The 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers are awful. The reasons why are simple: Kobe Bryant is old and hurt. Steve Nash is even older and more hurt. Pau Gasol is a little less old, but still a little hurt. All of this and more conspired to make Nick Young the team’s leading scorer for the season. Not a recipe for success.
Their win percentage as March 8, 2014, is .333. That’s on track for the worst of any Lakers team in Los Angeles. The previous low of .366 was set in 1974-75 after the retirements of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain but before the arrival of Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. At least Gail Goodrich stuck around the for pain of ’75.
The astute Laker or basketball fan will remember that the Lakers also played in Minneapolis for over a decade. Surely they must have had a worse team than this. And indeed they did. The 1957-58 Lakers posted a win percentage of .264. This was after the departures of George Mikan, Slater Martin, and Jim Pollard, but before the arrival of Elgin Baylor. At least Vern Mikkelsen stuck around for the pain of ’58. The miserable record, however, gave the Lakers the #1 overall pick to select Baylor who would carry the team to the Finals the next season in 1959.
Still, these aren’t the worst teams in Lakers franchise history. To find the worst team ever for the Lakers one has to remember the Lakers weren’t always the Lakers. They weren’t always in the NBA. And they didn’t begin in Minneapolis.
The search takes you way back to Detroit, Michigan, in 1946.
With the conclusion of World War II, professional sports generally – and pro basketball in particular – experienced a glorious revival. Millions of young who just a year earlier were GIs came flooding back to the States. A good chunk of them possessed great athletic qualities to be utilized. Even more of them had some spare change to spend on watching pro athletes compete.
Looking to capitalize on both, officials in the National Basketball League (NBL) authorized a massive expansion of the league. In the 1944-45 season, only six teams participated in the NBL. For the start of the 1946-47 season there were now 13.
Maurice Winston of Dearborn, Michigan, was one of the many new owners in the NBL. The wealthy jeweler located his new franchise in neighboring Detroit and christened them the Gems. Winston surely had the highest of hopes, but all that glitters ain’t gold. The Detroit Gems would be the hottest of messes on the basketball court.
The Chicago Tribune on November 24, 1946, briefly noted the Buffalo Bison had soundly beaten the Detroit Gems 45-35. The score didn’t indicate the true scope of the loss. Buffalo led the Gems 28 to 13 at halftime and cruised to victory thereafter. The Tribune again gave the scoop on another Gems loss. On December 15, the Chicago Gears trounced Detroit 58 to 43. The Gears did so without the services of their star center, George Mikan, who had temporarily quit the team.
In a rematch just days later on the 18th, the Gems got revenge by streaking out to a 23-10 first quarter lead on the Gears, who were still without Mikan. Chicago crept back in the game, but Detroit won 60 to 56 behind 20 points from guard Fred Campbell.
A week later, the Gems again won a game in an overtime thriller against the Youngstown Bears. Campbell once again paced the Gems with 18 points as the Detroit club eked out a 74-73 win. The game didn’t pass without controversy, though.
The Bears seemingly achieved victory when their center, Bill Farrow, made a basket in the final seconds. As it turned out though, the game clock had malfunctioned and the official timekeeper notified the refs the game had concluded by the time Farrow had released his shot.
With two wins in the span of a week, the Gems enjoyed their high-water mark of the season. Their coach certainly thought so and jumped ship while the gettin’ was good.
Joel Mason resigned as head coach of the Detroit Gems on January 3, 1947. Fred Campbell was now named player-coach of the Gems who got their biggest victory of the season two weeks later. In a 56-55 stunner, the Gems upset the Western Division leading Indianapolis Kautskys who featured rising star Arnie Risen. The feel-good upset couldn’t mask just how bad the season was going, though. By February 1, 1947, the Gems sat with a 4-and-22 record which was easily the worst in the Western Division and the entire NBL.
Bad as that record was, they wouldn’t win another game for the rest of the season. In yet another game with the Chicago Gears, the Gems were swamped 76 to 44. The mammoth victory for Chicago was no surprise since Mikan had resolved his dispute with Gears management and returned to the court. Big George had 20 points for the game and the Gears had sealed the game in the 1st quarter with a 21-to-6 edge.
Mercifully, the NBL season ended in late March.
The Gems finished with a miserable 4-and-40 record. The win percentage of .091 is the worst in the history of the NBL, the BAA, the NBA, and the ABA. No pro team associated whatsoever with the NBA has been worse. Owner Maurice Winston was so aghast that he sold the club after the season. It seemed Detroit was a graveyard for pro basketball in the 1940s with ultimately four franchises failing in the market in that one decade. Not until the Fort Wayne Pistons relocated there in the late 1950s would pro basketball stick in the Motor City.
The investors who purchased the Gems off of Winston’s hands were based in Minneapolis. You can see where this is going…
Re-christening the team “the Lakers”, owners Ben Berger and Morris Chaflen scored an immediate coup to revamp the crummy Gems. They signed west coast basketball star Jim Pollard in the off-season of 1947. An even bigger break came just prior to the start of the 1947-48 season.
The Chicago Gears’ owner – Maurice White – had always been a mercurial character – hence George Mikan’s sabbatical mentioned earlier. In the biggest and boldest of moves, White abandoned the NBL and formed his own rival league, the Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA). Between the NBL, the PBLA, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), and the American Basketball League (ABL), the pro basketball market was oversaturated. Although it featured the Gears and their star Mikan, the PBLA couldn’t find room to survive especially since it was underfunded.
The disastrous PBLA quickly went bankrupt, White’s Gears folded, and the entire roster was up for grabs.This included George Mikan, the best player in America.
The Lakers’ owners immediately demanded the #1 pick in the ensuing dispersal draft. After all, they argued, their franchise had just finished dead-last in the NBL the previous season. They needed all the help they could get. The argument worked. George Mikan parachuted into Minneapolis and thus we had the first instance of that legendary Laker luck.
So, with that, the 4-40 Detroit Gems – the worst team ever – were well on their way to becoming one of the NBA’s two great franchise. Mikan and Pollard led the Lakers to the NBL title in their first season together. By 1954, they had captured five more titles – the 1949 BAA crown and the 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954 NBA titles.
Still, the Gems are worth noting beyond the misery that inadvertently created so much later glory.
In their only Detroit season, the Gems employed Willie King. A veteran of the Harlem Globetrotters, King was one of four African-American players in the NBL for the 1946-47 season. This means he preceded Jackie Robinson in the MLB by several months. However King and his fellow black pioneers weren’t re-signed for the 1947-48 season after an ugly riot broke out in Syracuse as fans tried to mob “Pop” Gates, a black player for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. This was clearly a case of one step forward, two steps back.
For the Lakers franchise, their decades of steps forward are taking what may be a giant step back this year. Remember, however, that as bad as things are and may continue to get for the Lakers this year, they’ll never be as bad as they were as the golden Gems of Detroit.