The Costanza: Cornfield Full of Lakers

According to a 2006 Harvard University study, the odds of an American dying in a commercial plane crash are 1 in 11 million. Meaning, Joe the Plumber is more likely to succumb to food poisoning (1 in 3 million) after putting down a McRib; incinerate because of rogue fireworks (1 in 650,000) at a Fourth of July celebration; or expire as the plot of Armageddon plays out in real time (1 in 63,000).

To the phobia-laden mind, these statistics are of no comfort.

I don’t like to fly. I’m not sure if it’s because 2014 was one of the worst years for aviation safety in recent memory, or if it stems from my mother, who has not flown since 1991. As a matter of convenience and as a Jewish man, blaming my mom seems appropriate.

During takeoff, cold sweat dots my lower back. I tighten my stomach muscles and squeeze the hand or thigh of my fiancé. For the full duration of the flight, I play out crash scenarios in my head. When the plane dips a wing, no matter how gently, I instinctually shift my body weight against this movement, as if 220 pounds pushing against 735,000 pounds, moving at 614 miles per hour, at 35,000 feet, is going to protect everybody.

These feelings are hardly unique. As stated by NIMH an estimated 6.5 percent of Americans suffer from aviophobia.

Aviation in Sport:

John Madden had his bus, and it was Jackie Jensen who famously retired from Major League Baseball because the league was transitioning from train travel to planes. Jensen, in the prime of his career, was coming off back to back years leading the American League in Runs Batted In. The Red Sox Outfielder surely asked himself the same thing George Costanza said to Mets First Basemen Keith Hernandez in an episode of Seinfeld:

GEORGE: You know Keith, what I’ve always wondered, with all these ball clubs flying around all season, don’t you think there would be a plane crash?…But if you think about it….26 teams, 162 games a season, you’d think eventually an entire team would get wiped out…uh, it’s only a matter of time.


Interestingly, all three of the major American professional sports leagues have a contingency plan in place in the event that a team suffers a catastrophic loss of life. Major League Baseball’s has been on the books since 1965: If a team were to lose 12 players (number of players varies by sport), a league wide expansion draft would be held, with every team only having the ability to protect X amount of players from being drafted. No team could lose more than two players to the replenishing team.

Fortunately, none of these leagues have ever had to carry out a “disaster draft.”

As sports fans we are all familiar with the story of Marshall University football, the University of Evansville Basketball and the Uruguayan Rugby team turned cannibals in the Andes. What most people are unaware of however, is that the NBA very nearly lost its cornerstone franchise to an Iowa cornfield.

Minneapolis Lakers Emergency Landing:

Bob Short, notorious cheapskate, failed politician and the then-owner of the Minneapolis Lakers, awoke early on January 18th, 1960, to a phone call:

-Are you the owner of the Minneapolis Lakers?

-Yes

-This is Civil Air Patrol, your plane is missing.

At five, the previous evening, after losing to the St. Louis Hawks in the midst of a disappointing season, the Lakers boarded their Minnesota bound DC-3. As was the custom on team flights, the players brought out the makeshift poker table. Shortly thereafter, the plane had a technical malfunction.

“We were playing cards, and then the lights went out, and it got cold,” remembers Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor.

I thought it was one of our guys joking around,” said coach Jim Pollard in Stew Thronelys’ Basketballs’ Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers, “but when I got to the front, I saw the co-pilot shining a flashlight on the instrument panel.”

Flying into a severe storm with two failed generators and a drained battery the situation was dire. For five hours the plane was without lights, defrosters, heat and radio. The oxygen situation was bad enough that passengers had become ill.

Tommy Hawkins huddled next to a teammate with a blanket over his head wondering out loud if death was certain. Co-Pilot Harold Gilford likened the mood among the team to prisoners living out their final moments saying the Lakers were “not too unlike death-row inmates sweating out their last hours of life.”

The pilots were able to track car lights from below into an open cornfield, where they made a relatively miraculous landing in which there were no fatalities. Legend has it that a local mortician happened to be the first person to discover the downed plane.

Of the near death experience, Slick Leonard said: “Your life really passes in front of you, I had three little kids at the time and a lot of things go through your mind. But I didn’t think we were gonna’ die.”

In 1960 the still fledgling league had only eight teams. It’s hard not to wonder how the fate of the NBA would have changed had the entire Lakers franchise, in the words of George Costanza, been “wiped out.”

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Noah Perkins

Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a “thirst troll” by Tom Arnold once.