Those people, as it turned out, were Ben Berger, a Twin Cities theater-chain owner; Morris Chalfen, another showman, who owned the Holiday on Ice troupe; and Winter, a restaurateur and former fight manager who had been induced by the other two owners to buy into the team and act as its general manager. There was also an eminence grise in the person of Sid Hartman. a sports-writer for the
Minneapolis Tribune. It was Hartman who had first pressured Berger and Chalfen into staging an exhibition game in Minneapolis between the NBL's Sheboygan, Wis., and Oshkosh, Wis., teams and then into picking up, for a mere $15,000, the defunct Detroit franchise.
All Berger and Chalfen received for their $15,000 investment was membership in a financially troubled league and a dozen tattered uniforms. They changed the name of the team to the Lakers, because the state has more than 10,000 lakes. They then spent as much as they had for the entire franchise to acquire two Minneapolis-reared players. Jaros and Carlson, from the Chicago Stags, in the hope of giving the team some local flavor. But their most important early acquisition was Pollard, from the faraway San Francisco Bay Area.
Pollard had been an All-America on Stanford's 1942 NCAA championship team, had played service basketball with Coast Guard teams in the Bay Area and Hawaii and had returned from World War II to star in AAU ball, first in San Diego and then with the crack Oakland Bittners team. He had been the object of a bidding war between the rival NBL and BAA. but he pushed the Lakers hard during negotiations and signed for $12,000, plus a $1,000 bonus.
The Lakers began their first season with Jaros, Carlson and another local player, Don Smith, plus Pollard and three other Californians he brought east with him, Paul Napolitano, Bill Durkee and Jack Rocker. Their center was to have been a Detroit holdover, 6'5" Bob Gerber, Mikan hadn't agreed to a contract when the season started. But the Laker owners by now were accustomed to rejection. Their first choice for coach, Joe Hutton of Hamline University in St. Paul, had turned them down, and so. initially, had their second choice, 31-year-old Johnny Kundla of the College of St. Thomas, also in St. Paul. Kundla finally gave in when Berger agreed to double his college coaching salary of $3,000 and guarantee his wages for three years. Mikan, however, seemed adamant. He was going to law school in Chicago, had just married a Chicago girl, Patricia Daveny, and his home was in Joliet. Minneapolis, as far as he was concerned, was still Siberia. He asked, after what he assumed were the final contract talks, to be driven to the airport for a flight home. Hartman agreed to drive him. Hartman got lost en route, and Mikan missed his plane. Hartman kept up a steady patter on the virtues of life in the Twin Cities both to and from the airport, and by the time Mikan was delivered once more to general manager Winter's office, his formidable will had been broken. He signed for the then extraordinary sum of $12,500, but just for one year.
The Lakers were 51-19 (including playoff games) that year, champions of the NBL and winners of the World Professional Tournament, in Chicago, where they beat the New York Rens, who were, besides the Globetrotters, the ranking black team in basketball. The Lakers moved to the BAA the next season, 1948-49, and finished 44-16 in regular play. They won eight of the 10 playoff games and knocked off Washington 77-56 for the championship. The following year, Mikkelsen, Martin and Harrison joined the team as rookies for the inaugural NBA season, and all three started on the team that set the mold for the future. The Lakers went 51-17 in the regular season and polished off Syracuse 110-95 for their 10th playoff win and the championship.
Mikkelsen, just 21 in 1949, was the final link in the winning chain. The son of a Danish Lutheran pastor from Minnesota, he was as mild and scholarly off the court as he was a muscular presence on it. He had played center at Hamline—"every big clumsy guy was a center then," he says—but he despaired of ever playing for his hometown team, what with Mikan planted like the Colossus of Rhodes before the basket. He expressed his reservations to Winter in their contract negotiations. "T said. "Max, I'm a center, and you've already got the best center in the history of the game.' Max told me not to worry. George was going to retire in just a few years, he said, and then I'd replace him." But George had no intention of retiring, so Kundla switched the new man to forward. "It was an unbelievable change for me," says Mikkelsen. "I'd never really handled the ball before, and I'd never played facing the basket. But I started right away as a rookie, and I lasted 10 years, so I guess it worked. Finesse was never my game. Brute strength was. I was a power forward before they even had a name for it." He also averaged nearly 15 points and nine rebounds a game during his career.
The Lakers missed the title in '51 because of Mikan's leg injury, but they won the next three years. They were the darlings of an entire state, Minnesota's first major league team, the only game in town, and champions of all they surveyed. But it wasn't long before certain apparently unsolvable problems reared. The Minneapolis Auditorium, the Lakers' home court, was an antiquated building with an undersized court and a seating capacity of barely 8,000. Furthermore, it was unavailable, because of trade show commitments, during playoff time. The team was frequently obliged to play important games either in the even more inadequate Minneapolis Armory or in small college gyms. The owners had not had the foresight to call their team the Minnesota Lakers, which miffed St. Paul authorities, so it was always difficult to get bookings in that adjacent community. And the University of Minnesota, jealous of the Lakers' popularity, made its facilities scarce. Then Mikan and Pollard, the big gate attractions, retired. Mikan quit after the 1954 season to become the team's general manager. He was only 29, but his big body had taken a beating over the years. He had broken at least 10 bones, and he was about to have his left kneecap removed. More important to him, he had become over the years of constant travel a stranger in his own house. "I came home one day and picked up my second son, Terry, and he began crying," Mikan says. "He was afraid of me, because he didn't know who I was. It broke my heart."
Mikan's retirement didn't last. Spurred by more than 1,500 fan letters urging him to return, he left his desk job as general manager for the Lakers and played the last half of the '55-56 season, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in 37 games for a team that finished under .500 for the first time in the history of the franchise. Mikan and Kundla exchanged jobs in 1957, but Mikan retired in January 1958, with the team at 9-30. Owner Bob Short endured two more losing seasons on the court and at the gate, and then he moved the team and its star, 26-year-old Elgin Baylor, to Los Angeles. Perversely, he kept the name Lakers, which was as appropriate to Southern California as, say, Timberwolves. Short eventually added future Hall of Famer Jerry West to the new Lakers, and in 1965 he sold the team to Jack Kent Cooke for $5 million.
The Lakers were a troubled, disorganized and impoverished club by the time they moved west, and their departure from Minnesota was mourned by only a few diehards. But as time has passed, that old basketball team has taken on a mythic stature, the good memories effectively erasing the bad. And memories come easily when there are constant reminders of what once was; the fact is, most of those original Lakers stayed in town even after the team left. Pollard did eventually return to California, where he now teaches history in a Lodi middle school, and Martin went back to his native Houston. But most remained in the Minneapolis area: Mikkelsen, an insurance broker; Skoog, an associate professor of health and P.E. at Gustavus Adolphus College; Carlson, a retired high school teacher; Jaros, a tavern owner; and Kundla, who finally retired after nine years of coaching at the University of Minnesota. All are still strong presences in the community.
And George Mikan? Oh, he never did leave Siberia. In the years since he made his first reluctant appearance there, he has been a lawyer, a political candidate (he lost a congressional race in 1956), a stockbroker, a travel agent, the first commissioner of the ABA ("I had a lump in my stomach the whole time I had that damn job") and a successful businessman. He and Pat recently moved out of the five-bedroom house they built in 1950 and into a more convenient townhouse.