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Celebrating their 50th anniversary in Detroit
during the 2007-08 season, the Pistons were known
for stars such as Yardley, DeBusschere, Bing, Lanier,
Isiah, The Microwave, Joe D, Big Ben, Rip and
Mr. Big Shot.
DID YOU KNOW that if things had turned out
differently just after World War II, George Mikan,
Jerry West, Wilt the Stilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and
Kobe might all have played pro basketball in the Motor City?
When the Pistons were more than a decade away from moving north from
Ft. Wayne, Indiana to Detroit, the two competing leagues which later merged
to form the National Basketball Association both placed teams in Detroit for
the 1946-47. The upstart Basketball Association of America (BAA) featured
the Detroit Falcons, while the more established National Basketball League
(NBL) put the Detroit Gems onto the hardwood.
The Falcons finished a dismal 20-&-40 and were disbanded.
The Gems couldn't even be called inept. They were an unbelievably horrible
4-&-40, winning only one of every 11 games.
Dearborn entrepreneur C. King Boring owned the Detroit Gems. He lost
more money than games in the team's only season.
Boring was one of Dearborn's most dynamic and colorful citizens in the time
that spanned automobile pioneer Henry Ford to post-war Mayor Orville Hubbard.
His given name was Cleo Siple Boring, but he had it legally changed after "The
King" had conquered the town both as a businessman and city employee.
One of the few things he did wrong was buy the Gems.
Yet, somehow, instead of going belly-up as the Falcons had, Boring managed
to sell the franchise for $15,000 to Minneapolis businessmen Ben Berger (a Polish
immigrant who owned movie theatres and cafes) and Morris Chalfen.
The two new owners relocated the Gems to their hometown and re-named
the club "Lakers" after Minnesota's motto: "Land of 1000 Lakes."
All they'd really bought from Boring was some used equipment and the
rights to the franchise. Because the Gems had been near-extinct, its players
had already been assigned to other NBL teams.
Berger and Chalfen were better than Boring at putting a team together.
The rookie owners' formula was to bring in Max Winter as general manager and
minority owner. Winter, who later became founder and owner of the NFL
Minnesota Vikings, hired lots of local talent. John Kundla, who'd led the Minnesota
Golden Gophers to the 1937 Big Ten Basketball Championship as a player, was
hired as the first Lakers coach. A host of former Gophers players then became
Lakers players. The team took up residence in the intimate (tiny) Minneapolis
However, the key to the Gems/Lakers turnaround was future Hall-of-Famer
George Mikan. The former DePaul University center had been named NCAA College
Player of the Year in both 1945 and '46 and was a three-time All-American. Mikan
was immediately signed to a pro contract with the Chicago American Gears of
the NBL, played the last seven games of the season, then led the Gears to the
championship as MVP of the 1947 World Basketball Tournament by scoring 100
points in five games. (The defunct Detroit Eagles had won this tourney in 1941.)
Prior to the start of the 1947-48 basketball season, the president of the
American Gear Company pulled the company-sponsored Chicago American Gears
out of the NBL. Maurice White planned to create his own 24-team Professional
Basketball League of America where White would own all the teams and all the
players. Not so surprisingly, his PBLA folded after just one month.
With the new league quickly erased, all its players were equally distributed
to the 11 remaining NBL franchises. Because the Detroit Gems had been so
bad in 1946-47, their relocated Minneapolis Lakers franchise got first pick in
the PBLA dispersal draft and the Lakers snapped up Mikan.
The results were instant. The former Detroit Gems went from being the NBL
laughingshocks to NBL West Division Champions, then blitzed the Rochester
Royals 3-1 in the 1948 NBL Finals where Mikan averaged 27.5-PPG.
Before the 1948-49 season began, the Lakers, the Ft. Wayne Zollner Pistons
and two other teams bolted the NBL for the BAA. The Lakers won the 1949 BAA
Finals in six games against a Red Auerback-coached Washington Capitals club
where Mikan scored an amazing 30.3-PPG, in spite of playing half the series with
a cast on his broken wrist.
The BAA was newer, but had teams in most of the big eastern US cities while
the more established NBL headquartered in the midwest, some teams in much
smaller towns. These two circuits merged into the present National Basketball
Association for the 1949-50 season. The Lakers then won their third straight title
in three different leagues by capturing the 1950 NBA Finals in six games from the
With former Stanford star Jim "Kangaroo Kid" Pollard and Minnesota Gophers
alum Vern Mikkelsen joining Mikan on the front line, the Lakers dominated the
early NBA. Briefly derailed in the 1951 Western Division Finals by the Rochester
Royals, the Lakers then captured the NBA World Championship three straight
times from 1952--54. Minneapolis edged the New York Knickerbockers in seven
games in 1952, the Knicks again 4-1 in 1953 and upended Syracuse 4-3 in 1954.
The Laker dynasty started to fade. The gradual creation of the "Mikan Rules" to
limit his ability (the 24-second shot clock, a widening of the foul lane from six to 12 feet,
the 3-second rule to move out of in the paint lane, the limit of six personal fouls
per team per quarter without penalty) combined with injuries to force Mikan into
retirement after the Lakers' sixth title in seven years. He attempted a brief,
unsuccessful 1955 comeback.
The Lakers returned to the NBA Finals in 1957, losing to the St. Louis Hawks.
Mikan became coach in the autumn of 1957, the Lakers started 9-&-30, and
Kundla returned to replace Mikan as bench boss. The mid-season switch came too late
to help as the Lakers finished last at 19-&-53.
There was one benefit to the basement placement. As the Detroit Gems' bumbling
11 years before had netted Mikan, the last place Lakers were able to make
Seattle University junior Elgin Baylor the #1 pick of the 1958 NBA Draft. Baylor
passed up his senior year to turn pro, became NBA Rookie-of-the-Year, and
the Lakers went to the 1959 Finals. After ousting the Detroit Pistons in the
opening round of the playoffs 2-1, the Lakers beat St. Louis 4-2 in the Western
Division Finals before getting swept 4-0 in the '59 NBA Finals by the powerhouse
Titles would indeed be in Baylor's and the Lakers' futures. But those championships
would come out west after the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
Although LA is next to the Pacific Ocean, the team kept the Lakers name, even
though Gems would have been more appropriate.
After disposing of the Detroit Gems in 1947, C. King Boring owned his namesake
Detroit Vagabond Kings which spent half a season in the NBL before becoming
a Harlen Globetrotters-type barnstorming team from 1948--52.
Boring lost his teams, but always had the basketball bug. He regretted not
retaining at least a minority shareholder interest in the Gems/Lakers until
his dying day, at age 93.
So, while one of the few things Boring did wrong was buy the Gems, his
biggest mistake was selling the Gems.
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