Reusse's Reality: When NBA titles and Game 7s were ours
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The NBA championship was decided in Game 7 for the 17th time in its 67 seasons on Thursday night in Miami. Any such historical reference is fraught with peril, since the genesis of big-time pro basketball in this country was quite a quagmire.
The National Basketball League decided its first championship in 1938. The Basketball Association of America decided its first championship in 1947. For some reason, the league that the NBA recognizes as its forerunner is the BAA and not the NBL.
Perhaps the NBA felt sheepish to have the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots (1938) and Akron Firestone Non-Skids (1939, 1940) as its first three champions. These proud representatives of Akron tire factories were followed as NBL champs by the Oshkosh All-Stars (1941-42), Sheboygan Red Skins (1943), Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (1944-45), Rochester Royals (1946) and Chicago American Gears (1947).
The rookie star of the Gears was also the No. 1 attraction in basketball: George Mikan.
Maurice White, the Gears' owner, removed his team from the NBL after that 1948 championship and attempted to put together a 24-team league called the Professional Basketball League of America. One of the teams in White's league was located in St. Paul and called the Saints.
That same season, the Minneapolis Lakers debuted on the other side of the Mississippi. The Lakers were the successors to the Detroit Gems, a team that held up the bottom of the NBL with a 4-40 record in 1946-47. Morris Chalfen gave a young reporter named Sid Hartman a check for $15,000 to take to Detroit and purchase the Gems' franchise.
When White's league folded a month into the 1947-48 season, Mikan and other players from that league were put into an NBL allocation draft. Minneapolis, by virtue of the Gems' ineptitude a year earlier, had the first selection and made the obvious choice of Mikan. The Lakers then beat out teams from the BAA to sign Mikan.
Mikan and Jim Pollard led the Lakers to the 1948 NBL title, beating the excellent Rochester [N.Y.] Royals 3-to-1 in the finals. Today, that stands as the Lakers' lost championship. As mentioned, the NBA recognizes the BAA as its forerunner, meaning the NBA archives show the Baltimore Bullets as the 1948 champs.
The Lakers were clearly the best team in pro basketball that season. They proved it a year later, after jumping from the NBL to the BAA along with Rochester, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. The Lakers beat the Washington Capitols (coached by Red Auerbach) 4-to-2.
The two leagues merged fully and became the NBA for the 1949-50 seson. The Lakers took one title (1949) with them but not the other (1948) into the NBA record books.
There would be four more championships for the Minneapolis Lakers in 1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954.
The interruption came in 1951 when the Lakers - with an injured Mikan -- lost to Rochester in the Western Conference finals. The two teams from New York state, the Royals and the Knicks, then played what is recognized as the NBA's first seven-game title series, with the Royals winning 79-75.
The next two championship Game 7s in NBA annals both went to the Lakers: 82-65 over the Knicks in 1952 and 87-80 over the Syracuse Nationals in 1954. The Lakers were at home in Minneapolis for both of those games.
Mikan scored 22 in the Game 7 blowout of the Knicks in 1952 and said in the winning locker roon: "We're world champions because every fellow had fight and determination.''
Two years later, the local sports writers seemed to be shocked that the Lakers had been forced to a seventh game by the Syracuse Nats. Not only were the Nats considered inferior to the Lakers, but they had several players limited by injury -- including star Dolph Schayes.
Bill Carlson in the Minneapolis Star wrote on the afternoon of Game 7 in Minneapolis: "Deadlocked at three games apiece because of the last-second swisher of [Syracuse] substitute Jim Neal, the series will decide whether the Lakers dynasty is really crumbling, or whether George Mikan and his cohorts mark up their sixth pro title in seven years.''
Mikan and his cohorts won on that night of April 12, as "old pro'' Pollard, led the way with 21 points, The Lakers were joyous after the 87-80 victory, while the Nats unimpressed.
Schayes and George King both played the series wearing casts on broken bones. "We'd have run them off the floor if we hadn't been hurt,'' said King, later a visitor to Minneapolis as the coach of the Purdue Boilermakers.
As for Carlson's query in the Minneapolis Star, that seventh game was followed by the crumbling of a dynasty -- mainly, because Mikan retired. Big George returned for a time in 1956, but he wasn't the same.
In 1960, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, and took the great Elgin Baylor with them. The L.A. Lakers have always included the Minneapolis accomplishments in their history, using the five won here in noting 16 NBA championships, and the six won here (including 1959) in claiming 31 Western Conference titles.
Not a bad starting five of Hall of Famers for the Minneapolis version of the Lakers:
Mikan at center, Mikkelsen at power forward, Baylor and Pollard on the wings, and Dugie Martin at point guard ... and with a Hall of Fame coach in John Kundla.