Minneapolis Lakers

1947-48 Minneapolis Lakers
The 1947-48 Lakers

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

Professional basketball first came to Minnesota in 1947 when Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen purchased and relocated a near-extinct National Basketball League (NBL) franchise, the Detroit Gems. For their $15,000 they received little more than some equipment and a piece of paper saying that they now owned a team in the NBL. No players were included in the transaction; the Gems had been on the verge of collapse after having won only four of 44 games the year before, and the NBL had already assigned the Detroit players to other teams in the league.

Starting from scratch, Berger and Chalfen began building the dynasty that would play under the name of the Minneapolis Lakers. They hired a general manager, Max Winter, and a coach, John Kundla, then began the hunt for players. Several former Minnesota Gophers—Tony Jaros, Don “Swede” Carlson, Don Smith, Warren Ajax, Ken Exel (in addition to Coach Kundla)—would be among the original Lakers, but the first star of the team was to be former Stanford University All-American Jim Pollard.

The Twin Cities actually had two pro teams at this time. The St. Paul Saints were playing in the Professional Basketball League of America, an organization which would fold only a few weeks into the season. But, curiously, it was the demise of this league that solidified the Laker dynasty; one of the players without a team following the collapse of the League of America was six-foot-ten George Mikan, acknowledged by many to be the most dominant player in the game. Players from the disbanded league became subject to an NBL draft. The Lakers, by virtue of having the worst record in the league the previous year as the Detroit Gems, had the first pick, which they used to select Mikan. Now wearing his familiar number 99 in Minneapolis, George led the league in scoring and also led the Lakers to the 1947-48 NBL championship.

At that time a rival league, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), had just completed its second season. The BAA occupied large eastern cities, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, while NBL teams were located in outposts such as Moline, Illinois; Anderson, Indiana; and Flint, Michigan. But the NBL did have pro basketball’s best teams and players, at least until BAA president Maurice Podoloff was able to persuade four NBL teams, including the Lakers, to break ranks and join his association for the 1948-49 season.

Even in a new league, the Lakers were still the dominant team and had little trouble capturing the Basketball Association of America title in 1949.

The NBL was left for dead after having its best teams raided, but it hung on and was able to bring about a merger with the BAA before the 1949-50 season started. The new organization would be known as the National Basketball Association (NBA).

From the college draft that year, the Lakers added two players who would ensure that the team’s championship tradition would continue: Slater Martin, a playmaking guard from the University of Texas, and Vern Mikkelsen, a center from Hamline University in St. Paul. As a center, Mikkelsen would see limited playing time, what with Mikan already occupying the pivot. So, instead, Kundla moved him to a wing and basketball’s first “power forward” was born. And with Mikan now flanked by the six-five Pollard and the six-seven Mikkelsen, the game’s greatest frontline was created. The Lakers, in their third year, playing in their third different league, cruised to their third championship.

The title train was derailed, however, in 1950-51 when they were knocked off in the divisional playoffs by the Rochester Royals, the eventual league champions.

But the Lakers picked up what they had started before and won another three consecutive titles starting in 1951-52. They had now won six championships in seven years, and no one would deny that they were the NBA’s original dynasty.

Following the 1954 season, the game’s greatest performer—the man who had been voted the Basketball Player of the Half Century by Associated Press—retired. George Mikan had had enough of the hardwood floor, although he would stay with the team—as the Lakers’ new general manager.

The Lakers without Mikan on the court were still a good, albeit no longer a championship, team. But after the retirement of Pollard following the 1954-55 season, the team began to slide.

So dismal was the Lakers’ performance in 1955-56 that, at mid-season, Mikan returned as an active player. Even after a nearly two-year layoff, he was able to average in double figures in scoring, but the team could produce only a 33-39 record, its first losing season.

The decline continued the following year, and with attendance dropping at the Minneapolis Auditorium, the future of the franchise itself was in jeopardy. In February 1957 Ben Berger was ready to sell the Lakers to a pair of Missouri men, who planned to move the team to Kansas City. But Berger first agreed to give local interests a chance to match the Missouri groups offer.

A civic drive was initiated to sell stock in a corporation to purchase the team, and a group of more than 100 firms and individuals purchased the team from Berger. Local attorney, trucking magnate, and political maverick Bob Short was elected president of the Lakers, who would remain in Minneapolis—at least for the time being.

Under the new ownership, Kundla was moved to general manager and Mikan made the new coach. It was a short-lived arrangement, however, as George was relieved of his duties and Kundla reinstalled as coach after the Lakers won only nine of their first 39 games to start the 1957-58 season. The team did little better after Kundla’s return and finished with the worst record in the league, a situation that would at least give them the first pick in the upcoming college draft, which they used to select Elgin Baylor of Seattle University.

Demonstrating his high-flying, free-wheeling gracefulness and exceptional driving ability, Baylor was named Rookie of the Year in 1958-59 and finished third to only Bill Russell and Bob Pettit in the balloting for Player of the Year.

He also helped the Lakers, the worst team in the league the year before, make it to the championship round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in five years, although they were knocked off in four-straight by the Boston Celtics, the first of eight-consecutive NBA titles the Celtics would win.

