Posts Tagged ‘Minneapolis Lakers’

Timberwolves honor co-pilot of Lakers’ scary 1960 ‘miracle landing’

Harold Gifford, a co-pilot on the Minneapolis Lakers’ harrowing winter flight that narrowly avoided disaster nearly 55 years ago, was honored Wednesday night by the Minnesota Timberwolves during their home game against Philadelphia.

Gifford, 90, a retired World War II pilot and aviation professional who lives in Woodbury, Minn., wrote about what could have been a league-altering, NBA air disaster in his 2013 book, “The Miracle Landing” (Signalman Publishing).

When the Lakers’ DC-3 plane suffered mechanical breakdowns during a blizzard on Jan. 17, 1960, on a flight back to the Twin Cities – the electrical system shut down, its radio went dark and the instruments and windows in the cockpit began to freeze over – it was Gifford and fellow pilot Vern Ullman who found a cornfield in tiny Carroll, Iowa, that served as an emergency landing strip.

The Wolves were scheduled to honor Gifford and guests during the first half of Wednesday’s game at Target Center as part of their “Heroes of the Pack” program. The tribute caught the eye of Lakers part-owner and president Jeanie Buss, who has become friends with Gifford in recent years.

Buss took to Twitter Wednesday to note Gifford’s tribute in Minneapolis:

Happy 80th, Elgin Baylor!


VIDEO: Relive the storied career of Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor turned 80 Tuesday, which means the NBA’s love affair with verticality unofficially is approaching its 56th birthday. The Hall of Fame forward – whom Lakers teammate Jerry West considers the most underrated player in league history – arrived in Minneapolis as the No. 1 pick in the 1958 draft. He brought with him a style Doc Naismith couldn’t have imagined back when he hung up his first peach baskets.

The lineage of acrobatic, balletic, above-the-rim basketball players can be traced back through Michael Jordan and Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins, directly to Elgin Baylor. With shoulder fakes, a rocking dribble and a head twitch that some labeled a tic, the 11-time All-Star forward baffled opponents and invented moves nightly. At 6-5, he snatched rebounds like men a half-foot taller.

“If Julius Erving . . . is a doctor, then Elgin Baylor was a brain surgeon when he played,” teammate Rod Hundley said.

That’s an excerpt from a February 1994 profile of Baylor I wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The NBA All-Star Game was headed to the Twin Cities that winter, 34 years after Baylor and the Lakers had left town for sunny California. Baylor, then 59, was the last active member of the Minneapolis Lakers when he retired in 1971 and, long before Timberwolves Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love, he remains the greatest NBA star to slip away from the league’s hinterlands.

If only Baylor had logged a couple more seasons in Minnesota, the NBA’s and the Lakers’ futures might have been dramatically different, given his game and his gate appeal:

Baylor played in the second NBA game he ever saw, and scored 25 points in the season opener. He had an uncanny ability to make adjustments in mid-air. He manipulated the ball with one hand at a time when most players still used two and, foreshadowing Moses Malone, he often grabbed his own missed shots for second and third chances. Always he was cool, never revealing his emotions on the court.

“Elgin Baylor has either got three hands or two basketballs out there,” New York’s Richie Guerin griped after a game at old Madison Square Garden. “It’s like guarding a flood.”

The Lakers began the season on financial probation, with the NBA threatening to take over the franchise if it didn’t average $6,600 in home gate receipts. It never happened; the team’s attendance soared from 2,790 the year before to 4,122 in 1958-59. The Lakers’ record improved to 33-39, and they reached the Finals for the first time since 1954. Baylor was Rookie of the Year, averaged 24.9 points and 15 rebounds, scored 55 points in one game and shared the MVP award in the All-Star Game with St. Louis’ Bob Pettit.

In that ’94 interview, Baylor talked about the concept of “hang time,” and how his horizontal might have been more impressive than his vertical:

“I think this: I’ve watched Jordan and Julius and everybody,” Baylor said. “I don’t think anyone stays up in the air longer than anyone else. When you’re driving to the basket, it’s a broad jump instead of a vertical leap. . . . And a lot of times, you get the guy to commit himself and he’s up in the air, and you’re just getting ready to go up. It’s the illusion.”

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Happy 97th Birthday, John Kundla!

The “Not One, Not Two, Not Three” Club in Miami isn’t some hot spot of South Beach nightlife. It is, instead, a state of mind, with enough swagger, ego and even arrogance that you might think twice about which side of the velvet rope you prefer to be on.

That notorious boast three years ago was part of the thumping music-and-laser show that served as the first public appearance of Miami’s Big Three – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It rightfully has been mocked and ridiculed ever since – hey, the fellas got a little excited – and remains one of the chief reasons that crew has more critics than fans, maybe several times over.

But the Heat’s second consecutive NBA championships not only edged all that hubris a little closer to the truth, it shifted some number of Heat skeptics or, er, dislikers over to the other side. Including perhaps the oldest and perhaps most sage new member.

John Kundla, the first NBA coach ever to string together three NBA titles, turned 97 Wednesday. He is the oldest living member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is, somehow, both legendary and overlooked, because his success with the Minneapolis Lakers came not just before James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson took the league to new popularity but before Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell even arrived.

