Miracle landing connects Carroll with NBA’s Lakers

The 1959-60 Minneapolis Lakers were having a rough final season. Even with future Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor scoring 43 points, they lost their fourth straight game on January 17, 1960.

Unfortunately, their night was about to get a lot worse.

“It was questionable whether they should even take off,” said John Steffes, a local historian in Carroll, Iowa.

Carroll, population just over 10,000, located just shy of 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, had no idea what it was about to experience. The neat, friendly and caring town would be put to the test.

Just after take-off from St. Louis, the Lakers’ rickety old DC-3 experienced electrical failure in a blizzard.

“They were flying blind,” Steffes said. “It was a raging snowstorm.”

Nearly five-and-a-half hours later, about 1:30 a.m., the flight crew spotted Carroll’s water tower. Former Laker Tommy Hawkins recalled the perilous moments.

“We had less than 15 minutes of fuel left in the plane,” he said. “We were in a storm. We were in a blizzard, and we had to put the thing down.”

“I don’t think I was ever that frightened in my entire life,” recalled co-pilot Harold Gifford.

For Carroll residents, it was really something else.

“We could hear the cotton-picking plane flying around,” said Dick Collison, 85.

“It was snowing like the Dickens,” added Roman Steffes, 81. “We were in bed. I said to my wife, ‘There’s trouble out there for that plane.'”

“It kept going on and on and on,” Collison continued. “We knew something was wrong.”

Out of options, the plane touched down in a Carroll cornfield. Thanks to a skilled flight crew with co-pilot Gifford, remarkably nobody was hurt.

“All my life, I’ve never seen so much courage displayed by a group of people,” Gifford said. “I think that’s what kept everyone else calm.”

“He was a true hero that night,” John Steffes said. “He won’t say that, but he is.”

Home movies of the scene shot by Carroll resident Frank Balk helped to capture the aftermath.

“We ended up with the wheels down,” Hawkins said. “Thank God we didn’t tilt over.”

“It was unbelievable,” added Vince Irlbeck, 82. “What the hell is that plane doing in the middle of a cornfield?”

Overjoyed players scampered through the snow to waiting cars.

“The first guy that met us was the town undertaker,” Hawkins said. “He was in a playful mood. He said, ‘I thought we had some business boys.'”

Within a half-hour, the team was safe at the Burke Motor Inn. John Steffes displayed an autographed placemat.

“One guy was on the phone talking about Carroll,” he said. “The wife went, ‘Who’s Carol?’ Carol, with one ‘C’.

Irlbeck remembered another incident with a player.

“He called his wife and said, ‘We landed in a cornfield in the middle of Iowa.’ She said, ‘Call me back when you’re sober,'” Irlbeck chuckled.

Fate brought the Lakers and Carroll, Iowa, together on that treacherous night, but they formed a bond over the last half-century. It’s a bond based on survival, but more importantly, friendship.

Kids play basketball now on the spot where the plane landed 52 years ago. The Los Angeles Lakers donated $25,000 to build it.

Laker Court leads the way to the games. And there’s a plaque to remember the miracle cornfield landing.

At the dedication in 2010, Hawkins offered a poignant salute.

“I’ll take this opportunity to pay the ultimate respect to this city, to this site, by kissing the ground on which we stand,” he said.

The moment wasn’t lost on former players or the team, which moved to Los Angeles after that season.

All the spectacular moments, championships and success for the Lakers hinged on that night. It was a night when the Lakers and possibly the NBA could have disappeared forever.

“It truly is a turning point in Lakers history,” said Jeanie Buss, Lakers executive vice president. “I believe, had the team not made it that night, the Lakers as we know it wouldn’t exist today.”

Each basket on the Carroll court seems to call back to that stormy night. It’s all about the kindness of Carroll — done up in Laker colors, bright as the sunshine with warm Iowa hospitality.

“We’re proud of that even today,” John Steffes said. “That Good Samaritan spirit.”

“That’s the way we do things around here to help,” Collison concluded. “We need help, we ask for it and get it. With somebody else, we try to give it.”

Giving back more than 50 years later — it’s a lesson about life that’s shared by a wonderful Iowa town and a legendary pro basketball team.

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