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CROWE'S NEST / JERRY CROWE

Minneapolis sportswriter helped raise the Lakers

Star Tribune's Sid Hartman, who still writes four columns a week at age 89, is considered a throwback to times when 'columnists supported the local teams -- sometimes to a fault,' his boss says.

April 27, 2009|JERRY CROWE

In exploring the roots of Southern California's most successful sports franchise, you start in Minneapolis, of course.

You start with Sid Hartman.

If not for the hubristic Hartman, a high school dropout and unapologetic homer of a sports columnist for the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, there would be no Lakers.

They were his idea.

And not only that. In the Lakers' formative years in Minneapolis -- well before they moved to Los Angeles in 1960 -- the journalist moonlighted without title (or shame) as the Lakers' de facto general manager, playing a behind-the-scenes role in piecing together the parts that formed the NBA's first championship dynasty.

"Conflict of interest," Hartman says from his home outside Minneapolis, "wasn't important then."

Hartman, 89, is still on the job, writing his popular column four times a week and hosting a weekly radio show -- even if he once confused Tara Lipinski with Monica Lewinsky.

His boss, Glen Crevier, notes via e-mail that Hartman "remains extremely competitive in his pursuit of stories and breaking news" and "wants to be in the paper as much as possible."

At the same time, Crevier adds, "He continues to be a throwback to the old days when columnists supported the local teams -- sometimes to a fault -- and seldom offered criticism."

It was in his civic champion's hat that Hartman, in 1946, suggested to a pair of local businessmen that they bring a professional sports team to the Twin Cities.

He persuaded Morris Chalfen, founder of the Holiday on Ice skating show, and Ben Berger, who owned a chain of movie theaters in Minnesota and North Dakota, to target a pro basketball franchise -- with Hartman as their point man.

"I had no title," the columnist notes, "but the editor of the paper and the sports editor agreed that if I could get the first major league team for Minnesota, they'd let me be connected with it as long as I didn't write about it, so I didn't write about it."

Appropriately for a team that would later bring its bling to Hollywood, the Lakers rose from the ashes of the Detroit Gems, who were founded by the owner of a jewelry store.

One of the worst teams in the history of professional basketball, the Gems played only one season in the National Basketball League, losing 40 of 44 games in the 1946-47 season, but that was enough to persuade owner Maury Winston to bail out.

In the summer of 1947, Hartman says, "I went to Detroit with a check in my hand. We bought the Gems for 15 grand." Later, in the so-called "Land of 10,000 Lakes," a naming contest determined that they would be rechristened the Lakers.

Hartman, relying on contacts in college basketball to help him make personnel decisions, hired the coach who would oversee the dynasty, John Kundla, and signed the players.

He played a more duplicitous role in the signing of George Mikan, the NBA's first great big man.

Enlisted to deliver Mikan to the airport after a day of failed negotiations, Hartman purposely took a wrong turn, causing the free agent to miss his flight. Forced to stay overnight, Mikan signed with the Lakers the next day and helped them win six championships in the next seven seasons, the last five in the NBA.

All the while, Hartman says he continued running the team, even though Max Winter was listed as general manager.

"Max Winter," Hartman says, "spent the winter in Hawaii."

Which was fine with Hartman.

"I loved it," he says. "I've been with the newspaper 60-some years, but the most fun I had was that Laker thing."

The fun ended, he says, when Berger usurped Hartman's autonomy, the co-owner and club president "sticking his nose in the whole thing" and torpedoing a trade that Hartman says would have put the Lakers in a position to draft Bill Russell.

"When that happened," Hartman says, "I quit."

In a 2006 book, "The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It," author Roland Lazenby notes that it wasn't until decades later that Hartman revealed the full extent of his role with the Lakers, leaving some to wonder whether the newsman had exaggerated his involvement.

"Yet there is no doubt," Lazenby writes in the book, "that Hartman was the deal-maker who built the team."

After Mikan retired in 1956, the Lakers fell on hard times. Sold to Bob Short and Frank Ryan in 1957, they moved to Los Angeles -- and into the Sports Arena -- three years later.

Hartman never forgot.

"If we'd have made that Russell deal," Hartman says, "we'd have had the nucleus of another great team and Mr. [Red] Auerbach wouldn't have had his good streak. It would have changed the whole history of the NBA if that deal had gone through.

"The Lakers never would have moved to L.A., I'll tell you that."

And one other thing, Hartman adds.

"If we'd have got Russell," the Minneapolis sportswriting icon says, "I'd have quit the newspaper."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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