(First of five parts in this Final Four week on Minnesota basketball)
The Minneapolis Lakers arrived on the Twin Cities sports scene in the fall of 1947 and spoiled the locals by winning six championships in the next seven seasons: the first in the National Basketball League in 1948, followed by five in the NBA or its predecessor, the Basketball Association of America.
George Mikan, the game’s dominant player, retired after the sixth title in 1954. He came back briefly a couple of years later, but hard times on the court had ensued and soon ownership changed, with Bob Short heading a group that purchased the franchise.
The NBA was an eight-team league in 1957-58, and the Lakers, old and slow, finished 19-53 – the worst record by 14 games. In addition to a losing team, the Lakers still were dealing with a poor arena situation:
The Gophers would not allow the use of Williams Arena. The Minneapolis Auditorium, the preferred location, was often tied up with other events and the Lakers would find themselves in the Armory, a third-rate facility at the time. They also would play in St. Paul, and even had their first playoff game in 1959 at Hamline’s historic but small gymnasium (the Norton Fieldhouse, now Hutton Arena).
As Short and the Lakers contemplated a bleak future in March 1958, Elgin Baylor, a 6-foot-5 forward, was leading the Chieftains of Seattle University to the NCAA title game. Kentucky defeated Seattle 84-72 in Louisville, yet Baylor was voted as the outstanding player in the Final Four.
Eligin was a junior at Seattle and eligible for the NBA draft. He was an easy No. 1 overall choice for the woebegone Lakers – as long as Short could sign him.
Short went to visit Elgin’s family in Washington, D.C. and offered a $20,000 contract, a princely sum for that time. “If he had turned me down, I would have been out of business,’’ Short said years later.
The travel schedule that Baylor and the rest of the Lakers endured in 1958-59 was an abomination. (Note: We won’t get into the emergency landing in an Iowa corn field early on the morning of Jan. 18, 1960; where, by several accounts, Elgin displayed considerable pessimism as the pilots took this action.)
There were 21 home games played in Minneapolis for the 1958-59 season, and 15 others played all over the country, some NBA doubleheaders, others one-offs scheduled by Short in looking for a payday.
There were other NBA teams doing the same. The Cincinnati Royals scheduled a home game vs. the Lakers in Charleston, West Virginia on Jan. 16, 1959. A local business club had put up $6,500 to host the game.
The Lakers’ original hotel in Charleston was segregated and the team moved to another hotel. Then, Baylor tried to get dinner, was refused service and decided not to dress for the game. Two other black players on the team, Boo Ellis and Ed Fleming, did play. Short backed Baylor for this decision.
Five weeks later, playing Cincinnati in doubleheader in Detroit, Baylor scored 55 points, the third-highest point total in NBA history. For the season, the Lakers finished 33-39, which was second in the four-team West Division.
There was a mini-series that the Lakers won 2-1 over Detroit. Then came a best-of-7 for the West title against the St. Louis Hawks, defending NBA champions and heavily-favored.
The Lakers, down 2-1, won three straight with Baylor scoring 32, 36 and 33 points. The elimination game was a 106-104 victory that was played in front of a crowd that Short claimed was 10,179 inside the Armory.
The Lakers then were swept in four in the NBA finals by the Boston Celtics.
Short declared the Armory to be the Lakers’ primary arena for 1959-60, and there were a few bucks spent on refurbishment. The season opener was played on Oct. 18, on national television, and Baylor scored 52 points – in a 106-105 loss to Detroit.
Apparently the sweep at the hands of the Celtics had taken all the pizzazz out of those alleged 10,000 that had been in the Armory six months earlier. The crowd for the opener was 2,073.
And on Nov. 8, when Boston came to town, Short had moved the game to the Auditorium in anticipation of a large crowd -- and attendance was 2,001. The fans missed Baylor scoring an NBA record 64 points, and the Lakers beating Boston, 136-113, to end a 22-game losing streak to the Celtics.
A good share of the apathy was based on a strong feeling that Short was going to move the Lakers – probably to Los Angeles. Somehow, Baylor and the Lakers, after a 25-50 regular season, once again beat Detroit in a mini-series and pushed the favored Hawks to seven games in the West finals.
The last-ever Minneapolis Lakers game was a 97-86 loss to the Hawks in the Washington University gym in St. Louis on March 26, 1960. Baylor scored 33, above his regular-season average of 29.6.
Over his next three seasons, Baylor would average 34.8, 38.3 and 34.0, although those would come in Los Angeles. He scored a Finals-record 61 for the Lakers vs. the Celtics in 1962.
Short and the NBA officially announced the move to L.A. on April 28. Five years later, Short sold the Lakers to Jack Kent Cooke for an unheard-of $5 million.
The last official act under the label Minneapolis Lakers had come on April 11, when they selected Jerry West of West Virginia with the second choice in the 1960 NBA draft, after Cincinnati had taken Oscar Robertson.
Ranking bad luck in Minnesota franchise history:
Never being able to see the Elgin Baylor and Jerry West teamed up as Minneapolis Lakers has to be near the top, I’d say.
(Tuesday: When the NAIA All-Stars came to Minnesota for the 1967 Pan-Am Trials).