Minneapolis Lakers
The Way It Was

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

Phi Slamma Jamma, Shake ‘n Bake, Showtime, In Your Face. These were hardly the terms that were used to describe basketball in its formative years, in the days before the moves one could make with the ball were viewed as an art form—a type of self-expression. Streetcars, not limousines, were the common mode of transportation to the games for the fans.

Slam-dunk contests were unheard of. Few players, in fact, could stuff the ball, and it was rarely done by those who could. One of those, Jim Pollard, explained, “It (the dunk) was thought of as a hot-dog trick.” Added Slater Martin, “Back when we played, when a guy got a dunk, the next thing you did was to try to either knock him down or hurt him.”

In the very early years of the sport, according to historian Zander Hollander, “games resembled tribal warfare. Walls and pillars in the small gyms would form part of the boundaries, and tactics called for balls and opponents to be bounced off the woodwork.”

Basketball had become more civilized by the time Minneapolis got its first professional franchise, but the game of the 1940s and early 1950s could still be distinguished by its roughness. Basketball continues to entail much bruising body contact (and as long as it has large people moving about in a confined area, it always will), but it has had a steady decline in fury compared to what it once was.

The area under the boards was a no-man’s land in the early years, and it was virtually impossible to see a foul called as teams fought for a rebound.

The owners were partially responsible for the rough play; they were afraid that if the officials called too tight a game, it would slow up the game. Thus, it made sense for the players to play a physical game.

But the rules themselves also encouraged rough play and fouling. There initially was no limit on team fouls per quarter, and a non-shooting foul garnered only one free throw. It was good strategy to give a player a chance for one free throw, while taking away his opportunity for a field goal. And the foul would often be delivered in such a manner as to leave the shooter a mite discombobulated as he stepped to the line.

With no restrictions on how often the ball had to be shot, a team with a lead had no incentive to increase its margin. Late in the game, when the excitement should have been reaching its peak, the game often deteriorated into a contest of foul trading and the team with the lead would stall.

The Lakers had once been victimized by the slowdown strategy—in their 19-18 loss to Fort Wayne. Only two weeks after that another example occurred as Rochester and Indianapolis played a five-overtime game. The score was 73-73 at the end of regulation play. After five more periods totaling 25-five minutes, the final score was 75-73 in favor of Indianapolis.

In each extra period the team that controlled the jump held the ball for one shot at the buzzer. One might consider a five-overtime game to be rather exciting; in this one, however, Rochester fans exited en masse while the game was still going on. There were other games that epitomized both the rough and the tedious style of play of that period.

A playoff game in 1954 between the Celtics and Knicks featured, according to Leonard Koppett in his book, Championship NBA, “the sort of distasteful foul-filled, squabbling-and-scrambling, referee-baiting exhibition that was becoming more common.” The game, unfortunately for the league, was shown to a national television audience, which didn’t even get to see the end of it. Boston won, 79-78, but the game, which lasted three hours, was abandoned by the network before it was finished.

One year before that the Celtics were involved in a playoff game with Syracuse, this one a four-overtime marathon in which 107 fouls were called. There were 130 free-throws shot in the game. Bob Cousy set a new playoff record with 50 points—30 of them from the free-throw line. The Nationals’ Dolph Schayes had been ejected in the second quarter after a fistfight with Boston’s Bob Brannum. (Brannum was also thrown out, but Syracuse considered this hardly an even exchange.) After Schayes’s exit, the Nats had nine players left. Seven of those finished the game with six fouls, which meant that the last three men disqualified were allowed to play, but were charged with a technical foul for each additional personal foul they committed. Fortunately for the game, this exhibition described by Leonard Koppett as “a lingering death” was not televised and was witnessed only by those present at Boston Garden that afternoon.

The NBA Board of Governors responded to the problems, however, and in the next few years they took action to eliminate the stalling and cut down on the fouling and rough play. The early game featured few men as tall as George Mikan—there weren’t that many in the general population to begin with. Centers scored most of their points hooking and wheeling from within the pivot. Guards used a two-handed set shot (some of the more daring used only one hand, but still shot from a set position. The new breed of jump shooters—Jim Pollard, Joe Fulks—operated mainly from the corner.)