That series would also be the end for John Kundla, who left the Lakers to accept the head coaching job with the Minnesota Gophers.

John Castellani, Baylor’s college coach, succeeded Kundla in 1959-60 but was replaced at mid-year by Jim Pollard. When the Lakers closed out the season March 25 with a 97-86 loss in St. Louis, it was becoming doubtful if they would be back in Minneapolis the following season.

The franchise was again failing financially, and Short found himself unable any longer to ignore the fertile territory on the West Coast. On April 28, 1960 he made it official with the announcement that the Lakers would be moving to Los Angeles.

During their 13 years in Minneapolis the Lakers had left many legacies. Among them was the opportunity for their fans to witness what remains the lowest-scoring games in NBA history.

The Lakers were virtually unbeatable at the Minneapolis Auditorium in their early years, and they were working on a 30-game home winning streak when they began a game with the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons on November 22, 1950. But Piston coach Murray Mendenhall decided to try a different type of strategy—stalling.

Holding the ball and inviting the Lakers to come and get it, the Pistons stayed within striking distance throughout the game and trailed by a only point as they inbounded the ball with nine seconds left in the game. Piston center Larry Foust drove and scored over Mikan and Fort Wayne had pulled out a 19-18 win. Click here for more details on the 19-18 game.

The Lakers are also remembered for a series of memorable games they played against the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters remain today as an outstanding entertainment attraction, but when they met the Lakers for the first time in 1948, they also were trying to show whether or not they were still the world’s best team.

The Trotters pulled out a 61-59 win on a long shot by Ermer Robinson at the buzzer before nearly 18,000 fans at Chicago Stadium. They beat the Lakers again the next time they met them a year later, but it would be their last victory in the series, as the Lakers won the next six games the teams played over the next nine years. Click here for more details on series with the Harlem Globetrotters.

The game was played differently, and players had different experiences in terms of travel and conditions during the time the Lakers were in Minneapolis. Click here for more on the way it was.

The Lakers were involved in a great experiment in 1954. College basketball was about to vote on whether to raise the height of the baskets in an attempt to reduce the impact of the big man on the game. In response, the NBA decided to play an official league game with 12-foot-high baskets and chose a Lakers-Milwaukee Hawks contest in Minneapolis to be the guinea pig. The Lakers won the game, 65-63, but most participants agreed that the higher baskets did not achieve the objective. “It just makes the big man bigger,” said George Mikan after the game. Click here for more details on the game with the 12-foot baskets.

The Lakers almost did not make it to Los Angeles. In fact, they almost did not make it back to Minneapolis following a game in St. Louis in January 1960. Shortly after taking off into a storm, the Lakers’ plane experienced electrical failure. Without guidance instruments (as well as without heat, lights, or defrosters) the pilots pointed the aircraft in the direction of Minneapolis. They drifted off course, however, and found themselves very low on fuel over western Iowa. Unable to find an airstrip, the pilot, with his head sticking out a side window because the windshield was frosted over, instead put the plane down in an uncut, snow-covered cornfield outside of Carroll, Iowa. A joyous group of Lakers was able to walk away safely. Click here for more details on the forced landing.

Besides the Lakers and the ephemeral St. Paul Saints team of 1947, Minnesota had one other pro basketball team during this period. The St. Paul Lights, coached by former Hamline star (and a future Laker) Howie Schultz, played in the National Professional Basketball League in 1950. This St. Paul team, however, was as short-lived as its predecessor, folding after only a few weeks of play.

The Lakers were gone, but professional basketball continued to surface over the next few years. Short brought the Lakers back for regular-season games at the Minneapolis Auditorium on several occasions. In 1966 and 1967 two other regular-season NBA games were played in the Twin Cities, one between Boston and Detroit, the other featuring St. Louis and Baltimore.

And the state got back a team of its own in 1967-68 when the Minnesota Muskies became charter members of the American Basketball Association, an organization that had its league office in Minneapolis and George Mikan as its commissioner.

The Muskies, under coach Jim Pollard, were successful on the court, producing the ABA’s second-best record. But this success was not matched at the gate, and after averaging only 2,400 fans per game in its first season at the Metropolitan Sports Center, the team was moved to Miami. Click here for more details on the Minnesota Muskies.

Basketball would remain in the area, however, when the defending ABA-champion Pittsburgh Pipers, with Connie Hawkins, the league’s Most Valuable Player, moved in to replace the Muskies. But no more fans showed up to watch the Minnesota Pipers play, and, after one season here, the team moved back to Pittsburgh. Click here for more details Minnesota Pipers.

Since that time, several NBA pre-season games and one regular-season ABA game have been played in the Twin Cities, and a Continental Basketball Association team—the Rochester Flyers—moved to the state in 1987.

The state also had a team, the Minnesota Fillies, in the Women's Professional Basketball League that operated for three seasons, beginning in 1978.

But it was not until 1989—with the birth of the Minnesota Timberwolves—that an NBA team again represented Minnesota.

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

Click here for a list of results and notes from all games played by the Minneapolis Lakers

Click here for a list of year-by-year records and individual statistics for the Minneapolis Lakers

Click here for a list of Minneapolis Lakers uniform numbers

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