Back in the season of 1959-60 we of the Minneapolis Lakers did not exactly think of ourselves as winners. Yet that's what we were, and here's how we found out, on a Sunday night in January. That day, Jan. 17, 1960, didn't begin much differently for us than any other day—which is to say we lost a basketball game. We were fighting it out with Cincinnati for last place in the NBA and this, our fourth straight loss, gave them something to shoot at if they were going to stay in the race.
The St. Louis Hawks had battered us that afternoon 135 to 119 on their home court. The 7,120 St. Louis fans at the game had been, as usual, insufferable, and Bob Pettit had not cheered us noticeably by slipping in 34 points to push his career total over the 10,000 mark. All in all, everyone in St. Louis had a big time—except the Lakers. By 6 p.m., glad to get out of town, we had showered, dressed and squeezed our 60-some-odd feet of elongated bodies into three taxis. There were nine players including myself: Hot Rod Hundley, Elgin Baylor, Dick Garmaker, Bob Leonard, Larry (Board Hands) Foust, Boo Ellis, Tom Hawkins and Frank Selvy. Our coach for the time being was Jim Pollard.
At the airport Pollard announced that our plane would leave at 8 o'clock. Our plane was an ancient, Laker-owned DC-3, possibly contemporary with the Stanley Steamer. We used to race school buses on the highways below us. We beat one once, when the winds were right. Some people thought we had a jet because the motors vomited out so much smoke—a tribute, I guess, to splendid maintenance. When at last this streamlined wonder was ready, we gathered together at Gate 13—when you lose as often as we did you get over being superstitious—and climbed aboard our home-away-from-home. Already in the plane were pilot Vern Ullman and copilot Harold Gifford, plus several Laker fans and four of their children. They came for the ride. They got their money's worth.
Five of us immediately resumed our floating hearts game while the rest of the passengers made themselves comfortable. Baylor had only been caught cheating twice (this was considerably below his average for 10 minutes) by the time Ullman started us down the runway toward the black Missouri sky.
June 22, 1969
No one paid much attention to the bad weather outside. We were used to flying in winter sleet, snow, wind and rain. Things seemed pretty normal as our plane gamely lurched through the wind and fog. The children quickly dropped off to sleep.
All at once the lights in the cabin flickered, then went quite dim. Several minutes later it was almost dark. The engines were humming along in perfect tune. It was too dark now for Baylor to see his own cards, let alone peek at mine, so the game broke up. Suddenly the lights went completely out, and it began getting colder by the minute. Apparently the heater had gone off with the lights. Outside the window to my left, the wing was barely visible through the pea-soup clouds. I was pretty scared now—and not the only one.
Some 30 minutes after takeoff we broke through and above the cloud bank. Directly over us in the otherwise black sky, the full moon was brilliant. Below us as far as I could see in any direction was a solid blanket of clouds. It looked like hundreds of square miles of cotton candy. I have never felt quite so alone.
A few minutes later we learned just how alone we were. Ullman gave us a report from the cockpit—a complete electrical failure. This meant no radio, no lights, no instruments, no heat and no idea where we were.
Since earlier weather reports had indicated the possibility of clearing conditions to the northwest, Ullman's plan was to maintain a steady course in this direction. He took us as high as our un-pressurized DC-3 would go, 17,000 feet. This increased our range of visibility and took our unlighted plane away from the heavily traveled lower air lanes.
Since the defrosters on the windshield were inoperative, Ullman kept the side windows of the cockpit open for visibility. The temperature inside the plane dropped to around zero. I was turning blue from either cold or lack of oxygen.
During the next three hours things were pretty much status quo. Most everyone mixed their efforts to keep warm with prayers. It was a quiet group, each of us preoccupied with our own thoughts, hopes, fears and prayers. My reflections were primarily concerned with my wife and infant daughter.
The children, calm and bundled in blankets, dozed on and off. The only thing visible in the cabin was the occasional eerie glow of a burning cigarette. Baylor stretched out on the floor in the back of the plane, mumbling something about going out in comfort.
I had just about decided that I would freeze to death when Ullman sent back word for us to tighten our seat belts. We were going to start our descent. It had been four hours since takeoff. We normally carried six hours' fuel supply. Ullman had gambled that we could make it to the supposedly clear area to the northwest. Below us, nothing but clouds. Our losing streak was intact.
