From Minneapolis to LA: The Birth of the Lakers

By Lamar Hull

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Lamar Hull is a former NCAA college basketball player who also played on the European professional circuit. He now writes for Direct2tv.com. He loves researching and discovering new things about the game of basketball and sports. You can also follow Lamar at inspirationalbasketball.com

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The LA Lakers, now considered one of the NBA’s best teams, began their history as the Detroit Gems, a team in the National Basketball League which was disbanded in 1947 after just one season following what many consider to be the worst record of any professional basketball team in existence at the time, with a win-loss record of only 4-40. At that time three men from Minnesota, movie theater owner Ben Berger, local sports writer Sid Hartman and Sports promoter Morris Chalfen, bought them for $15,000.

When they bought the Gems, all they had was the team’s equipment, as all of its players had gone to other basketball teams. So they had to rebuild the team from scratch, getting first choice in the League’s Draft that year, they managed to get famous 6’10 center George Mikan, a college basketball star from DePaul University, who had just recently defunct on a PBLA team, the Chicago American Gears. When both the team and the league folded, Mikan was selected to be the newest center for the Lakers. The team was renamed the Lakers after Minnesota’s nickname, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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George Mikan

With this new team, including coach John Kundla who was from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, general manager and future founder of the NFL Minnesota Vikings Max Winter, legendary forwards Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, as well as Bob Harrison and Slater Martin-and Clyde Lovellette joining in the 1953-54 season, they would become a powerhouse in the first years of the NBA, with a team that would be full of players that would later become hall of famers. They won the NBL championship in the 1948 season, which was their very first season, and the following year they moved to the Basketball Association of America along with three other teams. The Lakers would remain there until the National Basketball Association was formed out of a merger of the two leagues in 1950. As the NBA considers the BAA their direct predecessor, the 1948 NBL championship is not recognized as a victory by the NBA today.

In ’49 and ’50 they won the Championship again with Mikan scoring a 27.4 point average in the ’51 regular season and 31 in the playoffs, and then lost in the 1951 Western division playoffs to the Rochester Royals(now the Sacramento Kings) 4 games to 1. The NBA tried to slow Mikan down by doubling the foul lane’s width to its present width of twelve feet in the 1951 offseason, which actually made his game better, and the Lakers won the championship again from 1952-54, making them the first of the NBA’s true dynasties and the first NBA three-peat championship winners. But that was the last of the Minnesota Lakers’ heydays.

After the 1954 season Mikan retired due to knee injuries, and also due to disagreements concerning the new players’ contract, replacing Max Winter as the Lakers’ new General Manager. That same year the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock partially in response to a 1950 game that the Lakers played against the Fort Wayne Pistons that still ranks as the lowest scoring game in NBA history with a score of 19 to 18. This a now a key component of the game, but at the time these changes forced the Lakers to play their game in an entirely new and alien style to them.

In 1955, the Lakers had their worst season since coming to Minnesota, losing the Western Division playoffs to the Fort Wayne Pistons, and combined with the age of the teammates now averaging between 26 and 30, making them some of the oldest in the league at the time, George Mikan was convinced to come out of retirement for the next year while Jim Pollard retired.

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Elgin Baylor

The injuries he had sustained to his knees and his ankles during his glory days had taken their toll however, and his play wasn’t what fans expected or hoped for. So, in 1956, Mikan retired from the sport in the midst of the season, never to return as a player. Attendance at games dropped sharply and never recovered, worsened by the fact that there wasn’t a single home venue for the team. Instead, they leapfrogged between two coliseums in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1957 after the team lost the playoffs twice to the St. Louis Hawks, the team was nearly sold and moved to Kansas City, and was only kept in Minneapolis after a group of roughly 100 Twin Cities area businessmen, led by trucking executive Bob Short, bought the team from Berger for $150,000. Short himself became the Team’s president and owner.

George Mikan did return however as head coach in 1958 while Kundla became Manager for the team, but it wasn’t long before both the team and Mikan himself discovered how completely unsuited he was to the task. He quit midseason with a dismal win-loss record and Kundla returned, too late to keep the team from suffering a crushing 19-53 record, putting them in last place in the NBA standings and giving the Lakers their worst seasonal record in Minnesota. This last place finish however turned out to be a lucky break, as it gave them first pick in the following year’s NBA Draft, and they were able to pick up 6’5 Elgin Baylor as their new star forward.

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In 1959 with his help, they made it to the playoffs, and Baylor himself became the NBA Rookie of the year, but they were beaten by the up-and-coming Boston Celtics in the league’s first four-game sweep, starting a classic rivalry that lasts to this very day despite the Lakers’ change of address. In 1959, Kundla retired as head coach and was replaced by Elgin Baylor’s old coach at Seattle University, John Castellani. He left mid-season because of his lackluster win-loss record and was replaced by former player Jim Pollard, who himself fared any better. 1960 was their last season in Minnesota, and although they made it to the playoffs with a 25-50 record and Baylor continued to be the team’s shining star, they were once again beaten by the St. Louis Hawks.

During this last season in Minnesota, Short noticed how well the Brooklyn Dodgers did after becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, the first Baseball team on the west coast. Their attendance was higher, the team played better than they had done in years and the team was consequently making money, a sharp contrast to the Lakers at the time. The Twin Cities were turning toward professional Hockey as their sport of choice. With low attendance (despite Baylor revitalizing the team) and severe and worsening financial problems in the Twin Cities, Short tried to move the team to either Chicago or San Francisco before moving the team in Los Angeles in 1961 making them the first NBA team on the west coast. Despite the lack of natural lakes around the city, Short decided to keep the name Lakers. Minnesota, meanwhile, would have to wait 28 years before they got another NBA team of their own, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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