Back in the season of 1959-60 we of the Minneapolis Lakers did not exactly think of ourselves as winners. Yet that's what we were, and here's how we found out, on a Sunday night in January. That day, Jan. 17, 1960, didn't begin much differently for us than any other day—which is to say we lost a basketball game. We were fighting it out with Cincinnati for last place in the NBA and this, our fourth straight loss, gave them something to shoot at if they were going to stay in the race.
The St. Louis Hawks had battered us that afternoon 135 to 119 on their home court. The 7,120 St. Louis fans at the game had been, as usual, insufferable, and Bob Pettit had not cheered us noticeably by slipping in 34 points to push his career total over the 10,000 mark. All in all, everyone in St. Louis had a big time—except the Lakers. By 6 p.m., glad to get out of town, we had showered, dressed and squeezed our 60-some-odd feet of elongated bodies into three taxis. There were nine players including myself: Hot Rod Hundley, Elgin Baylor, Dick Garmaker, Bob Leonard, Larry (Board Hands) Foust, Boo Ellis, Tom Hawkins and Frank Selvy. Our coach for the time being was Jim Pollard.
At the airport Pollard announced that our plane would leave at 8 o'clock. Our plane was an ancient, Laker-owned DC-3, possibly contemporary with the Stanley Steamer. We used to race school buses on the highways below us. We beat one once, when the winds were right. Some people thought we had a jet because the motors vomited out so much smoke—a tribute, I guess, to splendid maintenance. When at last this streamlined wonder was ready, we gathered together at Gate 13—when you lose as often as we did you get over being superstitious—and climbed aboard our home-away-from-home. Already in the plane were pilot Vern Ullman and copilot Harold Gifford, plus several Laker fans and four of their children. They came for the ride. They got their money's worth.
Five of us immediately resumed our floating hearts game while the rest of the passengers made themselves comfortable. Baylor had only been caught cheating twice (this was considerably below his average for 10 minutes) by the time Ullman started us down the runway toward the black Missouri sky.
No one paid much attention to the bad weather outside. We were used to flying in winter sleet, snow, wind and rain. Things seemed pretty normal as our plane gamely lurched through the wind and fog. The children quickly dropped off to sleep.
All at once the lights in the cabin flickered, then went quite dim. Several minutes later it was almost dark. The engines were humming along in perfect tune. It was too dark now for Baylor to see his own cards, let alone peek at mine, so the game broke up. Suddenly the lights went completely out, and it began getting colder by the minute. Apparently the heater had gone off with the lights. Outside the window to my left, the wing was barely visible through the pea-soup clouds. I was pretty scared now—and not the only one.
Some 30 minutes after takeoff we broke through and above the cloud bank. Directly over us in the otherwise black sky, the full moon was brilliant. Below us as far as I could see in any direction was a solid blanket of clouds. It looked like hundreds of square miles of cotton candy. I have never felt quite so alone.
A few minutes later we learned just how alone we were. Ullman gave us a report from the cockpit—a complete electrical failure. This meant no radio, no lights, no instruments, no heat and no idea where we were.
Since earlier weather reports had indicated the possibility of clearing conditions to the northwest, Ullman's plan was to maintain a steady course in this direction. He took us as high as our un-pressurized DC-3 would go, 17,000 feet. This increased our range of visibility and took our unlighted plane away from the heavily traveled lower air lanes.
Since the defrosters on the windshield were inoperative, Ullman kept the side windows of the cockpit open for visibility. The temperature inside the plane dropped to around zero. I was turning blue from either cold or lack of oxygen.