Kundla steered the George Mikan-era Lakers to five NBA championships in six seasons from 1949 to 1954. And he told Chris Tomasson of FoxSportsFlorida.com that he hopes Miami matches or tops that achievement:

Kundla next season would be proud to welcome [Erik] Spoelstra into the exclusive club of NBA coaches who have won three titles in a row. He even thinks Spoelstra and his Heat could end up claiming more overall titles than Kundla did with the Lakers.

Kundla won five, tied with [Heat president Pat] Riley for third most in NBA history. [Phil] Jackson, whose three-peats came with Chicago from 1991-93 and 1996-98 and with the Lakers from 2000-02, has claimed 11 and [Boston’s Red] Auerbach nine.

“We won five, but I’m saying that Miami is going to do better than that,” said Kundla, who also won NBA titles in 1949 and 1950. “LeBron has some good years left. They have good players and good coaching and a real good general manager (Riley). It takes a little but of luck. There’s always injuries. But I hope they do it.”

Kundla last coached in the NBA at age 42. He left the Lakers before they left Minneapolis, taking over as head coach at the University of Minnesota before retiring as a coach entirely at age 51.

But he still follows the game and said he watched The Finals with some fellow residents of the Minneapolis nursing home where they live. He planned to celebrate his birthday Wednesday with his five living children.

Kundla spoke with NBA.com for a Q&A when he was a wee lad of 94. You can read that here and Tomasson’s Heat-centric piece here.

One more sneak preview: Kundla, who coached five Hall of Famers on his five NBA championship teams (with one BAA title to start it all in 1948 to start it all), already considers James to be one of the five greatest players in history.

Pilot’s Tale Of Lakers’ Near-Disaster Hits Bookstores

Long before Ray Kinsella assured Shoeless Joe Jackson that, no, this wasn’t heaven, “it’s Iowa,” a plane full of NBA players and staff rightfully could have wondered the same thing about their own field of dreams.

Fifty-three years ago, the Minneapolis Lakers didn’t come back from beyond to play a basketball game in rural Iowa – they almost went in the opposite direction when their team plane experienced mechanical issues while carrying them home from a game that night against the St. Louis Hawks.

That harrowing trip and its impropable stop in a confield in Carroll, Iowa, is the subject of a new book, “The Miracle Landing” (Signalman Publishing, May 2013) written by the co-pilot that night, Harold Gifford.

Gifford, 89, a retired World War II pilot and aviation professional who lives in Woodbury, Minn., has told the story in bits and pieces through the years, most conspicuously three years ago to reporters working up 50th-anniversary accounts of the near-tragedy. But he finally has pulled it together in book form, with the subtitle: “The true story of how the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers almost perished in an Iowa cornfield during a January blizzard.”

Straight to the point, certainly. But it only suggests at the implications of what might have been. Or rather, what might not have been.

The NBA was a more raggedy operation in those days, after all. The Lakers were a proud franchise with five championships in their past, but they had fallen on hard times in the Twin Cities. George Mikan was long gone and, because of difficulty securing a proper place to play, so were many of their fans. By 1959-60, the team was losing twice as many games as it won; even a stellar rookie named Elgin Baylor couldn’t pull Minneapolis closer to St. Louis in the Western Division than 21 games.

Owner Bob Short, who owned the DC-3 plane, was within months of relocating the whole shebang to Los Angeles, where the No. 2 pick in the 1960 draft, Jerry West (selected right after Oscar Robertson), would join Baylor for the start of what has been the franchise’s long, glamorous and successful stay in southern California.

Still, it’s safe to say that if the unthinkable had happened, the NBA might have moved on. It would have been in no hurry to replace a team in the Twin Cities and it might have been years, through expansion or another franchise move, before the league planted a flag in L.A.

Certainly, it wouldn’t have been named the Lakers.

“This incredible story is a turning point of Lakers history and the more the fans know about their team, the more they love us,” Jeanie Buss, executive VP of the Lakers, said for the book’s press release. “Because of this miracle landing, the players and other passengers on this flight would be able to continue their lives with their families and their loved ones for the next half-center.”

That, of course, is the real happy ending. But the NBA by-product was that the Lakers survived, as a group and as a brand, to build on a legacy of championships and remarkable play.

None of it more remarkable, though, than the work of Gifford and fellow pilot Vern Ullman that snowy night. The plane’s electrical system shut down, its radio went dark, the instruments and windows in the cockpit began to ice over. The Lakers players and staff shivered and sweated in the back, simultaneously. The pilots dipped low, seeking visibility, risking the treeline.

Less than a year earlier, rock ‘n’ roll’s Buddy Holly‘s plane had gone done in similar bad weather in Mason City, Iowa. This time, pilot Gifford peered out an open side window and locked onto highway US-71 as a guide but couldn’t find a rural airport. The lights of tiny Carroll began to blink on as residents were awakened by the late-night roar of the plane’s engine.

In the distance, the pilots saw a snow-covered cornfield, unharvested, the stalks still standing upright. If they could only …

Aw, no sense trying to sum it all up here. Especially with the book out and available everywhere, in print and electronic forms, including here and here.