The “New” Lakers, 1958

[This article, written by Sid Harman, appeared in the 1958 issue of Sports Review’s Basketball yearbook.]

Last February 22nd, the National Basketball Association president Maurice Podoloff flew into Minneapolis with a $25,000 certified check and a mission. 

The check was written by Milton Fischmann, a St. Louis businessman, and Marty Marion, former Chicago White Sox manager. Podoloff’s mission was to convince then Minneapolis Laker owners Ben Berger and Maurice Chalfen to sell their 10-year-old franchise to Fischmann and Marion for $150,000.

The $25,000 check represented earnest money on the purchase.

Podoloff and the Laker owners conferred that first night and then met again the following day. Berger, who owned two-thirds of the Laker stock, appeared ready to consummate the sale. At the last minute, however, Charles O. Johnson, executive sports editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, stepped into the picture and urged Berger and Chalfen to give local interests time to meet the Fischmann-Marion offer. 

Berger and Chalfen agreed to wait until March 5th and the financial race to save the Lakers was on. 

Several Minneapolis businessmen were contacted and all expressed a desire to keep the Lakers in Minneapolis. In addition to being the Upper Midwest’s only major league sports team, the Lakers had brought millions of dollars of publicity and business into Minneapolis and Minnesota. These men did not want to lose such a valuable item. 

On February 25th, the deadline for meeting the Fischmann-Marion offer was extended to March 13th

On February 26th, Berger signed a contingent agreement with Fischmann and Marion in New York City, which would turn over the Laker franchise and players to the latter two men if Minneapolis interests did not raise the necessary monies by March 13th. 

On February 27th, a gigantic civic drive was launched to sell $200,000 worth of stock in a corporation to buy the Lakers (the extra $50,000 was for operating capital. 2000 shares at $100 each were offered for sale. 

Spearheaded by Johnson, Gerald L. Moore, general manager of the Downtown Council of Minneapolis, Norman McGrew of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, and 15 businessmen who did the actual fund raising, the drive was a spectacular success. 

By March 11th, the group had $139,000 in cash. 

A whirlwind finish the final two days raised the remaining $61,000, and Minneapolis had saved its Lakers. 

Although the NBA’s Executive Committee had not yet approved the transfer, Berger and Chalfen sold their stock to the new Minneapolis Basketball Corporation, Inc., at 3:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 13th, in a ceremony at the Radisson Hotel. 

Official league approval came April 5th and the actual stock transfer occurred Tuesday, April 9th. Thus, were born the “New” Minneapolis Lakers.

The new corporation wasted little time. Fifteen men, representing the 117 firms and individuals who had purchased stock, were named to the Board of Directors.  This board includes an attorney, labor leader, bowling alley owner, publisher, automobile dealer, public relations director, division manager for an encyclopedia, petroleum dealer and executives in the transportation, printing, metallurgical, photography, brewery, construction and department store fields. 

Five of these fifteen were chosen to form the Executive Board. 

Robert L. Short, St. Paul transportation executive and Minneapolis resident, was elected president of the Board. 

The Board’s first action was to immediately rehire coach John Kundla and, at the same time, appoint him acting general manager. 

To help meet the main demand of the NBA’s Executive Committee, a $200,000 gate each year for three years, a special month-long season ticket drive was started April 3rd

Under Moore’s direction, 11 teams of volunteers went to work. The teams had been assembled from members of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce’s Sports and Attractions Committee and the Laker Board of Directors. 

Over 100 men devoted thousands of their regular work-day hours to the task and the results were amazing. They sold over 1,400 tickets and assured the new corporation of a running start at the gate. Compared to last year’s 232 figure, the new total is of stratospheric proportions. More impressive is the fact that even in the so-called “Golden Days” of George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, and Vern Mikkelsen, the highest total never exceeded 800.

Additional ticket sales should hike the count to over 2,000, a figure which would give the New Lakers close to $100,000 of their needed $200,000—and this before the season commences. 

The “New” angle about the Lakers will also extend to the coaching and playing ranks. On June 19th, Mikan was named coach and Kundla was elevated to permanent general manager, a move which reunited two of professional basketball’s greatest names. 

With Mikan pouring in the points and Kundla directing the club from the bench, the Lakers put together six titles in their first seven years. They became known as the Yankees of professional basketball. 

Sparsely-filled arenas were SRO when the Lakers and Mikan came to town. With the success of the Lakers and with Mikan’s tremendous drawing power, the National Basketball Association took on stature and financial stability. 

Basketball fans everywhere wanted to see Mikan and the Lakers play. As a result, before and after the regular season, Minneapolis played exhibition games throughout the country from Maine to California, from Montana to Oklahoma. Games were also played in Canada and Hawaii. 

Mikan’s greatness was unanimously acclaimed by the nation’s cage experts when he was named “Mr. Basketball” of the first 50 years of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll. 

Kundla, a quiet, popular leader, coached the Lakers for 10 years. His teams never finished lower than second in their division and always made the playoffs. Although never nationally famous, Kundla was considered one of the pro league’s finest coaches. His style of play, which blended the varied talents of Mikan and Pollard and other stars in a near-perfect combination, often earned the praise of fellow coaches. 

Kundla, not satisfied with his last year’s club, wheeled and dealed during the spring and early summer and completed three major transactions, which will give the Lakers at least five new faces. Principle absentee is towering center and leading scorer Clyde Lovellette, who, along with forward Jim Paxson, Kundla traded to Cincinnati for Ed Fleming, Art Spoelstra, Bob Burrow, Don Meineke, and the draft rights to “Hot Rod” Hundley of West Virginia.

Hundley has since been drafted by the Army and is gone for two years. Fleming, Spoelstra, and Burrow appear certain to play, but Meineke, who sat out last season after playing with both Ft. Wayne and Rochester, is a question mark. 

In a straight one-for-one trade, the Lakers sent forward Ed Kalafat, who had announced he might retire, to Detroit for guard Corky Devlin. 

The third move found Kundla signing the Lakers’ number one collegiate draft choice, 6-8 Jim Krebs of SMU. Krebs, who will step into Lovellette’s place in the starting lineup according to present plans, is a key to the Laker’s future success. 

Returning players as of this writing are Larry Foust (via trade with Detroit); veteran captain and forward Vern Mikkelsen; guards Dick Garmaker and Bob Leonard, an outstanding pair of sharpshooters, and forward Dick Schnittker, one of the NBA’s leading free throwers. 

Rookies who may sign or tryout include George Brown of Wayne, Joe Haaven of North Dakota, Jim Sutton of South Dakota State, and Gordon Fosness of Dakota Wesleyan. 

Mikan Is optimistic about the New Lakers’ chances. “Right now, I’d say we have a good nucleus to start the 1957-58 season. Much will depend on how much each man wants to win. If the desire matches the talent, we will have a more than respectable team,” said Mikan.

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