Former Lakers plane pilot Harold Gifford, now 95, shoots a free throw at Laker Court Monday. On a winter evening 59 years before, Gifford co-piloted a plane carrying 10 members of the Minneapolis Lakers through a blinding blizzard to a landing in a Carroll cornfield, now the site of the basketball court. Gifford returned to Carroll as part of the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada)
Former Lakers plane pilot Harold Gifford, now 95, shoots a free throw at Laker Court Monday. On a winter evening 59 years before, Gifford co-piloted a plane carrying 10 members of the Minneapolis Lakers through a blinding blizzard to a landing in a Carroll cornfield, now the site of the basketball court. Gifford returned to Carroll as part of the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada)

July 11, 2019

The future of the Los Angeles Lakers — a global sports brand that Forbes magazine earlier this year valued at $3.7 billion and the team that gave fans Magic and Shaq and now LeBron — hinged 59 years ago on the high-flying pluck of a World War II veteran who co-piloted a 1960 flight through a blinding blizzard to safety in the serenity of a Carroll cornfield.

Harold Gifford, 95, one of the pilots, an energetic and amiable honorary resident of Carroll, visited from his Twin Cities, Minnesota, home this week as part of Carroll’s 150th anniversary celebration. He quoted Socrates and Aristotle and the author Noam Chomsky, among others, in a tour-de-force session that was one part history, two parts inspiration. Independent film producers trailed Gifford as he talked with Tom Farner and Ashley Schable as part of a Carroll Chamber of Commerce history collection, and then had dinner at Napoli’s Italian Restaurant in Carroll with local historian John Steffes, president of the Kuemper Catholic School System and a longtime personal friend of Gifford.

Producers are in the preliminary stages of developing a movie.

“They joke about who you would want playing your part,” Gifford said of the potential dramatic movie. “I’d take recommendations.”

Remember, he was 36 at the time of that emergency landing, which led Steffes to suggest Leonardo DiCaprio for the leading role. Gifford laughed at that.

Gifford, who says he is still trying to “reach his full potential in life,” sees 95 as a mere number. He even hit a free throw Monday afternoon at the Laker Court, donated by the Los Angeles Lakers and located on the site of the landing.

“It’s been a great life, guys,” Gifford said. “I recently went to a seminar on how to grow old. I thought it was kindergarten. Everyone else was in their 60s and 70s.”

Sports historians, Steffes observed, have speculated that had the Lakers perished that night — as one initial phone call to distressed wives of some players gathered in Minneapolis mistakenly reported — the National Basketball Association might not be what it is today, or even be in existence, such was the pivotal role of the Lakers in vaulting the league to smashing success.

“You may have saved the whole NBA as well, and we would not have had the great story with Nick Nurse,” Steffes said.

Nurse, a Kuemper alum, coached the Toronto Rapters to an NBA title last month.

“Carroll is famous to two big NBA stories,” Steffes said. “It (Nurse) the biggest story? Or is it Harold Gifford saving the Lakers? The debate goes on.”

At 1:40 a.m. Monday, Jan. 18, 1960, a twin-engine DC-3 transport, carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team and piloted by military veterans Vernon Ullman and Gifford, made an emergency landing through a snowstorm in a cornfield (the Emma Steffes farm) that is now the Collison Addition in northeast Carroll.

Ten members of the Minneapolis ball club walked off the plane without injury that early morning. Just one year later, the Lakers, with rookie sensation Jerry West from West Virginia University added, were in Los Angeles, where they would become one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.

Today, Lakers ownership and executives say they know full well that the LA team would not exist as the world knows it were it not for the success of the emergency Carroll landing on a flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis.

Fifty-nine years ago, when the Daily Times Herald interviewed Gifford, not too far removed from his days as an Army Air Force pilot in the Pacific Theater of World War II, he said the flight crew of the Lakers plane used the North Star as guidance as much as possible that night before dropping down in icy conditions to the Carroll area.

With little visibility, Gifford actually looked out a cockpit window and found U.S. Highway 71, which the crew used as a guidepost. They were unable to find the airport because of the driving snow.

“We figured the highway would lead us somewhere, and we came out over Carroll,” Gifford said.

At the time, Carroll fireman Henry Roth said the plane made eight or nine passes over Carroll.

“If there are any people around that we woke up, I apologize,” Gifford joked Monday afternoon as he talked at Veterans Memorial Park, site of the Laker landing and modern-day basketball court.

Eventually, the corn on the Steffes farm showed up dark against the pillowy background of snow, giving the pilots a reference point. There was no working radio or defroster.

Gifford said the plane glanced trees in Auburn, a woodsy patch he visited while back in Carroll Monday.

“I wasn’t scared really anytime until then,” Gifford said.

Instead of a Laker Court in Carroll, there could easily be a memorial to dead Lakers players in Auburn, Steffes noted.

Being careful to steer clear of challenging anyone else involved in the decision to fly from St. Louis that night after the Lakers lost to the Hawks 135-119, Gifford said that he strongly advised others against leaving St. Louis because of the weather.

Gifford said his military experience and some crop-dusting days in the American West gave him some lifesaving instincts that night.

“You don’t have to land in airports,” Gifford said. “You can land anyplace if you size it up right.”

Some barbed wire from the field caught the tail of the plane, creating something akin to a landing on an aircraft carrier, Gifford said.

Gifford said that when the plane did finally set down in what this newspaper called a “miracle landing” in 1960, the passengers initially were silent.

But soon cheers broke out, and Gifford can recall Laker Hot Rod Hundley, known as something of a ladies’ man, yelling, “I live to love again!”

They’d been in the air for 5 hours and 45 minutes.

As would-be rescuers — who wound up being simply late-night taxi drivers from the plane to the old Burke Hotel, located where Walgreens is today — arrived on the scene, they expected the worst, Gifford said.

“They thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be horrible, we’re going to have dead, mangled people,’” Gifford said.

Instead players were in a frivolous mood, even getting into a snowball fight at one point.

Gifford said he’s never been more happy to see a city than when he spotted the lights of Carroll 59 years ago. He’d actually consider moving here if he didn’t have so much family in Minnesota. And he enjoys his townhouse in Woodbury, in the Twin Cities, where he lives independently.

But he would love living in Carroll, Gifford observed.

“It’s funny, I was just thinking that the other day,” he said.