With no shot clock in effect, teams could take as much time as they needed and would get their shots by slowly working the ball to their shooters or inside to their big man. The result was a tedious style of play that, many said, was characterized by the Minneapolis Lakers. It was said that the Minneapolis attack was as imaginative as a knee in the groin: Mikan, Mikkelsen, or Pollard grabbing a rebound, tossing the ball to Slater Martin, who would leisurely dribble into the forecourt as they waited for Mikan to move into the pivot. “Wait for Mikan,” said some, had become the Lakers’ battle cry.

But John Kundla says the Lakers, contrary to what most people remember, were a team that did a lot of fast-breaking, particularly since, with their Big Three, they could count on getting the defensive rebound. “If we couldn’t get the fast break,” said John, “then we’d slow it down and work it into Mikan.”

Kundla and one of his former players, Swede Carlson, agree on the fundamental difference between their style of play and the way the game is played now. “The game today is strictly one-on-one,” Carlson said. Kundla adds, “Our half-court offense was really feared. It didn’t matter what kind of defense the other team played. If they’d press, Mikan would come out high and it would open up the middle. Back then, you couldn’t freelance like they do today. You had to have the plays.”

Carlson described a typical Lakers play: “I would cut first and [Herm] Schaefer would cut right off my tail. We’d have a forward going across the middle and the guard coming around the outside—things like that—more of a set offense than there is today.”

Carlson also recalled another feature of the early game—the absence of a rule prohibiting defensive goaltending. Carlson once played against seven-foot giant Bob Kurland, who would station himself in front of the basket and swat away shots. Said Carlson, “You’d come in and fake and fake and fake, try to get him to move, then shoot quickly.”

The game was arbitrated by part-time referees. At that time, officiating was not a sole means of income. Even full-time trainers were a luxury whose time had not yet arrived. The Lakers did get trainers in their final years in Minneapolis—Bob Polk, Lloyd “Snapper” Stein, and Glenn Gostick. Before that, “I used to do all the taping,” says Kundla. “If there was a serious injury, we’d have to call for a doctor in the house.”

Teams traveled with none of the entourage that accompanies a team today and takes care of all their needs. “The first thing we would do when we got to a hotel,” said Vern Mikkelsen, “was take out our uniforms and gear and hang it over the radiator so it would dry for the next game. You learned to live with that smell.”

As for the travel, it often was far more grueling than the game itself. Initially, a cross-country trip meant train travel. Vern Mikkelsen describes an all-too frequent event for the Lakers: returning home from Rochester, New York. “We often played a Saturday night game there and had to get back to Minneapolis for a Sunday night game. The only way we could make it was the New York Central, which came out of New York City at 8:00 at night and would hit Rochester at 10:22. It wasn’t scheduled to stop in Rochester, but we had twelve guys who wanted to get on it, so they’d stop for us.

“We’d watch the clock during the game. If it went into overtime it was a horrible deal. More times than not, we’d end up getting done about 10:12. We wouldn’t take a shower, wouldn’t even change clothes, you would just put an overcoat over your uniform and grab your clothes, get in the cabs, get to the train, flag it down and get on. We’d spend all night on that train, then catch the 8 a.m. train out of Chicago and get back to Minneapolis at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon and have a few hours before the game that night.

“We spent more time on trains than we did at home. We knew every schedule, every porter, every dining-car waiter. . . ”

Mikkelsen went on to relate one of the other travails of travel: “Usually we’d get these roomettes on the train, but if you’re six-seven, you’d feel like you were in a coffin. There was no way you could stretch out. And if you had claustrophobia, you were in trouble.

“One time someone had screwed up the advance reservations and we couldn’t get the roomettes. Instead we had the old-fashioned sleeping cars—the Pullman cars with the curtains and double bunks. All that was left by the time we got on was the upper bunks, and here we had all this stinkin’ gear. We hadn’t showered, our uniforms were wringing wet, and we hung all that stuff around. They had steam heat at that time, and at about four in the morning, those poor people down below woke up to that odor of our dirty uniforms.”

Mikkelsen added that they would look forward to a foul up on the trains, so that they would have to be flown. But even flying at that time was not a sure means of comfort.

Bud Grant remembered a plane trip in which they came across a storm over the Great Lakes: “The plane wasn’t pressurized, so we couldn’t fly over the storm. To get around it would have taken forever, so they finally decided to fly straight through it. We got knocked and bounced around all over the place. I looked out the window and saw the wing pointing way up in the air. The next time I looked out I almost thought the wing had fallen off, it was pointing so far down.”

