The NBA's Disaster Plan

Monday is the 50th anniversary of what nearly was the biggest disaster in major-league professional sports in this country. And it brings up the question of what would happen if a team plane crashed in this day and age.

On Jan. 18, 1960, a plane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers was forced to land in a snowy cornfield near Carroll, Iowa.

The plane circled the town several times — narrowly missing a grove of trees at one point — as the pilots looked for the airport. The windshield became iced over, so Gifford and Ullman took turns sticking their heads out of the window to see where they were.

Bill Simmons writes extensively about this incident in “The Book of Basketball.” And the most interesting aspect is that, according to Simmons, all the major leagues now have a catastrophe plan.

Back then, the Laker franchise would have been forced to sign free agents to replace any players killed in a plane crash. Or, more likely, they would have disbanded for a year, then tried to put together a team the following season. They probably never move to Los Angeles, Elgin Baylor is killed, and the course of NBA history is drastically different.

Nowadays, leagues have provisions in place. Here’s a story from 2000 by SportsBusiness Journal about the NBA’s catastrophe plan, which was first adopted in 1984.

If five or more players on a single team are killed or permanently disabled “anywhere in the world at any time,” the NBA would hold a dispersal draft.

The draft allows the team that suffered the disaster to pick one player from each of the NBA’s other teams until it has restocked its roster. The other teams are each allowed to protect five players, and for every player they give up, they receive $1 million from the disaster-stricken team’s insurance settlement (up from $400,000 when the plan was first adopted).

The league itself would not release the disaster plan, saying it is privileged information.

“We have a plan,” NBA spokesman Seth Sylvan confirmed. “It’s in our operations manual. It is not released. There’s nothing else I can say.”

Several team officials contacted by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal did not even know that the NBA plan for a disaster involving the loss of five or more players existed in their operations manual.

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