for many years was the best player in the history of basketball,” Garson said. “The whole Michael Jordan and LeBron James argument going on now was going on with Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and guys like that for many, many years.
“Because of the player he became and the stature he holds in the world of basetball he’s a big part of our program, whether he’s been back here or not. But to have him back here now makes it more special.”
Garson took Baylor and his wife on a tour of the campus Friday and showed him the McCain Student Center, the current student union, which was transformed from the old Kirpatrick Gym that he played in during the 1954-55 season. The original wood court was kept in place inside the remade building.
Not much else remains the same at the College of Idaho or in the city of Caldwell.
“It’s a beautiful campus,” Baylor said. “It’s really not much of a comparison from what it was when I was here. It’s a gorgeous campus.
“I remember the gym we played in was nothing like this one now. We were so close to the fans, and I liked that because it got you fired up to play your best.”
Asked if the purple and gold colors of the Yotes were the same 62 years ago, Baylor quipped, “I’m color blind, so I wouldn’t know.”
Baylor grew up in Washington D.C. and said a friend facilitated a visit to the campus in Caldwell for the possibility of playing football. When rain forced the group inside the gym to shoot around, a basketball coach noticed his ability.
“He said why didn’t you tell us you played basketball,” Baylor recalled. “I said well nobody asked me. He smiled and said forget about football, you are playing basketball.”
He laughed as he recalled the story and others from his time in Caldwell. Even though it only lasted a year, it’s clear the impact was meaningful on both sides.
“It’s really nice to come back because I enjoyed my time here,” said Baylor, who currently lives in Beverly Hills, California. “The people were nice and friendly. It was a lot different from Washington D.C. at the time.
“It’s been a while, but I’d glad to be back.”
Many of College of Idaho’s players are home for summer break, but several athletes in the building caught wind of his Baylor’s arrival and stopped by Garson’s office Friday afternoon to meet him.
Even Garson himself asked for a picture with Baylor to have a keepsake from the weekend.
“He’s probably forgotten more about basketball than most of us will ever know,” Garson said. “To have him back is really, really special.”
BAYLOR NOT ALONE: All-American baseball player Greg Schelhaas (1996-99) and All-American volleyball player Kristyn Price (1999-2002) were also inducted into the C of I Hall of Fame on Friday Night, as were members of the 2000-01 NAIA Division II national runner-up women’s basketball team.
Ed Bonaminio, Cisco Limbago and Graye Wolfe were also honored with the inaugural Meritorious Service awards for their contributions to the College of Idaho over the years.
Friday marked the 12th induction class into the C of I Hall of Fame, but the first since the 2011-2012 athletic season.