Kobe Bryant made his final regular-season appearance at Target Center on Wednesday night with the Los Angeles Lakers against the Timberwolves. Having the former Minnesota franchise in town brought back a lot of memories from when I was involved with Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen, and they bought the Detroit Gems in 1947 from owner Morris Winston for $15,000.
Max Winter joined the ownership group after the franchise was acquired and named the Minneapolis Lakers.
It’s amazing to see how the NBA has become such a major enterprise — signing a nine-year, $24 billion TV deal just over a year ago — when back in the late ’40s, professional franchises were based in cities such as Sheboygan and Oshkosh, Wis., and even the Tri-Cities of Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa.
In those days, the newspaper sports staff made little salary, so editors allowed them to hold outside jobs in public relations. I was allowed to be involved with the Lakers.
The team might still be here if they’d had their own place to play. It was more important in those days for the Minneapolis Auditorium to schedule events such as the Sportsmen’s Show, the Builders Show and other types of entertainment to take over the building and bump aside the Lakers.
The Lakers won one Basketball Association of America championship and four NBA championships from 1949-54, playing in the Minneapolis Armory and the St. Paul Auditorium when the Minneapolis Auditorium was booked. I remember how Gophers athletic director Frank McCormick made sure the Lakers couldn’t play in Williams Area by persuading the Big Ten to pass a rule prohibiting pro teams from using Big Ten facilities at the time.
And I had made a deal during the 1955-56 season with Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics, after most of those early great Lakers stars had retired, that would have sent Vern Mikkelsen to the Celtics for former Kentucky players Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos, who all were in the service at Andrews Air Force Base at the time.
If that trade had happened, the Lakers would have finished last and been able to draft legendary center Bill Russell, who was set to graduate from the University of San Francisco. My agent on the West Coast, Cal basketball coach Pete Newell, had Russell all set to come here, something Russell wrote in his books. Russell himself called Lakers big man George Mikan, who Russell had met in high school, his childhood hero after his father.
But the deal fell through, and the Celtics — drafting second after the Rochester Royals took guard/forward Sihugo Green of Duquesne — picked Russell.
Mikan, who revolutionized the game by becoming the NBA’s first great center, recently had his rookie basketball card sell for $403,664 in an auction. That’s how important Mikan was and continues to be to NBA fans.
Inflation of franchise
From that original purchase price of $15,000, the Lakers were then sold for $150,000 in 1957 to a local group led by Bob Short, who moved the team to Los Angeles in 1960. Short sold it to Jack Kent Cooke for $5.5 million in 1965, and Cooke sold it to Jerry Buss, along with the Los Angeles Kings and the L.A. Forum, for $67.5 million in 1979.
Today, the franchise is worth $2.6 billion and the revenue sharing amount the Buss family pays to the league is something like $50 million a season.
In the years before the NBA broke the color line, the Lakers and Harlem Globetrotters played five games and pulled in the biggest crowds and revenue in the history of Chicago Stadium at that time.
Yes, those are just a few memories of the greatest times I ever had running this team as a young punk, filling the Minneapolis Auditorium when it was available and being heartbroken when the Mikkelsen deal fell through.
That non-trade meant the end of the Lakers in Minneapolis. But a lot of people don’t know that a local business group and a Chicago group were granted a franchise from Chicago for $150,000 (originally called the Packers, then the Zephyrs) and they moved that squad to Baltimore and became the Bullets in 1963.
Before the Timberwolves’ 123-122 overtime victory Wednesday, Bryant met the Minneapolis Lakers’ first black player, Bob Williams.
Williams signed with the Lakers in 1955 because legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who had seen Williams play and was impressed with his ability, couldn’t get the Kentucky Board of Regents to approve an African-American player at the university.
In fact, the SEC wouldn’t have an African-American player break the color line in basketball until Perry Wallace played for Vanderbilt in 1967.
Rupp was a scout for the Lakers and called me one day and said, “I want to tip you off, there’s a great player coming out of the service.” In those days we had a negotiation list, we put Williams on our list, just beating New York, and I signed him.
Williams played two seasons for the Lakers.
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked how he handles the swings in wins and losses from week to week in the NFL, after his team lost big to Green Bay, beat a good Atlanta team on the road and then came up flat at home against Seattle last week.
“That’s what I’ve always said about New England,” Zimmer said. “They don’t care if they win by 30 or lose by 30, they’re on to the next week. That’s kind of what we had to do. We didn’t dwell much on the [Seattle] game, we have to move on and especially in a short week, you have to move on to what you’ve got to get accomplished.”
• Former Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe is playing for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv in the Israeli League and is averaging 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in 21.6 minutes in nine games this season.
Also on the squad is former Lakers guard Jordan Farmar. Mbakwe signed a three-year deal with the team during the offseason, after playing most recently in Germany.
• The biggest surprise for the Timberwolves might be center Gorgui Dieng, who is averaging 12.0 points on 61.7 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game over the past seven games. Dieng was also shooting an amazing 96.7 percent from the free-throw line during that stretch and had made 22 in a row before missing his first attempt Wednesday, going 5-for-6 from the line.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org