The Minnesota Sports History Show is part of the Sports History Network - The Headquarters For Sports Yesteryear.
The NBA's first dynasty - The Minneapolis Lakers.
How's it going, guys? Welcome to the first-ever episode of the Minnesota Sports History Show. I’m your host, Ryan Limbag, resident Minnesota sports homer for the Sports History Network.
Today, we are talking about the Minneapolis Lakers, the NBA’s first dynasty.
Their legacy is overlooked, and I want to ask why that is.
When I think about NBA dynasties, I think about the 90s Bulls, Bill Russel’s Celtics, today’s Golden State Warriors, and the LA Lakers’ dominance from Jerry West to Shaq and Kobe.
Those same Lakers teams share history with Minnesota, whose humble beginnings are tied to Minneapolis, the largest city in Minnesota.
If you ever wondered how the LA Lakers got their name, it’s because the franchise was named to honor Minnesota’s bountiful and beautiful lakes.
I’m a big NBA fan, love the timberwolves, and I grew up when KG was one of the best power forwards in the league.
With that said, the terms Minnesota and NBA Championship have been completely unrelated for the entirety of my life.
But for a time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, Minnesota was home to the most dominant basketball team in the world. At their peak, they would sell out the 10,000-seat capacity Minneapolis Auditorium, drawing fans from all over Minnesota and the upper Midwest.
The Minneapolis Lakers’ franchise began in 1947 when the Detroit Gems of the NBL, or National Basketball League, were relocated to Minneapolis by Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen.
Most of the NBL would be absorbed by the BAA, or basketball association of America and rebranded as the NBA, the National Basketball Association that we recognize today.
Relocation would remain a specter for the Minneapolis franchise.
Anchored by George Mikan, aka Mr. Basketball, the NBA’s original bigman, the franchise would win Championship titles in 1949 and 1950, then three-peat in 1952, 1953, and 1954.
Three-peats are rare in the NBA, the last one being the Kobe Shaq-led Lakers from the 2000-2002 seasons.
George Mikan was the NBA’s first superstar. He stood at 6-feet 10inches and provided the framework for superstar centers that would follow him.
He was a proficient and prolific rebounder, shot blocker, and had three scoring titles.
For some trivia, he was even a teammate of Bud Grant, Minnesota Vikings hall of fame coach, who played with the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950-51 season.
This passage from Wikipdia sums George Mikan’s impact pretty well: Mikan was so dominant that he prompted several significant rule changes in the NBA, including the introduction of the goaltending rule, the widening of the foul lane — known as the "Mikan Rule" — and the creation of the shot clock.
After his retirement in 1956, the Minneapolis Lakers would wane in popularity and never reach previous levels of success in Minneapolis.
This was in the 50s when baseball and boxing were king, and just a few years later, the franchise would relocate to Los Angeles prior to the 1960-1961 season.
Before moving to the West coast, however, the Lakers would draft Elgin Baylor, rookie of the year in 1959. He would go on to reach the NBA Finals 8x, and is recognized as one of the 50 greatest players in history. He didn’t win any of them, however, and that way he’s kind of the original Charles Barkley.
Despite these accolades and decorated history, the story of the Minneapolis Lakers is largely a footnote in modern NBA discourse.
I want to explore some key factors on why that is.
First, the Minneapolis Lakers get lost in Lakers lore.
LA is an economic and cultural hub. It’s Hollywood. It's showbiz, and sunny and warm all year round. Minnesota is none of those things.
Although George Mikan was a pioneer, he isn’t considered the Lakers’ greatest center of all time. This is not a hot take, and I don’t think this is an unfair assessment either. When Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shaq are on your all-time rosters, it’s hard to compete with them.
Kareem or Shaq would be the best player of many team’s histories, but LA’s legacy boasts the logo himself, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, the late Kobe Bryant, and now Lebron James and Anthony Davis.
It seems almost cartoonish that a single franchise could claim so many all-time greats.
