The renowned Los Angeles basketball team got its start in Minneapolis, but survived thanks to a wintry miracle in an Iowa field.
To Americans with even a glancing interest in basketball (or the tabloid papers), those first names need no lasts for immediate recognition.
All three National Basketball Association stars are most closely linked with the iconic Los Angeles Lakers franchise. Their talent could have minted them as one-name stars elsewhere, a Charlotte or Orlando, but it’s the glitzy Laker platform, the Los Angeles panache, that secured their stardom at the intersection of sports and celebrity.
Little known is that Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Magic (Johnson) owe their lustre, and more than that, to an event that happened 50 years ago today in Carroll, Iowa.
At 1:40 a.m. Monday, Jan. 18, 1960, a twin-engine DC-3 transport, carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team and piloted by military veterans Vernon Ullman and Harold Gifford, made an emergency landing through a blinding snow storm in a cornfield (the Emma Steffes farm) that is now the Collison Addition in northeast Carroll.
Ten members of the Minneapolis ball club walked off the plane without injury that early morning 50 years ago. Just one year later, the Lakers, with rookie sensation Jerry West from West Virginia University added, had relocated to Los Angeles, where they would become one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.
Today, Lakers ownership and executives say they know full well that the LA team would not exist as the world knows it were it not for the success of the emergency Carroll landing on a flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis.
“It is certainly understood by us,” John Black, vice president of public relations for the Lakers said in a phone interview this week.
In fact, Black said that Laker executive vice president Jeanie Buss, daughter of Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss and girlfriend to coach Phil Jackson, sent a letter this week to Carroll Mayor Jim Pedelty expressing appreciation for the involvement of Carroll residents that morning.
Black said Jeanie Buss had discussed coming to a commemorative event in Carroll Monday — and perhaps even bringing along beau Phil Jackson. But the Lakers are playing the Orlando Magic Monday night, a rematch of the NBA finals of last summer.
In the letter Jeanie Buss says that the future of the franchise hinged on that early morning.
Just a few weeks ago, in New York City, Black said, he had dinner with one of the Lakers who’d been on the plane that night in 1960: “Hot” Rod Hundley, who went on to a long career in broadcasting after his playing days were over in Los Angeles. Hundley, according to Black, was filling in recently on a Lakers broadcast. At the dinner Hundley recounted the Carroll landing in some detail, Black said.
Black had heard much of the story before but said, “It was new having Rod tell it.”
Co-pilot Harold Gifford who will be at the event in Carroll Monday. Last week, speaking from his home in Minneapolis, Gifford, 86, said he needed to say something to the community right away.
“First of all, I’m thankful to the people of Carroll for getting out of bed and turning their lights on,” Gifford said.
Fifty years ago, when the Carroll Daily Times Herald interviewed Gifford, then age 36, and not too far removed from his days as an Army Air Force pilot in the Pacific Theater of World War II, he said the flight crew of the Lakers plane used the North Star as guidance as much as possible that night before dropping down in icy conditions to the Carroll area.
With little visibility Gifford actually looked out a cockpit window and found U.S. Highway 71, which the crew used as a guide. They were unable to find the airport because of the driving snow, he said.
“We figured the highway would lead us somewhere, and we came out over Carroll,” Gifford said.
At the time, Carroll fireman Henry Roth said the plane made eight or nine passes over the town. Eventually, the corn on the Steffes farm showed up dark against the pillowy background of snow, giving the pilots a reference point. There was no working radio or defroster.
“We really had the book thrown at us that night,” said Gifford. “I didn’t have time to think about anything. I was running on adrenaline.”
Being careful to steer clear of challenging anyone else involved in the decision to fly from St. Louis that night — after the Lakers had lost to the Hawks 135-119 — Gifford said that he had strongly advised against leaving St. Louis because of the weather.
His military experience and some crop-dusting days in the American West gave him life-saving instincts that night.
“You don’t have to land in airports,” Gifford said. “You can land anyplace if you size it up right.”
Gifford said that when the plane did finally set down in what the Carroll Daily Times Herald called a “miracle landing,” the passengers were initially silent.
Soon the tone changed among the 10 players and 13 other people aboard the DC-3. “The cabin exploded in the loudest shouting and cheering I’ve heard,” Gifford recalled. “It was almost like the Vikings won the Super Bowl.”
Not even a year before the Lakers’ landing, Buddy Holly and two other popular musicians from the late 1950s, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, had died in a weather-related plane crash near Mason City on Feb. 3, 1959.
The Buddy Holly crash made international news, and Gifford, while saying it didn’t enter his mind during the Lakers landing, referenced the earlier accident in the interview last week, noting that Lakers like Elgin Baylor (who would go on to a Hall of Fame career) almost suffered Holly’s fate.
“We narrowly avoided getting killed that night,” Gifford said. “There would not have been a franchise anymore to become the Los Angeles Lakers.”