Minneapolis Lakers
19-18 Loss

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

Lakers’ frontline of Pollard, Mikkelsen, Mikan
The Lakers’ great frontline
of Pollard, Mikkelsen, and Mikan

As the National Basketball Association prepared for the opening of the 1950-51 season, it had been nearly three years since a pair of Minneapolis men had purchased the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League, moved the team to Minneapolis, and renamed it the Lakers.

For their $15,000, Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen received little more than a few old basketballs, some useless uniforms, and a piece of paper saying that they now owned a National Basketball League franchise. The existing talent on the team did little to excite the new owners; the previous year, the Detroit Gems had won only four of forty-four games.

But, building from scratch, Berger and Chalfen, along with general manager Max Winter, produced a winner. Under coach John Kundla, the Lakers won the National Basketball League championship their first year in existence.

At that time, there was a rival league, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), in operation. The BAA occupied larger, eastern cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, while the NBL embraced such outposts as Flint, Michigan; Anderson, Indiana; and Moline, Illinois. The NBL, however, could still boast the better teams and the better players.

But following the 1947-48 season, BAA president Maurice Podoloff persuaded four NBL teams—the Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Indianapolis Kautskys, and the Lakers—to defect and join the BAA. Even in a new league, and against different competition, the Lakers had little trouble cruising to another championship in 1948-49.

Peace between the rival leagues was reached over the summer of 1949. The National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America merged to form the National Basketball Association. Once again, the Lakers rose to the top. In their third year of existence, playing in their third league, they won their third championship. They were clearly the game’s greatest team.

The Lakers could boast the most formidable front line in the game. In the middle was six-foot- nine George Mikan, who would be voted “The Greatest Basketball Player of the First Half- Century.” Next to Mikan was six-seven Vern Mikkelsen from nearby Hamline University, and operating out of the corner was six-five Jim Pollard, a former All-American at Stanford.

The Laker backcourt consisted of playmaker and defensive specialist Slater Martin and Bob Harrison. Off the bench, the Lakers could bring in veterans Tony Jaros, a product of the Minneapolis City Conference at Edison High and the Minnesota Gophers, Arnie Ferrin, who had led his University of Utah team to the 1943 NCAA title, and Harry “Bud ” Grant, who would play two years with the Lakers before going on to an career as a player and coach in the Canadian and National Football Leagues.

As tough as it was to beat the Lakers anywhere, the chore became virtually impossible at the Minneapolis Auditorium. With the Auditorium floor four feet narrower than that of a normal-sized court, it made the defensive wall thrown up by the Laker Big Three seem even more impenetrable.

The previous season they had been defeated only once at home, and it had been nearly a year since they had suffered a home-court loss as they prepared for a game against the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons at the Minneapolis Auditorium Wednesday, November 22, 1950. As it turned out, though, Pistons coach Murray Mendenhall had prepared even better.

“Mendenhall,” reported the Minneapolis Star on the day of the game, “is still awed by the name Mikan, but he promises quite a tussle when his Fort Wayne quint moves in on the Minneapolis Lakers tonight.”

“There’s only one Mikan,” said Mendenhall. “I’ve been trying for three years to do something about him, but nothing works.”

But for this game, Murray had come up with a new idea, and his strategy became apparent from the opening tip.

Fort Wayne controlled the jump and Mikan, flanked by Pollard and Mikkelsen, lumbered into defensive position. But as the trio turned around, they saw Pistons center Larry Foust standing at mid-court with the ball on his hip. And that’s where Foust—and the ball—stayed. Foust was under strict orders from Mendenhall to do nothing until the Lakers came out to play man- to-man.

The officials—Stan Stutz and Jocko Collins—screamed at Mendenhall and the Pistons to play ball. Mendenhall fired back that Minneapolis was playing an illegal zone defense, a charge that Lakers coach Kundla denied.

Meanwhile, the Auditorium crowd of 7,021 began to boo and stomp their feet in response to the inactivity. But Fort Wayne stuck to its game plan as they held the ball for as long as three minutes at a time. When one playing got tired of holding the ball, he’d flip it to a teammate, who would then tuck it under his arm.

Every so often, a bored Slater Martin would press and try to force a turnover. When he was successful in doing so, the Lakers would hustle downcourt and, after three passes (the last one usually to Mikan), put up a shot.