The Lakers have been the NBA franchise for decades, so I can understand that their modest beginnings as a small market midwest team get glossed over.
LA’s success through the modern era and ability to never fall out of relevancy is a feat in itself.
As a fixture of the national spotlight, LA continues to add to its legacy year after year. The Lakers franchise is forever cemented in Los Angeles lore, which brings me to my next point.
The Lakers franchise is so removed from its roots in Minneapolis. No championship banners hang from the rafters of the Target Center. When the Lakers moved, their stats and records went with them.
Minnesota would remain without an NBA franchise from 1960 to 1989, when the Minnesota Timberwolves were added as an expansion team. Former Minneapolis great, George Mikan, would be instrumental to the NBA’s return to Minnesota.
There is nothing inherently wrong or particularly unusual about the Lakers keeping the stats and championships that were won in Minnesota, but it does contrast with how the Charlotte Hornets were able to keep their name and records despite their team being relocated.
After all, franchise relocations are ultimately business moves, but I do think the modern NBA is more careful and conscious about franchise legacies, and what they mean to their regions and fanbases.
The Charlotte Hornets are an exception, but I could see the NBA handling any future moves in a similar fashion.
Another slightly analogous example to me would be the Cleveland Browns. Although their move to Baltimore was controversial, I’m glad there was a way to keep the Cleveland Browns name in Cleveland. It just feels wrong to think of some bizarro world team called the Baltimore Browns.
The Lakers are synonymous with LA. Their roots in Minneapolis are nearly 2000miles away. And perhaps more importantly, the Minneapolis Lakers' place in time plays the biggest factor in why it isn’t talked about so much.
The Minneapolis Lakers straight-up existed over half a century ago. We are nearing 70 years since a professional basketball team in Minneapolis won a championship.
Footage from the late 1940s and 1950s of professional basketball is few and far between. I was able to find a good story about the Minneapolis Lakers on youtube, but any film from that time is grainy, and oftentimes black and white.
We feel so far removed from the media of that time-- And it’s not as if we have highlight reels of George Mikan doing what he did best.
And aside from the quality of video from that era, many fans would question, fairly, the level of talent when the Minneapolis Lakers reigned supreme. In the 1950s, the NBA would contract down to 8 teams.
Even Bill Rusell, who I think could have a steelman argument made for the greatest player of all time, has his legacy questioned sometimes for playing against supposed milkmen and part-time plumbers. NBA fans have a recency bias. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it difficult to compare great teams and players across eras.
The first time I was really invested in an NBA Finals was the Bulls/Suns Finals in 1993. Seeing Michael Jordan play was something else. I would’ve sworn I never saw him miss.
It makes me think that people who place Lebron James as the greatest of all time never saw Jordan play.
A lot of us never saw the Minneapolis Lakers play. They’re a distant memory to the NBA.
I think it’s important to recognize the Minneapolis Lakers as pioneers. Their dominance was a first in NBA history, and George Mikan was a harbinger for building teams around elite big men-- a trend that would continue through the modern era.
Today, Minneapolis and LA have their own franchises, and with the Timberwolves making a blockbuster trade for All-Defensive Center Rudy Gobert in the 2022 offseason, maybe it’s time for the big man to make a comeback.
Thank you for listening to the Minnesota Sports History Show on the Sports History Network. It’s been a pleasure, have a blessed day, and join me next week when we talk about the Miracle at the Met, and how Tommy Kramer still manages to hold the single-game passing record for the Minnesota Vikings.
MINNESOTA SPORTS HISTORY SHOW BACKGROUND
Each episode explores the rich history of Minnesota sports and considers its impact on the current cultural zeitgeist. The Minnesota Sports History Show strives to entertain as well as inform, tickle the sense of nostalgia, and share the joy and hardships of triumph and heartbreak. Episodes will range from musings about the Dome Dog era to interviews with athletes and sports personalities.