Minnesota Muskies

By Stew Thornley
Author of Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers

Minnesota Muskies LogoSeven years after the Minneapolis Lakers left for Los Angeles, Minnesota had another professional basketball team. However, this team would not compete with the likes of the Lakers, Celtics, or Knicks; its opponents would be New Jersey Americans, Anaheim Amigos, and New Orleans Buccaneers.

The Minnesota Muskies became charter members of a new league when, following years of planning, the formation of the American Basketball Association was announced in February 1967. In addition to having a team in the Twin Cities, the ABA headquarters were to be Minneapolis since the league had selected George Mikan, the former Minneapolis Lakers great, as its commissioner.

The ABA borrowed an idea from the defunct American Basketball League, which had operated briefly earlier in the 1960s, when it adopted a three-point field goal for shots from beyond 25 feet. They would also differ from the National Basketball Association with a 30-second shot clock (as opposed to the NBA’s 24-second limit). While it was unlikely that anyone would confuse the two leagues, just to make sure, the ABA came up with a red, white, and blue ball. (“They should put that ball back on the nose of a seal where it belongs,” said Alex Hannum, coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and a man who would later coach in the ABA.)

The league had 10 teams besides Minnesota. Joining the Muskies in the Eastern Division were the Pittsburgh Pipers, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, and New Jersey Americans. The Dallas Chaparrals, New Orleans Buccaneers, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, Anaheim Amigos, and Oakland Oaks comprised the Western Division.

The NBA still had Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Oscar Robertson, but the ABA would feature stars of its own, although their biggest name would spend the first season on the bench.

The ABA had persuaded Rick Barry, who had dethroned Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA scoring champion the year before, to play out his option with the San Francisco Warriors and join the new league. Even though Barry would have to sit out his option year, his signing gave the ABA credibility.

Meanwhile, the league could showcase another star, Connie Hawkins, of the Pittsburgh Pipers. The “Hawk” had been barred from playing in the NBA because of alleged involvement with the college betting scandals earlier in the decade. Hawkins, who had been a legend on the playgrounds of New York City, had played in the American Basketball League and then spent some time with the Harlem Globetrotters after the ABL folded. Two other players who had been tainted by the betting scandals and not allowed in the NBA—Roger Brown and Doug Moe—also hooked up with the ABA.

The ABA boasted other notable basketball names. Besides Mikan in the commissioner’s office, the league had four coaches who are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame: Cliff Hagan, player- coach for Dallas; Max Zaslofsky, New Jersey coach; former Lakers great Slater Martin, who coached the Houston Mavericks; and Jim Pollard, another early Lakers star, who returned to Minnesota to direct the Muskies.

The Muskies were owned by Larry P. Shields, A. E. “Eddie” Holman, and Phil Barrett. Shields served as president and Holman as general manager.

The Muskies made headlines in the spring of 1967 when they signed Lou Hudson, who had just averaged 18.4 points per game his rookie year with the NBA St. Louis Hawks. Hudson had starred for three years at the University of Minnesota and was an All-American in 1965. Unfortunately, Hudson also signed a contract to play another season with the Hawks, and the courts enjoined him from performing in Minnesota.

The Muskies might have missed on Hudson, but they landed another star in Mel Daniels, one of the most sought after players coming out of college that year. Daniels, a six-ten center who had set several scoring records at the University of New Mexico, was the Muskies’ first pick in the college draft. Daniels was also a first round choice of the NBA Cincinnati Royals, but Minnesota won the bidding war and Daniels became a Muskie.

Besides Daniels, the Lakers signed forwards Les Hunter, a member of Loyola of Chicago’s NCAA championship team in 1963, and Sam Smith, a two-time Little All- American while playing at Kentucky Wesleyan. The Muskie backcourt included two former Big Ten stars—Terry Kunze from Minnesota and Don Freeman from Illinois.

The Muskies home was the recently-built Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, which they shared with the Minnesota North Stars, who were beginning their first season in the National Hockey League. The Muskies opened the season at home against the Kentucky Colonels on Sunday, October 22, 1967. An impressive crowd—8,104—turned out as the Muskies fell to the Colonels, 104-96. Smith was high for the Muskies with 24 points; Daniels had scored 19 before being ejected in the third quarter by referee Ron Feiereisel (himself a former Minneapolis Laker) for fighting with Kentucky’s Ken Rhine.

