The 1960 Minneapolis Lakers Team Could Have Met Their Tragic Death in a Snowy Plane Crash Months Before Moving to Los Angeles
Depending on your preferred era of fandom, you probably have a different image of the Lakers. Some will remember the Showtime era with Magic Johnson running the show; others grew up watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal dominate the league. The franchise, however, didn’t always call Hollywood home; the Lakers originally hit the hardwood in Minneapolis.
Tragedy almost struck the franchise in 1960, however. On January 18, 1960, just months before moving to LA, the Lakers’ team plane went down in a snowy Iowa cornfield.
The LA Lakers started life in Minneapolis
These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine the NBA without the LA Lakers towering over the basketball landscape. When the franchise first tipped off, though, they didn’t play in Hollywood.
In the late 1940s, two businessmen from Minnesota, Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen, bought the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League and relocated the team to Minneapolis. They dubbed the team the Lakers, in honor of the state’s 10,000 lakes; the rebranded squad promptly won a league title, thanks in large part, to George Mikan.
The Lakers joined the newly-formed Basketball Association of America in 1948 and continued as a dominant power; While things became a bit tougher after Mikan retired, the team didn’t have to go too long without a star.
When the 1958 NBA draft rolled around, the Lakers scored Elgin Baylor with the first-overall pick. The forward promptly claimed Rookie of the Year honors and quickly helped the Lakers return to their best. During the 1959-60 campaign, however, things were almost derailed by near-tragedy away from the court.
A team flight almost ended in disaster
Under ordinary circumstances, the flight home from an away game is nothing out of the ordinary. During January 1960, however, the Minneapolis Lakers’ trip back to Minnesota was anything but routine.
As Jerry Zogda explained in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, nine members of the Lakers roster, plus the rest of their traveling party, piled onto a DC-3 propeller plane. While snow delayed their flight out of St. Louis, they eventually made it into the air.
Shortly after takeoff, though, there was an issue. “The lights died,” Zogda wrote. “The heat went out. So, too, did the plane’s instruments: radio, fuel gauge, even a compass eventually, everything but a vacuum-driven artificial horizon indicator.”
As the passengers huddled under blankets in the cabin, the pilots resorted to desperate measures, climbing above the clouds and literally sticking their heads out the window to see where they were flying. Eventually, they located a highway and followed it, hoping to find a major city.
Instead, they located Carroll, Iowa, and, after what seemed like an eternity in the air, landed in a cornfield. “If we hadn’t found that cornfield, we’d have found our destiny out there,” Harold Gifford, one of the plane’s pilots, said.
The Lakers survived that crash landing, finished the season, and moved to California
Had the Minneapolis Lakers ‘found their destiny’ that night, basketball history would have changed forever. The team, however, landed safely in the cornfield and went on with their season.
That year, the Lakers finished the campaign 25-50, ultimately falling in the Division Finals. They also earned the second-overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft and used it to select Jerry West. Then, owner Bob Short decided to pack up and head to Hollywood; the LA Lakers were born and first took the court for the 1960-61 campaign.
While it took some time for them to win another championship, those LA Lakers grew into the team we know and love (or hate) today. Although it’s impossible to know what would have exactly happened, NBA history would have looked much different if that fateful flight in 1960 went differently.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference