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The names change every decade, but iconic NBA stars are always reincarnations of Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor near his statue outside Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2018. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Every NBA highlight that you see on ESPN every day — every impossible, twisting, hang-in-the-air shot in the lane; every rim-shaking dunk off a fast break; every fluid, high-leaping outside jump shot — was invented by Elgin Baylor. Not some of them. All of them.

Since Baylor, who died Monday at 86, retired almost 50 years ago, nothing much truly new has been done with a basketball, except perhaps learning how to take five steps without being called for traveling — an edge Baylor never needed.

Baylor, at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds and able to stay in the air for an hour and a half, begot Julius Erving, who begot Michael Jordan, who begot Kobe Bryant, who begot LeBron James. Elgin is the prototype of the most exciting of basketball styles: the acrobatic midair athlete, whether a scoring guard or a small forward, who makes our hearts leap higher than any 7-foot center, double-digit-assist guard or fundamental craftsman ever has or will.

Obituary: Elgin Baylor, highflying Hall of Famer for the Los Angeles Lakers, dies at 86

Baylor is the player whom we, as children, in every generation since his arrival in the NBA in 1958, have been in our dreams — even if we couldn’t jump over the morning newspaper once we woke up.

The names have changed each decade, but they are always reincarnations and modifications of Elgin Baylor.

Drive the baseline, come up and under the basket, windmill one-handed dunk — Baylor.

Drive, triple-pump in the lane, then flick, finger-roll or bank it in after everybody else comes down — Baylor.

Soar above 7-footers for an offensive rebound, then head-fake, neutralize them with a shoulder to the chest and beat them back to the rim and draw the foul, too — that was “Rabbit” (for his leaping), and that was “Mr. Inside” (for his ability to dominate bigger players).

Quickest off the floor, best at reading the ball’s flight and the best defensive-rebounding small forward in NBA history by the width of North America, that was Baylor, too. He still ranks 10th in rebounds per game at 13.55 and once averaged 19.8 in a season. If Charles Barkley could jump a foot higher, he would be Elgin Baylor.

Stand far outside, isolated on the wing with a defender, an involuntary neck twitch for a trademark as he ball-faked, head-faked, jab-stepped until, finally, his defender undone, he rocketed past in a flash or went straight up to shoot — that was “Tick Tock.” That was Mr. Elgin Baylor.

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His most important numbers stack up with anyone’s. Baylor’s 27.36 points per game are the third highest in NBA history, behind only Michael Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07). Add in 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists — and factor in his end-to-end, all-gifts style, from sweeping the defensive glass to filling the lane on the fast break and finishing with a dunk — and he’s near the top of the best the NBA has ever seen.

Too bad Baylor didn’t play his first NBA game until he was 24, when modern stars might already be in their fifth seasons, or you’d find him near the top of every raw-total stat list. And he didn’t get any three-point buckets.

Now for the flip side of the truth: The general level of athleticism in Baylor’s era, from 1958 to 1972, was constantly improving but still far from 21st-century levels. Every move Baylor invented has been studied, polished and refined over the past 60 years, so, naturally, tiny tricks of the trade mean a slightly higher percentage of those shots go in the bucket these days.

So Baylor’s shooting percentages look a little light. But, remember, defense was rougher and dirtier in those days. Today’s “bump” as a star hangs in the lane was the 1960s’ “whomp” as Baylor was knocked to the floor.

Every generation has a better “offhand” dribble, a better crossover or, like the Allen Iverson-patented and now universal palm-the-dribble by holding the ball on the side as you run with it, a perfected way of beating the old rules. If Baylor were around today, he would have to master those new tricks.

But we only get to play against our own generation. And, when you live to 86 and haven’t played in 49 years, it’s easy for the gifted present to forget the geniuses of the past who took their sports to new places from which they would never return — or want to.

The great Boston Celtics dynasty and the best defender in history — Bill Russell, the only man who could seriously bother Baylor and his Lakers mate Jerry West — prevented Baylor from ending up with several rings, let alone just one. But we should never worry that Baylor’s memory and legacy will ever be disregarded. Elgin Baylor plays every night in every gym in the world. His game — his style of play — became The Game, the modern, jazzed-up, rock-the-roof version that didn’t exist before his arrival in the NBA. Maybe it was born on playgrounds, even D.C. playgrounds. Surely, over the years, Baylor cited those whose moves he mimicked or modified.

But none of them averaged 38.3 points, 18.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists, as Baylor did in 1961-62. No one before him forced every teenager like me in America to circle those nationally televised Lakers games, when our eyes wouldn’t leave Baylor except to rivet on West.

Since then, the game has borne his mark and, whether every child who gets a basketball for their birthday knows it or not, they dream of being Elgin Baylor — or his latest marvelous modern replicant.