ESPN.com - GEN - 'We're gonna make it. We're gonna make it'

Outside the Lines
Outside the Lines
 
Tuesday, April 10
'We're gonna make it. We're gonna make it'




With its engines already shut off, the plane glided high above the Iowa cornfields, drifting through the puffy white clouds without making a noise.

Inside the cabin, the only sound was the whoosh of a brisk winter wind that entered through the open cockpit window. The cold bit each passenger in the cheek.

Hot Rod Hundley is as talkative as he was flashy on the court, but when the Minneapolis Lakers made an emergency landing in an Iowa cornfield, he didn't say a word.
In the back of the plane, Elgin Baylor compactly laid across a row of seats, covered by a thin blanket.

Nearby was Tommy Hawkins, then a rookie from Notre Dame, who observantly noticed a sheet of ice gathering on the plane's wings and the layer of frost covering its windows.

Hot Rod Hundley, seated toward the front of the plane, did what came naturally -- he huddled in the fetal position, bracing for disaster.

Four hours earlier, the DC-3 taking the Minneapolis Lakers home departed from St. Louis' Lambert Field. It seemed routine, like any of the other hundreds of flights a professional sports team take each year.

Nobody had a hunch that it would be the closest an airplane carrying a professional sports team would come to crashing. Nobody anticipated that, even 50 years later, the flight would still be talked about, still be remembered.

But it is.

For all the traveling professional sports teams do -- from city to city, in inclement weather, at obscene hours of the night -- you rarely hear of the stories that go along with all those frequent flier miles. Yet everyone has their stories.

For former baseball manager and general manager Jack McKeon, it was the night in 1963 when his plane lost power in its engines over the Rocky Mountains.

For former NBA general manager and coach Jack Ramsay, it was the night that a prolonged deicing session cost his team what should have been an easy victory.

And for Hundley, it was the night the Lakers' DC-3 got lost in the middle of the Iowa cornfields, without its power generators.

'We had no power, nothing'
Sure, professional sports travel has changed drastically over the years, from the days of cars, busses and propeller planes to spacious, deluxe aircrafts. But yet at its core, the stories are the same.

Just ask Hundley, who now works as an announcer for the Utah Jazz and regularly sits only a few seats away from the team's mile-high poker players, Karl Malone, Olden Polynice, Byron Russell and Scott Padgett.

It was completely silent. Sort of this deathly quiet. There was just a soft wind blowing through the cabin, it was sort of surreal. Frank Selvy kept whispering to himself, 'We're gonna make it. We're gonna make it.' That was the only noise.
Hot Rod Hundley, remembering the Minneapolis Lakers' troubled plane ride in 1960
Back in 1960, on that fateful flight with the Lakers, Hundley was the one in the middle of the card game. He was the one who was up a couple bucks when the cabin lights flickered out, the ride got bumpier and the plane got colder.

The 20 or so passengers -- including nine players and coach Jim Pollard -- had no idea that the plane's generators had blown shortly after takeoff and pilot Vern Ullman, a retired Marine, was flying with no radio, no defroster, no heat and no cabin lighting. Turning back wasn't an option because it might have difficulty avoiding heavy air traffic around the airport.

But when the scheduled two-hour flight started pushing three and then four hours, concern grew. It was then that Hawkins pointed out the ice on the wings. It was then that Baylor, who hated flying on a clear, sunny day, began to panic.

It was then that the cockpit door flew open and Ullman delivered the bad news.

"He told us we were lost, that he had no idea where we were," Hundley recalls. "We had lost radio contact, we had no power, nothing. The only thing that was working was the plane was functioning perfectly in regard to flying instruments."

The plane had about 30 minutes of gas remaining, so Ullman left the decision up to the players -- either put the plane down ASAP somewhere below or continue to search for an airport.

Hundley yelled out, "Go for it." Everyone agreed.

So Ullman and his co-pilot found a spot, lined the plane up and cut the engines. Without brakes, it was the only choice. From there, the aircraft just sort of drifted toward to the ground.

Throughout those final hundred feet, Hundley said, you could hear a pin drop.

"It was completely silent. Sort of this deathly quiet," he said. "There was just a soft wind blowing through the cabin, it was sort of surreal. Frank Selvy kept whispering to himself, 'We're gonna make it. We're gonna make it.' That was the only noise."

Upon impact, the plane bounced straight up like a basketball. Then it bounced again. And again. Each time, its airborne interval grew shorter. After knocking down 100 yards of corn stalks through a seemingly endless succession of jarring bumps, the aircraft finally came to a rest, a few feet shy of a steep incline.

Nobody suffered a scratch.

So right there, in the middle of nowhere Iowa, the Lakers celebrated. With a snowball fight.

"We were all covered in snow," Hundley recalls. "You would have thought we had just won the NBA championship with how much we were celebrating."

'We were a long way from any cornfield'
The case was similar three years later when McKeon, then the manager of the Class AAA Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers, was flying in another DC-3 from Portland, Ore., to Salt Lake City. It was 3 a.m., everybody on the plane was asleep when, suddenly, the engines turned off. It jarred everyone awake.

DANGEROUS SKIES
The plane crash that killed 37 members of the Marshall University football team remains the worst sports-related air tragedy. The following is a list of some sports-related disasters:

ATHLETE CRASHES

Feb. 14, 2000: Tony Bettenhausen Jr., race car driver/owner, near Lexington, Ky.