The standoffs were thus interrupted by brief flurries of action—enough to give Fort Wayne an 8-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The stall was producing the desired effect for the Pistons, as it seemed to unnerve Minneapolis, even on the few occasions when the Lakers had possession. Martin missed a fast-break layup in the first period, and Bob Harrison missed another in the second.

A free throw by Mikan with 1:55 left in the half gave Minneapolis an 11-10 lead. After the Pistons retied the game, Mikan pushed in another basket with a half minute to go, and the Lakers carried a 13-11 edge into the locker room. Twelve of the Lakers’ 13 points in the half had been scored by Mikan.

Fort Wayne continued its tactics in the second half, even though they were trailing. “We thought ‘Why go after them?C,” recalled Vern Mikkelsen. “As long as we were ahead and they were holding the ball, there was no point in our trying to create anything.”

The LakersV edge stood at 17-16 entering the fourth quarter. A free throw by Foust tied the scored with 6:10 to go in the game. But Jim Pollard dropped a free throw 12 seconds later to put the Lakers back out front, 18-17.

That score remained as the game entered the final minute. Now it was the Lakers’ turn to stall as Fort Wayne hustled to get the ball back. With nine seconds left, the Pistons forced a turnover as an errant Laker pass sailed out of bounds.

Paul “Curly ” Armstrong took the inbound pass and immediately fed the breaking Foust, who tried to put a running hook shot over Mikan’s outstretched arms. Mikan got a hand on the ball, but Foust’s shot still had enough on it to drop through the rim and give the Pistons a 19-18 lead.

Minneapolis roared back down the floor, but Martin’s shot hit off the rim as the final horn went off, ending the lowest-scoring game in the history of the NBA.

Mikan was game high with 15 points, and he produced the Lakers’ only four field goals of the evening.

Comments overheard from the fans leaving the Auditorium included, “It was the best passing clinic I’ve ever seen. I’m sorry I missed the one on shooting.” The spectators weren’t the only ones fuming. John Kundla commented, “If that’s basketball, I don’t want any part of it.”

“What was wrong with it?” countered Mendenhall. “We won, didn’t we? We wanted to get those giants out in the open where we would have a chance to play basketball, not get our heads kicked in.”

Sportswriter Charlie Johnson called the exhibition a “sports tragedy.” But Minneapolis Tribune columnist Dick Cullum defended the stall as Fort Wayne’s best chance to win: “Therefore, it cannot be criticized for using it. It is a low conception of sports to say that a team’s first duty is to give you a lot of senseless action instead of earnest competition.”

Cullum also saw the game as a remarkable study in basketball tactics that “in a way, may have been the best basketball game played by the pros in Minneapolis.”

Jim Pollard concurred. “Maybe Mendenhall was smart in not playing a regular type of game,” he recalled years later. “Anytime the Lakers and Pistons played an ordinary type of game, we beat them because we had that much more talent. So he decided he wanted to do something different and make it a more competitive game, and he certainly did.”

“The name of the game is to win,” added Mikkelsen, “particularly when you’re playing on the road. That may have been the key to it. Since the game was in Minneapolis, Mendenhall had nothing to lose; after all, he wasn’t alienating his fans.”

But alienation of the fans was something that concerned Maurice Podoloff. “It seems to me that the teams showed complete disregard for the interest of the fans by the type of game they played,” said the league president the day after the game.

Max Winter was in New York for an already-scheduled meeting on Friday, and he made sure that the matter was placed on the agenda. Podoloff also summoned the referees to the meeting and wanted Kundla and Mendenhall in attendance as well, although both coaches had games that night and were unavailable.

Several rule changes were discussed at the meeting, although a shot clock, which would limit the amount of time a team could keep possession of the ball without taking a shot, was not among them.

Many people remember the shot clock being introduced shortly after this game; in reality, however, it was not until the 1954-55 season, nearly four years later, that such a system was implemented. Nevertheless, it was reported that a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached between the teams to not resort to such tactics in the future. A full-game stall was never again witnessed in the NBA (although stalling tactics remained common toward the ends of games until the shot clock was finally implemented).

The cities that precede the team names have been changed—Minneapolis to Los Angeles and Fort Wayne to Detroit—but the Lakers and Pistons continue to battle today. They’ve met several times in NBA finals the last two years, but the most memorable game ever played between these two teams remains the 19-18 game that took place nearly 40 years ago.

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

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