Former player Tommy Hawkins gives a “thumbs up” after kissing the Laker Court in a symbolic move at Sunday’s ribbon-cutting and dedication at Veterans Memorial Park. Hawkins was a members of the Minneapolis Lakers when they made an emergency landing in a Carroll cornfield on Jan. 18, 1960.
Former player Tommy Hawkins gives a “thumbs up” after kissing the Laker Court in a symbolic move at Sunday’s ribbon-cutting and dedication at Veterans Memorial Park. Hawkins was a members of the Minneapolis Lakers when they made an emergency landing in a Carroll cornfield on Jan. 18, 1960.
Monday, September 13, 2010

As the basketball court commemorating the site of a Minneapolis Lakers emergency plane landing was dedicated Sunday, Carroll was credited with not only saving a franchise but the NBA as well.

About 200 attended a ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park near where the Lakers’ crippled DC-3 had to set down in a blizzard early the morning of Jan. 18, 1960. Carroll celebrated the 50th anniversary of the event, and the now-Los Angeles Lakers donated $25,000 for the court, which was finished last week.

“Our town decided that a living and a more dynamic tribute to this event was in order,” organizer John Steffes said at Sunday’s program on the court, which is adorned in the former light blue and current purple and gold Lakers colors.

“The L.A. Lakers and Carroll, Iowa, will be bound together in history because of this (landing). They’ll be bound together in the future, as this basketball court will be used a lot by the people of Carroll. It’ll continue to be a living monument.”

Vice president Jeanie Buss delivered thanks from her father, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and the organization.

“This beautiful basketball court will remind future generations of that miraculous night,” she said.

“We commend the good people of Carroll, Iowa, and extend our gratitude for the quick reaction and bravery displayed by so many of you and your predecessors 50 years ago.”

On Sunday night, Jan. 18, 1960, the Lakers were making the 460-mile flight home from St. Louis, where they’d lost to the Hawks 135-119. Their plane lost electric power shortly after takeoff, and when the crew climbed to navigate by the stars, the craft experienced icing and one of its two engines shut down.

Blinded by a blizzard, pilot Vern Ullman and copilot Harold Gifford were unable to spot the Carroll airport. They followed U.S. 30 to Carroll and circled about 10 times before observing that the corn in Elmer Steffes’ field on the north edge of town provided contrast, giving them a ground reference.

With 15 minutes of fuel remaining, they set the plane down safely in waist-deep snow at 1:40 a.m.

Residents who’d heard the distressed plane circling met the 23 passengers and crew and took them to the Burke Inn — located at what is now the Walgreens parking lot at the corner of U.S. 30 and Main Street — for the night.

The plane was dug out, repaired and flown safely to Minneapolis a few days later.

Buss called the landing “a turning point in Lakers history,“ saying that had the plane crashed and the passengers killed, the franchise probably would’ve folded.

“So I truly thank this town, this corn field, for being here in our greatest time of need, and thank you for having me today,” she said. “Go Lakers. Go Carroll.”

Tommy Hawkins, 73, then a rookie 6-5 forward for the team, recalled for Sunday’s audience how he was “praying that everything was going to be OK” during the troubled flight.

Hawkins said he was seated in the rear of the plane with veteran guard Bob Leonard, who was telling him, “Don’t worry. We’re going to make it.”

“And I was responding to Bobby, ‘Slick, are you sure?’ Because we really didn’t know,” Hawkins said.

He said the flight crew was arguing whether to lower landing gear or slide the plane on its belly, adding to Gifford, who also attended Sunday’s festivities, “I don’t know which side you were on, but we ended up with the wheels down. Thank God we didn’t tilt over.”

Hawkins spoke of stepping off the downed craft into waist-deep snow and trudging 200 yards to a road, where he was met by fire trucks, citizens “and the town undertaker.”

“He was in a playful mood. He said, “I thought we had some business, boys,’” Hawkins said, drawing chuckles.

He also entertained the crowd with an anecdote of a teammate notorious for “taking a nip” after games phoning his wife from the Burke to tell the story of the emergency touchdown and not being believed.

“Can you believe it? Fifty years ago, a half century ago, this great franchise and this great town came together to make history that is immortal,” he said. “… Anybody who wants a great story of humanity will think of this story.”

Hawkins, who had a 10-year career with the Lakers and Cincinnati Royals, said the park site is “hallowed ground” and that Carroll is “the world’s most successful town in saving franchises” and his favorite city.

In what he described as “the ultimate respect” to Carroll, he knelt and kissed the court, drawing applause.

Had the Lakers been wiped out in a plane crash that night, the NBA would’ve been reduced to seven teams. The Lakers, Royals and Detroit Pistons finished more than 15 games behind the St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division in the 1959-60 season, while the Boston Celtics took the Eastern Division by more than 10 games over the Philadelphia Warriors, Syracuse Nationals and New York Knicks. The Celtics beat the Hawks in seven games for the title.

The Lakers, who’d won championships in 1950 and 1952-54 and were swept by the Celtics in the finals the season before the Carroll landing, moved to L.A. the following year.

“The NBA’s West Coast expansion would’ve suffered a serious setback and the Lakers would have been just a tragic afterthought” had the team perished in Carroll, Hawkins said.

The Lakers have won 11 NBA titles since moving to L.A.

“You know why they are where they are today? Because of the citizens of Carroll, Iowa, and the way that you cared,” said Hawkins.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” Hawkins concluded. “I can’t tell you how great I feel. I can’t tell you how proud I feel. But more important than that, how proud I am of the pride that you have shown us, your guests, and the fact that the Laker plane landed safely in the corn field and preserved the history of not only the organization of the Lakers, but of the NBA itself.”

Buss made the ceremonial snip of a Carroll Chamber of Commerce ribbon to formally open Laker Court, and while a C-47 — the military version of the Lakers’ DC-3 passenger craft — from the Yankee Air Museum in Michigan circled overhead, Steffes’ sons Johnny and Robby fired the ceremonial first shots.

“I haven’t picked up a basketball in more than 20 years. I don’t want to go out there and embarrass myself and then read in the paper that Hawkins still can‘t shoot,” he kidded while introducing the Steffes boys.

Buss led a cheer of “One, two, three, go Lakers!” before about two dozen kids, most with basketballs Hawkins autographed before the program, took the court.