The Minneapolis Lakers, a professional team in the National Basketball League (NBL). The team is a forgotten dynasty, an afterthought when the discussion turns to the NBA's greatest teams. Part of that is because it's been 40 years since the franchise picked up stakes and moved to sunny Los Angeles, replaced a decade ago by an expansion team seeking to forge its own identity. What's more, a half-century has passed since the glory days, and the players who have not passed on are in their 70s and 80s now, several generations removed from the NBA of the new millennium.
Add the championship the Lakers won in the National Basketball League (NBL) before they entered the NBA and you have six crowns in seven seasons -- a dynasty by any standard.
They won championships in their first two years in the NBA, one of them coming before the league was even called the NBA. Then, after a year when they were beaten in the division finals, they reeled off three consecutive titles.
They were built around 6-10 center George Mikan, who won five straight scoring championships and averaged 22.6 points per game in a career that came almost entirely before the 24-second shot clock. Mikan was so overpowering he caused the rules-makers to double the width of the foul lane from six to 12 feet in a mostly failed effort to keep him away from the basket and decrease his dominance.
“Mikan ran the whole show," said Larry Foust, a 6-9 center who played for the Fort Wayne Pistons in those days. "Nobody ever had better offensive moves under the basket. When George played, he owned that lane."
But the Lakers were far from a one-man team. They also featured Jim Pollard, perhaps the finest all-around player of his day. Slater Martin was a point guard who could distribute the ball and run an offense as well as anyone. Vern Mikkelsen and Clyde Lovellette provided more muscle up front, and there were always a couple of shooters on the roster to round things out.
Orchestrating it all was John Kundla, a man who never got his share of credit because of the array of talent at his disposal. Kundla was far from a push-button coach. He not only knew his Xs and Os, but how to deal with divergent personalities and the heightened expectations that come with winning year after year. He was a vital part of the Lakers' equation.
The Lakers rose from the ashes of the Detroit Gems, a team that compiled a 4-40 record in the NBL in 1946-47, its only season. The franchise was purchased by a pair of Minneapolis businessmen, Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen for $15,000 from Gems' owner Maury Winston. What they got was a paper giving them ownership of an NBL franchise and some equipment. All the Gems players had been reassigned to other teams in the league. Berger and Chalfen brought in Max Winter, later to become a founder and owner of the Minnesota Vikings franchise of the National Football League, to become the Lakers' new general manager. Winter also took an ownership stake in the team, which he would maintain until he left the Lakers in 1955. The franchise was fronted by a 24-year-old sports writer, Sid Hartman, and revamped for the 1947-48 NBL season.
Hartman signed Pollard, a Coast Guard veteran who had led the Oakland Bittners to the 1946 Amateur Athletic Union championship, when he agreed to take on three of Pollard's AAU teammates as well. He paid the Chicago Stags $25,000 for the rights to Tony Jaros and Don "Swede" Carlson, two veteran pros who were Minnesota natives and figured to be helpful in drawing fans.
For a coach he found Kundla at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, and a three-year contract convinced the 31-year-old Kundla to sign on with the fledgling team - after all, he didn't have to relocate.
The Lakers won their first game, against the Oshkosh All-Stars, and shortly thereafter added playmaking guard Herm Schaeffer from the Indianapolis Kautskys. Then, four games into the season, Mikan became available when the 24-team Professional Basketball League of America folded. The NBL parceled out the PBLA’s players, and by chance the Lakers got Mikan. The pieces of the dynasty were in place.
Kundla used the contrasting styles of Mikan and Pollard to the team's advantage. Most of the time the Lakers played at a leisurely pace, waiting for Mikan to lumber up the floor and set up house down low. But if an opponent was slow getting back on defense, Pollard or Martin or one of the other quicker Lakers would race right past, running what today is called an opportunity fast break.
The Lakers lost their first five games after Mikan joined the team, but they rebounded to finish the 1947-48 season at 43-17, tops in the Western Division. They beat the famous Rens in the championship game of the final Chicago World Professional Basketball Tournament, then defeated the Rochester Royals 3-1 to win the NBL crown and complete their impressive debut season.
The Lakers and Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) were among four NBL clubs to jump to the better-financed Basketball Association of America (BAA) for the 1948-49 season, and they continued what would become one of basketball's best early rivalries. Over the next six seasons, the Lakers won 273 regular-season games, the Royals 266. The only championship the Lakers lost in that stretch was won by the Royals.
Mikan and the Lakers immediately became the BAA's biggest attraction, and they defeated the Washington Capitols, coached by Red Auerbach, 4-2 to win the 1949 championship. Minneapolis now had a BAA title to go with its NBL crown.
The NBL fell apart the following summer and the BAA swallowed up its survivors, bloating to a 17-team league that was renamed the National Basketball Association. The Lakers defeated Syracuse in six games to repeat as champions.
In 1950-51, Mikan led the league with a career-high 28.4 points per game but suffered a late-season hairline fracture of his ankle. The injury was enough to swing the balance of power to the Royals, who beat the Lakers 3-1 and went on to capture the crown in a seven-game series with New York.
During the offseason the rules committee voted to double the width of the foul lane to 12 feet, but that actually made Mikan a better all-around player. He added a jump shot to his array of moves around the basket, and began taking advantage of teammates who were able to use the wider lane to cut to the hoop. The result was better balance on the Lakers, and another championship - after finishing one game behind the Rochester Royals during the regular season, Minneapolis turned the tables on the Royals by winning the division finals 3-1, then won the championship by beating New York 82-65 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The same teams met in a rematch in 1953, and this time the Lakers needed just five games to repeat. And in 1954, some 35 years before Pat Riley would trademark the term "three-peat," these Lakers of another generation made it a reality. Minneapolis beat the Royals 2-1 in the division finals then topped the Syracuse Nationals in a seven-game championship series. The Lakers had their third title in a row and their fifth in six years, but when Mikan was unable to come to terms on a new contract and went into retirement, the run came to an end. The Lakers were ousted from the 1955 playoffs by Fort Wayne, after which Pollard hung up his sneakers. Mikan made a comeback the following year but could average just 10.5 points per game in 37 games before going back into retirement, taking with him the legacy of the NBA's first dynasty.