We were going to make a blind descent through the clouds without the slightest knowledge of what lay below. If the visibility was too limited for landing we would know it all too soon, but there was no alternative. What goes up must come down and we would soon be down—one way or another.
Minutes later we plunged back into the clouds. The moon disappeared above us. It was pitch black now inside and out except for the dim yellow glow from the lone flashlight in the cockpit.
Ullman dropped us a little at a time through the haze, obviously afraid to go down blindly but even more afraid not to. This descent didn't worry me particularly—it was thoughts of a sudden stop that had me upset.
My eyes were straining through the window looking for something besides fog. An eternity of minutes crept by. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of a string of fence posts just below us. Seconds later a lone light appeared off in the distance. We had made it through the clouds and were flying under a 300-foot ceiling—hardly ideal conditions, but at least we could see.
This last several hundred feet back, to earth would be the toughest. It was snowing furiously with nothing but barren, snow-covered farmland below. Ullman was flying zigzags now, hoping to find a sign of civilization and a place to land. Forty-three eyes strained in all directions (Leonard was too scared to open both eyes). A group of lights to the left proved to be a house—then another. Gradually a small town came to view. It looked like Times Square to me. Leonard opened both eyes.
We flew over the town square like a lost crop duster. Ullman wanted to wake the town up. Maybe they had an airport and would turn on the runway lights. All over town lights popped on in the houses. People ran into the streets. But no runway lights.
Ullman wanted to identify the town. If he could get his bearings he could find the nearest airport by compass. Three trips around the water tower were fruitless. The name couldn't be made out, only the word "SENIORS '59" spelled out in big lettering was readable.
It was now 1 a.m. and time was fast getting short. Below us we could see the people in the streets looking up in various directions, apparently unable to see their lightless but noisy intruder. Most every house in town was now lit up and the scene below us reminded me of the quaint villages pictured on Christmas cards. It looked so warm and safe.
Ullman left town and started zigzagging around the countryside again. I hated to leave the reassuring lights and people but, for Ullman, time was becoming more and more important as our unknown fuel supply came closer and closer to exhaustion. Once again we were flying precariously low over desolate farmland.
Suddenly and violently the tempo of the motors strained and roared—the plane lurched upward. For several agonizing seconds, while the motors groaned and complained, I waited for the crash. It never came. Gradually we straightened out. We had narrowly misled some sort of tower. Ullman's good eyes and quick reflexes had given us a reprieve.
By compass we headed back toward the town. Time and the uncertainly of our fuel supply had forced Ullman's hand: we were going to have to make our own runway.
The town looked like paradise to me when we returned. However, several passes up and down the main streets proved that things weren't laid out to accommodate DC-3s. We looked for a likely field on the outskirts. The thick covering of snow plus the poor visibility made everything look pretty much the same.
Cornfields, pastures, and ponds all looked alike under the snow. Marble reminders of the past rose above the snow and identified the local cemetery for us. That certainly wouldn't do.
Finally Ullman spotted a small uncut cornfield. The cornstalks were sticking up through the snow—evidence that there was solid ground underneath and not a thinly frozen pond or lake waiting to swallow us whole. Scared as I was at the prospect of an emergency landing on an unknown field, I was ready to get on with it—one way or another.
We made several investigative passes over our field and at last Ullman made his final preparations. Wheels down, we were coming in. Everyone was tightly strapped in, ready for whatever and praying. As the snow rushed up to greet us I could hear copilot Clifford calling out our diminishing airspeed. At 60 mph we hit—bounced—hit again and then slid to a glorious three-point stop.
We were delirious. Spontaneous cheering, laughing, crying and backslapping broke loose. It was the first outward sign of emotion since Foust threatened to tear up the cards. The door was ripped open and several of us piled out into the snow. I can't recall having ever been as thankful and delighted.
Garmaker and I ran off through the knee-deep snow toward a group of cars that had appeared on a road about half a mile away. The first vehicle we reached at the front of the line was a hearse. I'm positive I detected a slightly disappointed look when the driver found out everyone was all right.
The town turned out to be a pleasant little place called Carroll; the state, Iowa; the time, 1:30 Monday morning; remaining fuel, 10 minutes' worth. An hour later I had thawed out and was on a phone in the local hotel with my wife, Jane, on the other end in Minneapolis. It was wonderful hearing her voice. "Where have you been? What? Carol who?" Everything was back to normal.
God had answered our prayers. We had broken our losing streak.