Why the Los Angeles Lakers Paid for This Iowa Basketball Court
The Lakers of the National Basketball Association have won an amazing 17 titles, tied for most in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. However, the last 12 might never have happened if things had gone differently one night in Iowa.
Before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season, they were located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes (hence their nickname). After playing an afternoon game in St. Louis, Missouri on January 17, 1960, the team took off for the Twin Cities in a DC-3 airplane. They were in for a very long, unforgettable ride.
Shortly after leaving St. Louis just after 8 p.m., the plane flew into a snowstorm. Harold Gifford was in the co-pilot seat of the DC-3 that lost electricity soon after taking off that night. The plane had no lights, no radio. At approximately 1:30 a.m. the following morning, the plane had been in the air for nearly 5-and-a-half hours and was still nowhere near Minnesota. With less than 15 minutes of fuel remaining at the time, Gifford and the plane's two pilots knew they must take emergency action to save themselves and their Minneapolis Lakers passengers. They maneuvered the plane so low, looking for a spot to land, that Gifford told KARE 11 they were below the water tower and he could read a billboard along a road in Carroll, Iowa.
Gifford, pulling from his experience riding in tractors as a kid, knew that a field would be the safest spot to land because "you'll never find a rock or a hole, it's smooth sailing." They landed in a cornfield at approximately 1:40 a.m., taking a full three football fields to come to a stop, safely, with no one injured. The plane likely had less than 5 minutes of fuel remaining at the time. Gifford shared with KARE 11 that after the engines were turned off everyone on board, including 10 Minneapolis Lakers players, let out "the loudest hollering and screaming you could imagine; people high-fiving."
The people of Carroll, located along Highway 30 in western Iowa, had heard the plane circling for a long period of time and knew there was trouble. When they exited the plane, the players and others aboard trudged through the snow to emergency personnel and warm vehicles of residents who had gone to assist.
The Lakers never forgot how the town came to their aid that night. Decades later the Los Angeles Lakers donated $25,000 for a basketball court to be built in Carroll. At the 2010 dedication of the court, Jeanie Buss, who's now co-owner of the team said,
It truly is a turning point in Lakers history. I believe, had the team not made it that night, the Lakers as we know it wouldn't exist today.
The place where the plane landed was in rural Carroll at the time. It's now in the city itself. And in the exact location of where the plane landed that snowy January night in 1960 sits what is known as Laker Court.
Thankfully, this story had a much better ending than another story that involved an airplane in Iowa. Just under a year before, a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed after they performed a concert at the famous Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Everyone on board was killed.