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The Los Angeles Lakers is arguably one of the most recognizable franchises in American professional sports. But the California-based basketball team can thank the Land of 10,000 Lakes for its name.

The Lakers have been called the NBA's first dynasty for winning three consecutive NBA titles from 1952 to 1954, when the franchise was in Minneapolis. It has upheld that reputation in its current home, winning 12 NBA championships while in L.A.

David L. Welliver of St. Paul wanted to know why the Lakers left Minneapolis and how the community felt about its departure. He sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project, about those questions and why the team kept its name in a city with few lakes.

Welliver said he started thinking about the Lakers because of another former Minnesota franchise — the North Stars, which relocated to Dallas in 1993.

"I was in Dallas in 2018 and a co-worker and I went to a Dallas Stars game," Welliver said. "I was still angry about Dallas stealing our team and then I thought about the Lakers."

Welliver's family had a connection to the Lakers. His father and grandfather befriended several Lakers in the 1950s while flying radio-controlled airplanes with them.

The 1956-1957 Minneapolis Lakers team poses for a photo.
The 1956-1957 Minneapolis Lakers team poses for a photo.

File photo

"My grandfather knew a number of the Lakers, and my father would shoot baskets with Vern Mikkelsen," Welliver said, referring to the team's power forward who became an NBA Hall of Fame inductee. Welliver later interned for Mikkelsen's son.

The short answer to Welliver's question is that the Lakers left Minneapolis because the team wasn't profitable — partly because they had no consistent home court. So the move was seen in Minnesota as logical, if unfortunate. The Lakers kept the name in part because of a request from the NBA.

Pro basketball arrives in Minnesota

The Lakers' Minnesota story began in the mid-1940s when a young newspaper reporter named Sid Hartman convinced Minneapolis businessmen Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen that the region could support a professional basketball team. Berger and Chalfen decided to sponsor an exhibition game in Minneapolis.

A crowd of more than 5,000 turned out in December 1946 to see Oshkosh and Sheboygan of the National Basketball League (NBL) play at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Satisfied that Minneapolis was ready for professional basketball, Berger and Chalfen began looking for a team.

Berger and Chalfen purchased the Detroit Gems of the NBL for $15,000 in 1947 and relocated the franchise to Minneapolis. The Gems had won only four of 44 games in their previous season — with one game reportedly drawing just six spectators.

Vern Mikkelsen drives against St. Louis in October 1958.
Vern Mikkelsen drives against St. Louis in October 1958.

File photo

The team's front office agreed to sponsor a "name-the-team" contest in cooperation with sportscaster Jack Horner and KSTP radio. The contest drew numerous suggestions including "Aquacagers" and "Millcitians."

While the contest was underway, team general manager Max Winter decided he wanted to call the team the Minneapolis Vikings. The radio station heard of Winter's preference and convinced him it would be bad for the team and his reputation if the contest didn't seem legitimate and transparent to the public, Hartman later recalled.

"Lakers" became the team's name in October 1947. The name was chosen to honor "the Land of 10,000 Lakes" and the long sturdy ore boats ("lakers") that navigated Lake Superior, according to the 2008 book "Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA."

The first person to submit the winning entry was Ben Frank of Minneapolis. He was given the choice of season tickets or a $100 savings bond.

Frank took the savings bond.

Winter gave the team a Scandinavian hue by choosing light blue and gold colors to match the Swedish flag, honoring the area's large Swedish population. (Years later, he would also get to use his preferred "Vikings" name when he helped bring an NFL expansion football team to Minnesota in the 1960s.)

Champions without a home court

Lakers players hold up coach John Kundla after winning the NBA championship in 1952.
Lakers players hold up coach John Kundla after winning the NBA championship in 1952.

Associated Press

The Lakers were unable to call one arena their home.

The team frequently took a back seat to conventions — like the annual Sportsmen's Show — at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Because of scheduling conflicts, the team was forced to play at three different sites in the Twin Cities: the Minneapolis Armory, the Minneapolis Auditorium and the St. Paul Auditorium.

The Lakers nonetheless won six championships in their first seven years in Minneapolis, first with the National Basketball League and later with the NBA. With future Hall of Famers George Mikan and Jim Pollard in the lineup, the Lakers were a very big draw. When the Lakers played the Knicks in New York, the marquee outside Madison Square Garden read "GEO MIKAN vs. KNICKS."

Bob Short bought the Lakers in 1957 and soon began thinking of moving the team because of its financial situation. He noted that year that they needed $7,000 per game to break even but were earning less than $5,000.

Ben Berger, right, transfers ownership of the Minneapolis Lakers to Bob Short in 1957.
Ben Berger, right, transfers ownership of the Minneapolis Lakers to Bob Short in 1957.

Paul Siegel / Star Tribune

"We had no trouble oversubscribing the Laker stock sale," Short said in 1957. "Now the Upper Midwest must prove it can support a major league attraction by actual turnstile count."

The Lakers played their final home game in Minneapolis in March 1960 at the Armory, with a playoff game against the St. Louis Hawks. The official announcement of their move to Los Angeles came later that spring.

The reaction in Minneapolis was mostly sympathetic to the Lakers' move.

"We must face the fact that the Lakers did not have a fair chance here," Minneapolis Tribune columnist Dick Cullum wrote. "They were denied suitable facilities. It was nobody's fault, only a lacking of suitable facilities. On a comparison of facilities alone, the move is justified."

'All we need now is a lake'

The franchise opened its office in Los Angeles in mid-June 1960 and immediately faced skepticism about the team's name. One Los Angeles Times columnist wrote, "It's real peachy that L.A. is going to get professional basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers moving here. All we need now is a lake."

Los Angeles sportswriter Wells Twombly referred to the team as the Los Angeles Dry-Lakers. Consternation about the team's name was understandable, given that there are just 12 lakes in sprawling Los Angeles County.

"At first we decided to set up our office in Los Angeles and pick a new nickname through a contest," Lakers general manager Phil Jason told local reporters. "But we needed an easy means of identification to start with. We couldn't very well call ourselves the L.A. professional basketball team."

He added that the NBA emphatically suggested that the franchise should retain the Lakers nickname. The league felt the Lakers name had historical significance as the NBA's first dynasty.

The Lakers returned to Minneapolis several times in the 1960s to play regular-season games in their old hometown.

Apart from short-lived American Basketball Association teams in the late 1960s, it would be roughly three decades before big-league professional basketball returned to the Twin Cities. The NBA returned to Minnesota in 1989 when the Minnesota Timberwolves joined the league as an expansion team.

Fans arriving for Timberwolves games at Target Center today are greeted by a statue of George Mikan, a throwback to an earlier era in Twin Cities basketball history.

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