|Wednesday, January 24
The Lakers' plane crash that wasn't
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
Imagine an NBA without the Los Angeles Lakers.
A pretty damn dull league, if you ask me.
No honorable foil to the Boston Celtics' greatness in the 1960s. No Baylor. No West, which means no logo. No Kareem and no Magic, and therefore, no Showtime. No six titles of their own, establishing themselves as a dynasty in their own right. No Kobe and Shaq feud.
And yet, 40 years ago this month, we came perilously close to just that.
Professional sports in America have been spared the types of tragedy that struck Marshall University in 1970, when almost all the members of its football team were lost in a plane crash, or Evansville University, whose basketball team and coaching staff were killed in a crash in 1978. But it almost happened to an NBA team on Jan. 18, 1960, when the DC 3 plane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers from a game in St. Louis back home crash landed in a cornfield in Carroll, Iowa, after getting lost and running low on fuel in a blinding snowstorm.
These Lakers were the league's first dynasty, but owner Bob Short, known for his, um, cheapness, was about to move the team to Los Angeles. In the early morning hours of that January day, though, the Lakers still belonged to Minneapolis. They had lost to the Hawks and were flying back home to Minneapolis.
"We were playing cards, and then the lights went out, and it got cold," recalled Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, then a Lakers rookie forward. "And for a while, the pilot didn't say anything. And finally everybody wanted to know what was going on, and he said the only thing that was working was the generator. (Not) the instrument panel, nothing. They couldn't see anything."
Returning to St. Louis was not an option, because the plane's radio, like everything else, wasn't working. The pilots tried to fly above the storm, but couldn't get out of the snow.
"We headed for Minneapolis, and lo and behold, we run into a snowstorm," said current Pacers broadcaster and former coach Bob "Slick" Leonard. "And old Tommy Hawkins, from Notre Dame, we were sitting there together and we had a blanket over our heads. He said 'Slick, do you gonna think we're gonna die?' I said 'naw, we're not gonna die.' And he said 'the hair is standing straight up on the back of my neck.'"
The pilots had to open the windows of the cockpit to brush off the snow, because the windshield wipers were inoperative. One of the pilots was frostbitten across half of his face. No one knew where they were, but everybody knew the plane was running out of fuel and had to land soon.
"The moon was out and we were lost, so we started following this car," Leonard said. "They weren't flying that high. They thought the headlights would lead them into a town. And that damn thing was heading up a hill. And all of a sudden (the pilot) yanks up on that thing and we go back up."
"Finally, the pilot said 'listen, I'm going to go down; I think I see a field that we might can land (in),' and he told everybody to get ready," Baylor said.
First, though, the pilots had to make several passes over the land to try and figure out the terrain of the countryside. Also, they had to fly around and over power lines, as well as a water tower.
"Your life really passes in front of you," Leonard said. "I had three little kids at the time and a lot of things go through your mind. But I didn't think we were gonna die."
At last, the pilots dropped the plane down into the field. While Baylor says it was "the smoothest landing I ever had," Leonard recalled it a little differently.
"The story is that, and I didn't turn around to see it, so I don't know if Elgin was laying in the aisle or not," he said. "The (corn) shucks were still up and it was just ripping through there. We were in that crash position. And then we stopped and one pilot had that backdoor open real quick, and now, here we are in a cornfield, and we're so happy. The snow was clear up to your chest ... we started throwing snowballs at each other and everything."
They were in Carroll, Iowa, and they were lucky. About 75 yards or so ahead, Leonard said, was "a dropoff like you wouldn't believe. That plane would've gone down that gorge and probably exploded."
The first civilian to greet them, imponderably, was the town mortician, whose house the plane had buzzed.
"We told him, 'no business for you today,'" Baylor said.
The players rode hearses into town and stayed the night at a local senior retirement hotel.
"There was a small bar there, that sat maybe five or six people," Leonard said. "And some of these old retirees, they came out, the ladies had their nightgowns on, and they wanted to know what was going on. And old Larry Faust, he's dead now, he saw that liquor cabinet had a lock on it. He took a hold of that lock and just twisted that thing off and got himself a big glass and poured himself some VO and sat down."
The Lakers took buses back to Minneapolis. The next trip out was a few days later, to Cincinnati. On the same plane.
"We told Short, 'we're not getting on that baby,'" Leonard said. "He said 'you either get on, or you're out of a job.' We got on that baby and flew again."
"They assured us everything was fine," Baylor said. "So we fly to Cincinnati and we play, and get back on the plane and we're flying back. And the late Jim Krebs, he was on one side of the plane, and he was looking out, and he said 'hey, look, the airport.' We were only like 400 or 500 feet up. We thought it was an emergency for a plane that was coming in, or something like that. Fire trucks, you see the lights. It was for us. What had happened was, we had an oil leak, and the engine caught fire."
After that, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, and they were certain they'd seen the last of the demon plane. Two years later, they were in the Midwest for an exhibition game.
"We chartered a plane at Butler Aviation in Chicago, and we landed there, so we were going to use that," Baylor said. "The plane looked sort of strange. It was a DC 3, nice interior, well done, new engines. I said 'this plane reminds me of that old Laker plane.' We asked the pilot; he didn't know, he said he just flies them. But he said the owner would be flying back with us from Fort Wayne.
"When we met the owner at the airport, I asked him where he got the plane. He said 'I bought it from some SOB named Bob Short.'"