Even though I’m obsessed with sports history and the past — and spend hours every week dwelling on regular season NBA games from 1985 — I don’t fall into the trap of always thinking things were always better back in the day. In countless ways it’s a golden age of sports.
But it was certainly a different era — and, in this way at least, better, or at least much more entertaining and odd — when the Minnesota Vikings had a traveling basketball team that went around the upper Midwest battling squads in small towns gyms.
Imagine the scene today: Adrian Peterson, Joe Webb, Greg Jennings, Jared Allen and other teammates rolling into Waterville to battle a bunch of rednecks from town. Knee braces, Rec Specs and faded memories in place, adoring wives in the crowd. Forget booing Christian Ponder — think how much fun it’d be draining a 3 in his face and then trash-talking him about his own issues with accuracy. At first he smiles, then gets angry, then starts dunking, all while your teammate are telling you to “settle down. Take it easy. This isn’t the district finals.”
“The hell it isn’t! Give me the damn ball. And get out of the way.”
My uncle Mike played against the Vikings in the early 1980s in Fulda. He remembers going against a massive guard — a football guard, that is, who probably wasn’t a basketball guard — but doesn’t recall if it was the late Curtis “Boo-Boo” Rouse.
Matt Blair — you know him as a former outstanding linebacker who also excelled at blocking field goals — played a major role with the Vikings team. In this interview, Blair says he played in 68 games his rookie year and 112 one season. I always enjoy reading about the offseason jobs former pro athletes held decades ago — Hall of Famers who worked as car salesmen or real estate brokers — and certainly playing basketball would have been much more entertaining for the players, and fans.
The old gang still gets together, or did as of a few years ago. In 2010, Rufus Bess, Ted Brown and Joey Browner joined Blair for a game in Albert Lea. I’d go just to see if Browner’s legendary strong hands — the subject of more praise from announcers than Brett Favre’s love of the game — were as good at grabbing offensive boards as they were snagging wide receivers by the back of the jersey. Rickey Foggie also played on that team, stretching the definition of Minnesota Vikings traveling basketball team since the former Gopher great never actually played in the NFL. Still, with the former players in their 50s and 60s, somewhat-younger blood is never turned away, especially if he possesses the same headiness he showed while deftly operating the option under Lou Holtz.
This is a clip, purportedly from a game between former greats from YME (Yellow Medicine East, I’m assuming) and large, aging men who once wore the purple and gold. I now really want the ex Vikes to make a trip to Janesville. Feel like I could put up 40.
Jan Thatcher Adams, the ex-wife of former Vikings great Karl Kassulke — who was paralyzed in a 1973 motorcycle accident and died in 2008 — wrote a book called Football Wife: Coming of age with the NFL as Mrs. Karl Kassulke. She wrote about the hoops team. “They have a grand time and are often gone for several days on road trips. I don’t see many of these games because most are far away, and the wives generally are not invited. Karl seems to be having a good time, and I’m grateful for the occasional one hundred or two hundred dollars added to our resources.”
Yes, different times.
I understand why we can never have something like this again, but I don’t think it should be that outrageous of a request. Players do many things during the offseason that are just as likely to cause an injury. Would there be something heartbreaking and vaguely pathetic about a star linebacker missing several weeks of preseason because he’s still recovering from a severe ankle sprain suffered when he landed on the foot of a Red Rock all-conference player from 1991? Sure, but it remains a great concept.
When it comes to barnstorming, NFL basketball teams are far from being the strangest participants. As a kid, my dad saw the Minneapolis Lakers play an exhibition in tiny Lakefield in southwestern Minnesota. He saw these professional players smoking cigarettes during their breaks. I’ve known that story forever, but I just stumbled upon something strange. An article from the March 3, 1958 Spencer Daily Reporter mentions the upcoming game. Under the odds and ends section, Gene Anderson wrote, “The Minneapolis Lakers will play an exhibition game at Lakefield, Minn., Monday, March 10. They will play the Heron Lake Lakers. Among the Iowans on the Heron team are Bob Carpenter, Spencer, and George Hess of Estherville.”
That might have been the game my dad saw. On Saturday, March 8 the Lakers — who finished a dismal 19-53 — lost to the St. Louis Hawks. The Lakers defeated the Hawks on March 9. On March 12 they ended their season with a loss against the Cincinnati Royals. And on March 10? The Lakers were battling the Heron Lake Lakers in Lakefield. And according to this story in the Worthington Daily Globe by Les Knutson — who writes a weekly flashback piece — the real Lakers, an NBA team remember, had to rally to defeat Heron Lake’s Lakers 96-86. The teams met in April — once the season had ended, and the NBA team won by 21 behind Elgin Baylor’s 44 points.
If one franchise hadn’t moved West and the two eras had lined up a bit more conveniently, we could have witnessed the Minnesota Vikings traveling basketball team playing the Lakers, maybe before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Scott Studwell would guard Vern Mikkelsen. Bud Grant would coach his current football team against his former basketball team. Sid would write about Grant’s torn loyalties. Matt Blair wins it by rejecting a Hot Rod Hundley shot at the buzzer as if it was a Jan Stenerud kick.
A guy can dream. Remarkably, it’s a dream that, at one point anyway, was somewhat based in reality.