By Wally Langfellow
Photos by Paul Langfellow
In 1947, pro basketball came to Minnesota in the form of the Minneapolis Lakers. Led by Hall of Famer George Mikan the Lakers were one of the NBA’s elite teams in the 1950’s before relocating to Los Angeles prior to the 1960-61 NBA season.
Some 52 years later the Minneapolis Lakers name was revived and is now being proudly adorned on the powder blue and gold jerseys of 4th through 8th grade youth basketball players in Minneapolis. “We wanted a name that honored some heritage that people can be proud of and get behind,” said Lakers president Tom Meckey.
The Minneapolis Lakers Traveling Basketball Association started out with three teams back in 2012 when Penny and Guy Cierzan along with Dan Froehlich founded the organization. The need was apparent as parents in Southwest and South Minneapolis were searching for a higher level of basketball than what was being offered through the parks system.
“Really what it was,” explains Meckey, “Is that they wanted to get a good experience for their own kids.” That group of parents took the organization to the next level and the popularity has been building ever since. In 2014 the Lakers introduced the “Little Lakers” a 4th grade travel program for boys and girls in Minneapolis. The 4th grade program initially drew 36 kids playing a reduced tournament travel schedule. The “Little Lakers” was such a success that 4th graders were then added into the Lakers full size program.
Growing bigger without a gym
In the 2017-18 season the Lakers program had grown to 17 teams with over 250 kids trying out for those 17 teams. With those kind of growing numbers the expansion has continued and this year there are now 22 Minneapolis Lakers teams, 17 boys teams and five girls teams all of which take part in MYAS tournaments on a regular basis.
Now with 22 teams, one of the biggest hurdles for the Lakers program is finding gym space for all of their teams to practice. With Minneapolis city schools and park buildings off limits because of school and park and rec commitments, the Lakers have gotten creative practicing in churches, parochial schools and similar facilities.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” says Meckey. “In fact we will not be able to grow past our current size we’re at in terms of our number of teams and players in our program until we can get real about building a facility for club basketball programs in the cities.”
But, finding land and the money to build such a facility won’t be easy. Meckey, who is in the real estate business knows this all too well. He thinks that a building that operates as a non-profit and also caters to other sports like volleyball, soccer and lacrosse could be something that works. In the meantime his coaches and players are making the best of what they have to work with.
“We’re making it work,” said 5th grade girls “C” coach Steve Krocak. “It would be nice to have a central location where we could call home, but for now this seems to be working out alright.”
The Volunteer Coaches
Krocak is one of the many parent-volunteer coaches who are the life-blood of the Lakers program. “My oldest daughter has been through it and we loved the coaches. So I’m just glad they gave me the opportunity to do this. I’m enjoying teaching the game of basketball.”
And while most of the coaches over the years have been parents like Krocak, according to Meckey that trend is changing. “Now our program is starting to attract non-parent coaches,” says Meckey.
Among the non-parent coaches is Ed Williams, who also serves on the Lakers board as the director of coaching. Williams took over a 6th grade team last season and “coached them up” according to Meckey, eventually winning a state championship. “He’s a great example of what our program is attracting—a really good person, smart guy, great role model, great mentor to the boys. We’re just lucky to have him,” says Meckey.
So, what’s in store for the Lakers’ program in the future? Besides getting their own facility, Meckey says his dream is to have the program go city-wide. “There would have to be charters. And make it regional, like a Minneapolis Lakers North charter and a Minneapolis Lakers South charter and a Southwest charter. What I envision is facilities in the four corners of the city, where we can really build out the program.”
For more information on the Minneapolis Lakers visit their website at mplslakers.org