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Relocated NBA Teams: The Minneapolis Lakers

The successful Lakers franchise of the NBA was once based in the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota. The team was then known as the “Minneapolis Lakers” and represented one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. The team began life as the Detroit Gems who played in the NBL. In 1947, after just one season in play, the Gems were purchased by Morris Chalfen and Ben Berger for $15,000. The team was moved to Minneapolis and renamed the “Minneapolis Lakers” due to the city’s nickname “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” The Lakers’ home stadium was the Minneapolis Auditorium.

George Mikan widely considered the first NBA superstar was signed by the Lakers following a strange stroke of luck. The 6-10 giant was contracted with the Chicago American Gears whom he had led to the 1946 NBL title. The Gears were moved by their owner Maurice White to his startup league, the Professional Basketball League before the start of the 1948/48 campaign. The new league lasted only one month before folding, with Gears’ players being redistributed among NBL teams. Lakers landed Mikan, setting the stage for a period of unprecedented success in which Mikan was a dominant force.

Between 1948 and 1954, the Lakers swept all but one of the NBL/NBA championships on offer. During their 13-year stint in Minneapolis, the Lakers failed to make the playoffs just once. Mikan was undoubtedly the driving force behind their early exploits as his all round play made him completely unstoppable. He was so good that the 1951 introduction of a bigger foul lane was made just to slow down his scoring. When he retired in 1954, the Lakers would only make one more NBA Finals appearance, in 1959 which they lost to the Boston Celtics to sow the seeds of their fierce rivalry which remains to this day. On November 22, 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons had used an unorthodox method to stop him from scoring. They held possession and fouled Lakers players whenever Lakers had possession. The Pistons eked out a 19-18 win over the frustrated Lakers in what remains the lowest scoring game in NBA history. This infamous game necessitated the introduction of the24-second shot clock and six team fouls limit the following season but the effect it would have on Mikan’s game would of course remain unknown.

After the 1959 NBA Finals, the Lakers would make headlines again but not for their sporting prowess. Rather, it was a brush with death as the team flew back to Minneapolis from an away loss in St. Louis on Jan 17, 1960. The plane carrying nine players, the coach and 13 other passengers including family of team members was caught in a snow storm that reduced visibility to zero and knocked out the plane’s electronic system. At one point, one of the pilots had to reach a hand out the window and manually wipe the windshield. Eventually, the pilots brought the plane under the 500 foot cloud and managed to land it in a corn field in Iowa. No one was killed or seriously injured. One of the first few spectators on the scene was a mortician who good humoredly told the relieved passengers, “Thought I had some business tonight, boys.”

Why were the Minneapolis Lakers Relocated?

Following the retirement of Mikan in 1954, the Lakers were unable to replicate the success of their opening six years. This, along with the increased appeal of ice hockey in the Twin Cities region saw attendance fall dramatically during the next five seasons. The Lakers soon fell into financial trouble and their continued stay in Minneapolis seemed more and more unlikely. With the NBA looking to expand to the West Coast, the prospect of a move there appealed to team owner Bob Short. The MLB’s Brooklyn Dodgers had made a similar move in 1958 and turned around their financial fortunes in dramatic fashion. Short hoped to replicate the Dodgers revival and he relocated the team to Los Angeles in 1961 making it the first NBA franchise on the West Coast. The team retained the “Lakers” moniker despite the absence of natural lakes around LA. Minnesota would be without NBA action for 28 years before the arrival of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989.

Minneapolis Lakers Notable Players

George Mikan C 1948-54, 1955/56

Clyde Lovellette C 1953-1957

Jim Pollard F 1947-1955

Vern Mikkelsen F 1949-1958

Slater Martin G 1949-1956

Elgin Baylor F 1958-1960

Bob Harrison G 1949-1955

Bob Leonard G 1956-1960

Ed Kalafat C 1954-1957

Dick Garmaker SG 1955-1960

Larry Foust C 1957-1960

Rod Hundley G 1957-1960

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