The Detroit Gems finished the 1946-47 NBL season squarely in last place. A 4-40 record will ensure that. The luxurious Gems were financially broke and sold off to Ben Berger and Morris Chaflen. The new owners christened the the franchise as the “Minneapolis Lakers” and moved them to Minnesota.
Berger and Chaflen were on the lookout for a star player to turnaround the horrific team and also give their arrival in Minneapolis a little pomp and circumstance for the locals to enjoy.
Their eyes turned west to the Pacific Coast as they tried to nab the best AAU player in California, 25-year-old Jim Pollard.
By 1947, Jim Pollard had established fine basketball credentials, most notably leading Stanford University to the 1942 NCAA title. Over the next few years he finished his Stanford career, played in the Coast Guard, and with the AAU’s Oakland Bittners. Sid Hartman, an executive with the Lakers, contacted Pollard about playing for Minneapolis. Eventually, they settled on a $10,000 contract with a $3,000 signing bonus.
The Lakers had found their star player. And the testimony of Pollard’s peers exemplifies how the rail-thin forward was an all-around basketball marvel. Indeed, people from the era who watched him warm-up claim Pollard could dunk nearly from the throw line.
I remember a play where he intercepted the ball at midcourt. Then he took off from just inside the free throw line, jumped and put it in.”
For speed, jumping, and ball-handling, there’s Pollard’s Lakers coach, John Kundla:
Jim was the most graceful player I had. If there was a full-court press, I’d have them give the ball to Jim, because Jim could get by anybody. He had speed and he could jump. In his first game of pro ball, he came out with a bloody elbow and I said, ‘What happened?’ He said he’d hit it on the backboard. Jeez. When I was in college, I couldn’t even touch the net.
Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane recalls Pollard’s unheard of dunking prowess:
He was the first guy who played above the rim. Whoever heard of dunking in our time? I’m following him in there, thinking he’s going to miss a layup, and – BOOM! – there he goes. Believe me, he was the first guy who dunked.
And there’s Ephraim “Red” Rocha on Pollard’s dazzling athleticism:
He could make you look silly. As far as I’m concerned, he was the best all-around basketball player, from a standpoint of pure technical basketball, that I saw during the period that I played. He was as quick as any guard in the league. At the end of the game, they’d give the ball to Pollard and he would dribble the ball and nobody could faze him. And rebounding – he could do all of it.
That’s the kind of forward the Lakers got their hands on. They were clearly on the road to being an NBL title contender. And then George Mikan fell into their laps when the Chicago Gears (previously of the NBL) folded.
Mikan’s mammoth post presence and the quicksilver moves of Pollard didn’t mesh well initially. Mikan was simply clogging the lane for Pollard, while Pollard was cramping Mikan’s post space. Losing four of their first five games together, Pollard, Mikan, and Coach Kundla finally arrived at a solution. More pick and rolls and more give and go’s, less one-on-one basketball.
The Lakers wound up winning six championships over the next seven seasons split between the NBL, the BAA, and the NBA. Eventually, future All-Stars like Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, and Clyde Lovellette would join the Lakers, but Pollard and Mikan were there from the outset of the dynasty. They even played a series of highly touted exhibition matches with the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the Lakers winning six of the eight games.
Pollard’s finest professional moment might have been the 1953 NBA Finals. The Lakers defeated the New York Knicks 4-games-to-1 in the series. In the decisive Game 5, Pollard scored 17 points on 6-7 shooting from the field and 5-6 shooting from the free throw line. Going along with the points were nine rebounds and three assists in the 91-84 Minneapolis win. If there was a Finals MVP award at the time, Pollard would have been a very strong candidate to take home the hardware for that series.
Jim Pollard retired from professional basketball after the 1955 NBA season. His production and impact on the court is always a little muted despite the talent who offered up, for two big reasons.
Firstly, as discussed, he played alongside George Mikan. Pollard might have been the best all-around talent in basketball, but Mikan was the most dominating scoring force in the game. Pollard could more easily tailor his game to augment Mikan than the other way around. Add to that the additions of the other stars mentioned over time and Pollard was always part of a powerful collective.
Secondly, though, Pollard was prone to bouts of drifting. Sid Hartman, the man who signed Pollard to the Lakers, lamented that Pollard would lose interest in a fashion similar to a student who’s so far ahead of his class, he gets restless and grumpy. Hartman noted, in particular, that Pollard’s defense suffered from this. When locked-in Jim was a first-class defender. Over the course of a long season, Pollard would also just slough off a little in the monotony unless something perked his interest like a big game or TV cameras.
These predicaments aren’t unique to Pollard. Many players before and after have dealt with those issues.
In the end, Jim Pollard was one of the unique talents in pro basketball. The agile and quick small forward helped bring the game closer to the rim with his twirling layups, knife like cuts, and dunks that he threw down occasionally, not because of opportunity but because of social convention. If the game was of another era, Pollard might have been dunking nightly.
Instead, he wound up with six pro championships and a combined eight All-Pro and All-Star selections in his brief eight-year career. Pretty good for the first star of the Lakers franchise.
6x Champion (1948-’50, 1952-’54)
3x All-NBL/BAA/NBA 1st Team (1948-’50)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1952, 1954)
4x All-Star (1951-’52, 1954-’55)
Regular Season Career Averages (497 games):
Playoff Career Averages (82 games):