In the later 1950s, the Lakers purchased a DC-3 charter plane (a rebuilt World War II C-47 cargo plane that had flown the Hump during the war, Mikkelsen claimed). But even in this plane a trip from Boston to Minneapolis could take over twelve hours.

“With the prevailing winds being headwinds—west to east—we had to stop four times for gas,” said Mikkelsen. “At four in the morning we’d be somewhere in the upper peninsula of Michigan, trying to find someone to bring a gas truck out to refuel.” (This same DC-3 would be involved in a harrowing journey with the Lakers in 1960.)

Fred Zollner of the Fort Wayne Pistons was one of the first owners to purchase a plane for his team. And once in the mid-1950s, Zollner offered his DC-3 to the Lakers. It was an offer accepted by all but one.

The Lakers had left Minneapolis one morning for a game that night in Fort Wayne. The temperature was 15 below zero, the train left Minneapolis late, experienced other problems because of the cold weather, and it was running well behind schedule as it pulled into Milwaukee. Zollner had been made aware of the train’s tardiness and sent his plane to Milwaukee to pick up the Lakers. John Kundla, however, had gone to the dining car and didn’t receive the message to get off the train.

“The rest of us got off and stood on the platform as the train pulled out,” recalled Mikkelsen. “I still remember the expression on John’s face as he looked out the window and saw us. We all waved at him as he wondered what was going on.”

Kundla tried to get off the train, but couldn’t, and the Lakers were without him as they took the floor in Fort Wayne. Pollard took over as acting coach and got the game started. Near the end of the first half a huge roar went up as the fans spotted Kundla, still in his storm coat, trying to make his way to the Laker bench without being seen.

“I took quite a razzing from the guys for that,” said John, “especially since we were ahead by eight when I arrived and we ended up losing by five.”

As for the arenas, they were hardly the palaces that NBA teams now play in. The arena in Baltimore was a converted trolley car barn, and the Pittsburgh Ironmen played on a floor that had huge gaps between the boards, recalled Swede Carlson, who played there while a member of the Chicago Stags. “When you cut, you could feel the edge of the board dig into your foot,” said Swede.

In Fort Wayne, the Pistons played in the gymnasium of the North Side High School. Like the gyms of most Indiana high schools of that period, this one had a sunken floor surrounded by concrete walls about six feet high. There was little room between the boundary lines and the walls. The bleachers started at the top of the wall and the fans sat almost on top of the players. “Like throwing Daniel to the lions,” said Mikkelsen of the arena known by most players as “The Snake Pit.”

Syracuse’s State Fair Coliseum was a musty, dimly-lit arena with very poor ventilation. George Mikan once made the mistake of letting on that the smoke in the building bothered him. “The next time in there,” said Mikkelsen, “it seemed like everyone in the place was smoking a cigar. By the third quarter, there were layers of smoke hanging over the floor; you’d have to look between the layers to find your way down court.”

The Syracuse Coliseum was also known for its guide-wires, which supported the basket, extending into the crowd. When an opposing team was shooting a free-throw, the fans would yank on the guide-wires, causing the basket to shake.

Playing in Waterloo, the visiting team had to put up with a huge heating unit at one end of the court, which could be turned on to blow hot air on the opposition as they ran up court. The Rochester Royals played at the Edgerton Park Sports Arena, which had a set of double doors on the wall behind the basket. There was little room beyond the baseline, and a player driving for a layup could go charging through the doors and into four feet of snow. “I did that my first year in the league,” said Mikkelsen. “After that you learned to angle off and avoid the doors.”

Swede Carlson remembers a similar setup in Midland, Michigan, in the arena that housed the Flint Dow Chemical team. “Here they had swinging doors. You could get pushed into them and just swing right around and come running right back in.”

But perhaps the oddest arrangement was in St. Louis’s Kiel Auditorium, which was a double building. One half was the convention hall with the basketball arena; the other half was a theatre. The stages of the two sides backed up against one another and had a movable stage between them. Out of the locker rooms, a right turn would take a person to the basketball arena. Left was the way to the theatre.

“They’d sometimes have the ballet going on at the same time as a basketball game,” said Mikkelsen. “We always had to make sure we went the right direction or we could have ended up right in the middle of Swan Lake.”

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

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