Oct. 25, 1999: Payne Stewart, golfer, Mina, S.D.

July 12, 1993: Davey Allison, race car driver, Talladega, Ala.

Jan. 1, 1993: Alan Kulwicki, race car driver, Bristol, Tenn.

Jan. 11, 1980: Bo Rein, LSU football coach, Atlantic Ocean

Aug. 7, 1979: Thurman Munson, NY Yankee catcher, Canton, Ohio

Nov. 29, 1975: Graham Hill, race car driver, Hertfordshire, England

Dec. 31, 1972: Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Aug. 31, 1969: Rocky Marciano, heavryweight boxing champion, Newton, Iowa

Feb. 13, 1964: Ken Hubbs, Chicago Cubs second baseman, near Provo, Utah

March 31, 1931: Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football coach, Bazaar, Kan.

TEAM CRASHES

Jan. 27, 2001: Two members of the Oklahoma State men's basketball team, near Denver.

March 14, 1980: 14 members of U.S. Olympic boxing team, near Warsaw, Poland

Dec. 13, 1977: 14 members of University of Evansville basketball team, Evansville, Ind.

Nov. 14, 1970: 37 members of Marshall University football team, near Huntington, W. Va.

Oct. 2, 1970: 14 members of Wichita State football team, Silver Plume, Col.

Feb. 15, 1961: 18 members of U.S. figure skating team, near Brussels, Belgium

Oct. 29, 1960: 16 members of the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo football team, near Toledo, Ohio

Feb. 6, 1958: Eight members of the Manchester United soccer team, near Munich, Germany
"I look down and all I see are these mountains that we still have to clear," McKeon said. "I was scared to death. Everybody was pretty shaken up."

So McKeon peeked into the cockpit to ask what had happened. As it turned out, a sheet of ice had grown on the wings and the pilots were hoping that the jolt from turning the motors off would shake some of the ice chunks loose. It worked, but not without a few tense moments.

"Everything turned out fine, but as you can imagine, we didn't sleep too much the rest of the night," McKeon said. "It was pretty scary. We always joked that the DC-3 could land in a cornfield, but we were a long way from any cornfield."

'You go to Wilkes-Barre and turn right'
Though Hundley's and McKeon's travel memories may be some of the most dramatic, Ramsay's reflections give the best perspective on the difference between then and now.

Just imagine Allen Iverson, Tyrone Hill, Aaron McKie and Dikembe Mutombo climbing into a car and trekking the 10 hours to Toronto for a game against the Raptors.

In the late-'40s, taking to the highway was the way NBA teams traveled. Jerry Rullo, a teammate of Ramsay's in the Eastern League, used to tell him stories of driving to various road games.

After one home game early in the season, Rullo once told Ramsay, Philadelphia coach/GM Eddie Gottlieb informed his team that four cars would be waiting for them at a downtown hotel the next morning for the drive to Toronto. Gottlieb was coming up later in the day with the team's P.A. announcer.

That's when George Senesky, the team captain, chirped up.

"But coach, we don't even know how to get to Toronto," he said.

"Eh, it's easy," Gottlieb bounced back. "You go to Wilkes-Barre and turn right."

Such was the life early on for sports teams. When air travel became more common in the '50s and '60s, it made life easier in some respects, but more challenging in others.

Because the planes were smaller, players frequently had to report how much they weighed. Often, players would be forced to drop off their luggage hours before a flight so it could be taken on a separate plane. And even more so than today, flight delays and cancellations wreaked havoc on team schedules.

Ramsay said he remembers one such occurrence in 1970, when the team arrived at the local airport with its scheduled charter nowhere to be found. Ramsay was told the plane was being deiced from an overnight storm and would be ready shortly.

Two hours later, there still was no plane. Eventually, the charter company backed out, saying they couldn't take the team.

So with tip-off quickly approaching, Ramsay luckily found a pair of available Lear jets. When the team finally reached Cleveland, it was 8 p.m., 30 minutes after tip-off.

The Cavs delayed the game's start, but it didn't make much of a difference. The league-leading Sixers, which had beaten Cleveland by 40 the week before, lost by 25.

"It was a mess," Ramsay said. "Especially compared to how it is today."

'You learned about the guys you went to war with'
Today, a private bus takes a team right to the airplane steps, where a hot gourmet meal is waiting, along with reclining seats, spacious accommodations and every technological advancement possible.

McKeon said he believes that large luxury liners have led in part to a decline in camaraderie among teammates.

"You've got 200-seat airplanes for 40 guys," McKeon said. "And guys don't talk. You'll have a card game here, video games there, a guy sleeping in the corner. And the phone stuff is crazy, too. Guys are always on their phones, talking with their agents, talking with their friends. It's a shame."

Hundley agrees.

"Everybody has this division, their own row," Hundley said. "It's a different kind of player. They are looking at the stock market on their laptop, worrying about commercials. Everybody splits up. They barely even talk.

"We always talked. You learned about the guys you went to war with that way."

Guys that today, some 41 years after that harrowing landing in an Iowa cornfield, he still keeps in touch with. In fact, tucked away in a safe place in Hundley's home is an old paper napkin, a tattered keepsake from a local coffee shop signed that fateful night by each of his Laker teammates.

It's one of Hundley's most prized possessions.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.

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