Monday, June 4, 2018

How the Minneapolis Lakers Almost Failed to Reach Los Angeles

Before the Minneapolis Lakers landed in Los Angeles, they made an impromptu stop in Carroll, Iowa.

The year was 1960. The plane was a DC-3. The music had died just 11 months earlier, only 150 miles away.

"There were no lights on in the plane. We knew there was a problem," Carroll resident Helen Quinn, one of many people to witness the night from the ground, recalled now. 

"We were convinced it was going to come right into our house," Norman Shulz said of the plane.

"Then all at once, it's quiet," Dick Collison, another Carroll resident, added. "No sound."

It was January 17, and the middling Minneapolis Lakers held a record of 13-20. That night, they lost to the St. Louis Hawks, 135-119. Future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor scored 43 points. Rookie Tommy Hawkins had 11.

"[We] got on the plane," Hawkins said. "A few minutes outside of St. Louis, [we] hit a snowstorm."

That's where the team's trouble began.

"All of the sudden, the lights go very bright, go dim, bright, dim, bright, out," Hawkins recalled, describing what was actually a complete electrical failure with 23 people on board in a blizzard.

No radio, no heat, no lights.

"Thankfully, I always carried a flashlight on my lap whenever I flew at night," Harold "Giff" Gifford, a WWII veteran from Woodbury, said.

He took the controls, first trying to fly above the storm.

"I actually hate to admit it, but I had that DC-3 up to 17,000 feet without oxygen, trying to get over the top," he said.

"You can't breathe up there," Hawkins said. "So we were panting for breath."

The windshield iced up. One of the engines sputtered.

"We started out with six hours of fuel," Gifford explained. "But we'd been in the air almost five hours now and the old fuel clock is starting to tick in my ear, you know?"

He began a gradual descent. They hit 1,000 feet, then 600.

They needed to land; first spotting a road, then an old Hamm's beer sign, and eventually, a water tower.

"It's still snowing and blowing," Gifford detailed. "It plastered all of the letters except the last two and it was two L's."

Gradually, the mystery town lit-up. With no airport in sight, Gifford spotted a cornfield.

"I said when I was a kid, I rode with my dad on a cultivator and I know there's nothing in a cornfield. No rocks, no ditches, no nothing," Gifford said.

Just shy of 2 a.m., thanks to uncut corn and thick Midwest snow, the Minneapolis Lakers smoothly touched down in that Carroll cornfield.

"It was very quiet in there and the minute we stopped and shut the engines off, there was the loudest roar that you could imagine," Gifford said. "Screaming and hollering and cheering and applauding from the people in the back because for 5 hours and 40 minutes they didn't know if they were gonna live, or die."

Nearly 60 years later, they call it the Miracle Landing. The Los Angeles Lakers dedicated "Laker Court" to the people of Carroll, with both Hawkins and Gifford attending the ceremony in 2010.

Gifford, 94, claims he never felt fear on that night back in 1960. Maybe, he said, because the spirit of his older brother Quentin was with him. 

"I have that feeling. I like to think that," Gifford said.

Quentin died in the war, after urging his younger brother to finish high school and learn how to fly.

"It's my story," Gifford said, smiling slightly. "And I'm sticking to it."

Story and video ➤

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