The Muskies got off to a sluggish start in 1967 but picked up steam in early November. They upped their record to 9-4 with a 125-75 win over Kentucky; in the process they set league records for fewest points allowed and the largest margin of victory. On Thanksgiving, the Muskies beat Pittsburgh to tie the high-scoring Indiana Pacers for the Eastern Division lead. The Muskies and Pacers met at the Sports Center three days later. Behind Don Freeman’s 26 points, the Muskies beat Indiana 121-99 to take over the top spot. Nearly 8,000 turned out for that game, but attendance figures at other Muskie home games more commonly hovered between 1,000 and 2,000.

Despite performing before a sea of empty green, gold, and white seats at the Met Sports Center, the Muskies kept winning. They held first place in mid-December, giving Jim Pollard the honor of being named coach of the Eastern Division All-Stars.

The All-Star game was played January 9 in Indiana. Daniels, Freeman, and Hunter represented the Muskies on the Eastern squad and all performed well. Daniels was game high with 22 points (while adding 15 rebounds), and Freeman was the game’s next highest scorer with 20. Les Hunter had seven points and nine rebounds as the East won, 126-120. Despite the impressive performance by Daniels, he finished second in the Most Valuable Player balloting to New Orleans’s Larry Brown, who, at five-nine, was also the game’s shortest player.

Meanwhile, the Muskies had competition. The Pittsburgh Pipers, who had gotten off to a slow start, went on a 15-game winning streak in December and early January. The day after the All-Star game, the Muskies lost at Indiana and dropped to second place behind Pittsburgh. The Muskies made brief forays back into first place over the next month, but the Pipers never slowed and finished the regular season four games ahead of Minnesota.

The Muskies, at 50-28, had the league’s second-best record. Mel Daniels led the league with 15.6 rebounds per game and was named the ABA’s Rookie of the Year. Pittsburgh’s Connie Hawkins won the scoring title and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.

The Muskies would face either Kentucky or New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs starting Sunday, March 24. The Colonels and Americans had finished in a fourth-place tie and were to meet in a tie-breaker game for the final playoff spot. The game was to be played at an ancient arena in Commack, New York, since the Americans’ regular arena was unavailable. But it was discovered that the arena floor in Commack had breaks and holes in it and was deemed unfit to play.

Assistant commissioner Lee Meade said both teams agreed to move the tie-breaker game to the Met Sports Center, and that, if New Jersey won, all playoff games with the Muskies would be played in Minnesota. The Colonels arrived in Minnesota at 5:00 Sunday morning expecting to play New Jersey that afternoon; however, Commissioner Mikan had already forfeited the tie-breaker game to them, and, instead, they would be playing the Muskies in the opening round of the playoffs. A bitter Art Brown, the Americans’ owner, said he would file suit to have the ABA playoffs declared illegal. He didnít follow through on that threat but later said he would seek Mikan’s ouster as commissioner.

Kentucky put up a fight in the playoff round, but the Muskies prevailed and advanced to the semi-finals against Pittsburgh. During the Kentucky series, Eddie Holman resigned as general manager, citing personal reasons. Just prior to the opening of the series with the Pipers, the Muskies announced that Vern Mikkelsen, who with Mikan and Pollard had given the Lakers the greatest front line in the NBA in the 1950s, would replace Holman.

The Muskies-Pipers series opened April 4, and the game was played despite the assassination of Martin Luther King that evening. The Muskies led by nine at the half, but were outscored, 42-17, in the third quarter and went on to lose by eight points. They won two days later to tie the series as it shifted to Minnesota. Following a three-day delay for King’s funeral, the Pipers won both games in Minnesota to take a commanding lead in the series. Back in Pittsburgh, the Pipers finished it off, winning 115-105 to advance to the final round, in which they beat New Orleans to become the American Basketball Association champions.

For the Muskies, their playoff series with Pittsburgh would also be their final games representing Minnesota. Despite being the second-best team in the league, the Muskies averaged only 2,400 fans per game. The league average was barely 400 fans a game more than that, but, even so, Shields had apparently developed an affinity for warm weather and decided to try his luck down south. In 1968-69 the Minnesota Muskies became the Miami Floridians.

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

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