One event could have changed the landscape of NBA history as we know it. I am going to share about the time that the Lakers’ plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield. It happened on Sunday, January 17, 1960, and the Lakers had just played the St. Louis Hawks earlier in the day and were about to fly home to Minneapolis.
There are two things that I want to cover in order to provide context to this story. The first is that the Atlanta Hawks used to be located in St. Louis where they won their only championship in 1958. The second is that the Lakers were still located in Minneapolis. They would move to Los Angeles right after the 1960 season concluded.
The Takeoff From St. Louis
So, let us get back to the story of the plane crash. It was an extremely snowy night. They were originally supposed to take off during early evening, around 5:30 P.M. But the weather caused a delay in takeoff. Then the generator on the plane broke down and they had to wait longer for repairs to be made. The plane was finally ready to take off around 8:30 P.M. that night.
If I had been one of the Lakers, all of those delays would have been enough to call it a day. There would be no way I would get on that plane. I would go find a hotel in St. Louis and fly out the next morning on a different plane. The plane they used that night was a DC-3. So it was only the Lakers on this plane. It sat between 21 and 32 people depending on the configuration. It had a propeller on each wing and traveled at a top speed of around 200 mph. Just for reference, modern passenger planes travel at around 500 mph.
But rather than wait for the next day, the Lakers boarded the plane to head home for Minneapolis. The pilot kept the plane unusually low to avoid crashing into the stack of planes that were circling and waiting to land in St. Louis due to the weather. Now, remember, these planes did not have the same instruments that modern planes have. It was very basic equipment by today’s standards.
The Generator Failed
The plane was in the air for maybe 10 minutes and the generator failed again. This is really, really bad. The generator is what was powering the lights, the heat, the navigation tools, and the radio. So they were stranded in who knows where. They had no idea where they were and they could not communicate with the tower in St. Louis. In fact, they could not reach a tower anywhere without a radio.
The flight started out very bumpy, but eventually leveled off. You can imagine that the players were starting to get quite nervous. Remember, it’s snowing outside which means it’s really cold. With no heater working on the plane, the inside of the plane starts to get really cold, too.
After a little while their Hall-of-Fame forward, Jim Pollard, headed up to the cockpit to talk to the pilots and make sure that everything is OK. When he opened the door he saw that the pilots were watching their instruments using battery-powered flashlights. He asked, “How’s everything going, fellas?” One of the pilots answered, “We’re flying by the stars.” The pilot was dead serious! Pollard tried to keep his cool and returned to his seat.
What would normally be a two-hour flight became three hours. Then it was three and a half hours. The fuel started to become a serious issue. The pilots did not know where they were, but they knew that they were nowhere near Minneapolis. They were nowhere near an airport.
The Plane Needs To Land
So, now they have to figure out a place to land and land quickly. Due to the cold weather, these pilots were literally opening the window and trying to scrape the snow off the windshield by hand. With no electrical power, the windshield wipers were not working.
Thankfully, they were somewhere over Iowa, which is super flat. That was a really good thing. But the pilot wanted to check with the team first. He walked back into the cabin to explain the situation to everyone. They could keep looking for an airport or try to land in a cornfield. The players were unanimous. They wanted the plane on the ground as soon as possible. The pilot said, “OK. Buckle your seatbelts, boys, and say a prayer.” That did not exactly instill confidence in the players.
They started to fly very low to get a look at a decent cornfield. One of the things that they had to be careful of was any telephone or electric wires hanging from telephone poles. They do not want to take out electricity in the state of Iowa.
But when the pilot returned to the cockpit, he left the cockpit door open. The players could see the pilots struggling to get the plane down and they saw the pilots working by flashlight. As the players looked out the window they noticed that they are low enough to make out the model of a car driving down the road.
All of the players were now praying out loud and making promises to God to reform their sinful ways if only God would spare them from this. Finally, the pilots saw a wide-open cornfield and decided to go for it. The field was covered in four feet of snow.
Also, someone must have alerted the authorities about a plane flying low with no lights on because a firetruck had been following them for a couple of miles.
The landing itself was smooth as silk. Four feet of snow is quite soft. It was like landing the plane on a pillow. If you were holding a cup of coffee you would not have spilled a drop during that landing. The plane finally came to a stop and everyone started cheering. Then they heard a knock on the door. I mean, who even knew they were there. They were completely unaware of the firetruck. But when they opened the door, there stood a firefighter holding a huge ax and ready to bust the door down if they had not opened it.
They trudged almost a mile through thigh-high snow to the nearest road where there were several more rescue vehicles and cars waiting for them. The word must have really gotten around that a plane was in trouble. But what really startled the players was the sight of a hearse.
It turns out that the local undertaker heard the news of a potential plane crash and came rushing out looking for business. The players joked with the undertaker saying “Sorry, bud, no customers today.”
They were given a ride to a local hotel that had enough room for everyone. Naturally, they had trouble falling asleep after what they had just been through. So, they brewed some coffee and pulled out a deck of cards to start playing poker. The team made it home the next day, which was a Monday, and all was well. They wouldn’t have another game until that Saturday when the Knicks would roll into town.
But imagine how the landscape of the NBA would have changed. Elgin Baylor was only in his second year in the league. He had yet to team up with Jerry West, which would happen the following season. The Lakers would probably have folded if they lost the entire team. They were already struggling financially and this would have completely devastated the franchise. And they would never have moved to Los Angeles. Since the 1960 season, the Lakers have played in the NBA Finals 25 times, winning 11 Championships. All of that would go away.
The Showtime Lakers would never exist. In 1979 the Chicago Bulls had the second pick in the draft. Without the Lakers there, maybe the Bulls get the first pick and draft Magic Johnson. Now we are talking about the Showtime Bulls of the 1980s. Maybe when Kareem wanted out of Milwaukee in the mid-1970s he decides to go to his hometown Knicks instead of the Lakers. Maybe Kobe stays with the Charlotte Hornets, the team that drafted him. Maybe Shaq stays with Orlando and brings them multiple titles. I mean, we could play this all day. But you get my point.
If that plane crash has turned out to be a tragedy, the rest of NBA history changes dramatically. An entire alternative timeline would exist.
Thankfully the pilots were veterans and had flight experience in the military. They stayed calm during the flight and kept everyone safe. Those two pilots, Vernon Ullman and Howard Gifford should be considered two of the biggest heroes in basketball history.
They literally saved the Lakers franchise from disappearing.