Montana State

Elgin Baylor’s Death rekindles memories on an amazing night at MSU field house years ago

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BOZEMAN, Montana – The death of basketball legend Elgin Baylor on Monday rekindled memories of a bygone era, when the brilliant Baylor won titles and set records for the Lakers while bridging that franchise’s transition from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. During his amazing NBA career the man Jerry West called “a prince of a human being” scored 23,149 points and once held that league’s single-game scoring record.

For Bobcat fans of a certain age, the mention of Baylor’s name traces to a single, memorable night in February of 1958. A reigning All-America that season, Baylor led his Seattle University team to still-new Montana State College Fieldhouse for a showdown with Montana State. One of college basketball’s all-time greatest players didn’t disappoint, and neither did the home team.

With Seattle on its way to an NCAA Championship Game loss to Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky juggernaut, Chieftans (now Redhawks) guard Jim Harney hit a long jumper with seven seconds to play to boost 17th-ranked to a 78-77 win. More than 10,000 fans descended on Bozeman from around the state, jamming into a marvel of a building that was barely two years old and setting a Treasure State record for largest attendance at an indoor event.

The Bobcats finished that season 18-8 and posted wins over Iowa State, Washington State, BYU and the Grizzlies. But the team’s most impressive performance of the year was the near-upset of Seattle. Montana State fans and players alike referred to that night as the most thrilling in the Fieldhouse for many years to come. That memorable effort sprang from the creativity of Bobcat coach Dobbie Lambert and a scrappy defensive effort led by Helena High product Jim Kelly.

That brilliant game was detailed by Kelly in a document graciously provided to MSU Sports Information in 2018. The Cats had developed something of a giant-killer reputation, knocking Utah State and Iowa State from the top 20 polls with early-season wins. One of Montana State’s disappointments that season was a 108-83 loss at Seattle, when the Cats attempted to play man-to-man defense. In the return game, as Kelly recalled, “Coach Dobbie Lambert had us play a four-man zone defense with me playing Baylor man-to-man.”

The Exponent said the crowd exited the Fieldhouse “talking mainly about the Bobcats’ tremendous effort against the Chieftains and the outstanding defensive job turned in against Baylor by Helena’s Jim Kelly and Livingston’s Ted Carter.” Kelly said his “strategy was to try very hard to keep him from receiving the ball” and to “attempt to sense Baylor’s rhythms, to grasp his inner timing, and not fall victim to his feints and incredible moves.”

Baylor was the drawing card that night. Kelly admitted that fans from around the state gathered “not because they thought we had a chance to win, but to see Baylor, this phenomenon, this man who commentators claimed could defy gravity.”

The Bobcats led by six in the game’s final two minutes, and still clung to a one-point margin in the closing moments when a Bobcat was trapped in the backcourt and the team was slapped with a 10-second violation. On the ensuing inbound play, Harney chucked it in and time expired. “A deafening loudness went in milliseconds to complete silence.”

Montana State star Larry Chanay led all players with 25 points for the Cats that night. Elgin Baylor’s 23 points was his lowest total to that point of the season, but that isn’t half the story. Prior to that game he led the nation with 34 points a game, and had averaged an amazing 47 points in the five games before arriving in Bozeman on February 20. News clippings indicate Baylor – who finished that season with a 32.5 points-per-game average, second in the nation – found Kelly after the game to congratulate him as the “toughest defensive man he had played against this season.”

The memory of Elgin Baylor, of course, will live for as long as basketball is played. He remains a beloved figure in Los Angeles. But his memory, and the scrappy effort by a tough-minded Bobcat team, will also remain part of Montana State basketball history as well, both for what was and what nearly was.

Story by Bill Lamberty, Montana State Sports Information. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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