George Mikan (born 1924) has been described by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as" the first dominant big man in professional basketball and the game's first superstar." At six feet, ten inches, he towered over most other college and professional players of the 1940s and 1950s. As a player for the Minneapolis Lakers (later the Los Angeles Lakers), Mikan repeatedly helped lead the team to league championships. When he retired after nine professional seasons, Mikan held the record for the most career points scored, 11,764.
No one who knew George Lawrence Mikan as a boy would have guessed that he would grow up to become one of the first superstars of professional basketball. Born into a Croatian family in a small Illinois town, Mikan was one of three brothers, all of whom helped out at the family's restaurant. All of the brothers were tall, but George Mikan stood out from other boys his age. By the time he was 11, he was well over six feet tall and often was the target of taunting, because he also was very awkward and wore thick glasses. Mikan's only early sports interest was the game of marbles, in which he won a countywide marble-shooting championship.
When he entered high school, Mikan made the basketball team but was cut after the coach found out he could not play without his glasses. Mikan began to play on the local Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) team but soon afterward broke his leg when he stepped on a ball. His great height—which eventually topped at six feet, ten inches— was accompanied by very brittle bones, a problem that would plague him throughout his basketball career. Mikan's doctor thought that he would not be able to play again after breaking his leg, and he could not even walk normally for more than a year. He decided to become a priest, but then began to play again once his leg healed. Hoping for an athletic scholarship to Notre Dame University, Mikan was crushed when the school's coach told him he never could be a good basketball player because he was too tall and slow. Although many more recent players have been even taller than Mikan, at that time he was viewed almost as a freak.
Fortunately for Mikan, another school viewed him differently. DePaul University then was little known in the world of basketball. It had just hired a new coach, Ray Meyer, who saw Mikan play and decided to work with the tall, awkward boy with thick glasses. DePaul gave him a full athletic scholarship, a decision it never regretted. Meyer helped Mikan to condition his body and shoot more accurately—and also to stop being embarrassed about his height.
All of this work paid off when Mikan blossomed into a star center for the DePaul team. Centers traditionally had simply swatted the ball away from the opposing team, leaving it to other players to shoot baskets, but Mikan also became an excellent scorer. In fact, his protection of the basket was perhaps too good; men's basketball rules were changed during his college years to prohibit goaltending, which forced him to stand farther from the basket. However, this change barely affected his playing or his team's success. Mikan led all college teams in scoring for the 1944-45 and 1945-46 seasons, averaging more than 23 points per game both years. He became a three-time All-American and was named college player of the year in 1946. In a championship semifinal game against Rhode Island—won by DePaul 97-53—Mikan set a Madison Square Garden record by scoring 53 points.
When Mikan graduated from DePaul in 1946, he went to the Chicago Gears professional team with a five-year contract. His $12,000 annual salary was the highest ever paid to a basketball player. During his rookie season, Mikan scored an average of 16.5 points per game and helped the Gears win their league's championship. Although Mikan drew many new fans, the Gears were financially unstable and the team went bankrupt after his rookie season. Johnny Kundla, coach of the new franchise Minneapolis Lakers, picked Mikan. Setting up this new team did not go smoothly. Kundla, a college coach, had been the Lakers' third choice for coach, and they originally had selected another player as starting center for the team. When Mikan was offered this job, he thought that Minnesota was too far from his home base in Chicago. But he was convinced to sign on after he met with the management, missed his flight home, and the sportswriter who was driving him convinced him how wonderful the area was. The Lakers outdid the Gears' record salary offer to Mikan, giving him a one-year contract for $12,500.
After Mikan began playing for the Lakers in 1947, he became the first real celebrity of professional basketball. When the team traveled to New York City's Madison Square Garden, the marquee would read "Tonight: George Mikan vs. Knicks." Many fans came just to see this giant of a man play. Some sportswriters credit him with saving basketball as a professional sport, especially since various franchises and leagues would open and then fold within a few years. Although Mikan often dominated the court, he was not a one-man team. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the Lakers also acquired such outstanding players as Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen, and Slater Martin. With this outstanding team in place, the Lakers went on to win league championships in six out of seven years (1948, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954). In 1950 the Associated Press named Mikan the greatest basketball player of the first half of the twentieth century. The Lakers lost to Rochester in the division finals in 1951, probably because Mikan had been injured. He insisted on playing in the series against Rochester with a fractured leg. Mikan described these games for Newsday in 1990: "The doctors taped a plate on it [the broken leg] for the playoffs. I played all right, scored in the 20s. I couldn't run, sort of hopped down the court."
Other teams used many tricks to stop the Lakers, usually unsuccessfully. The strategy with the oddest outcome was one the Fort Wayne Pistons tried during a game in 1950. Since the Lakers were averaging 84 points per game, the Pistons decided to play slowly to reduce the scoring possibilities. At that time there was no rule limiting a team's time of possession, so the Pistons spent much of the game walking and standing with the ball. The strategy worked; the Pistons won by a score of 19-18, the lowest point total in National Basketball League (NBA) history. But even in this game the Pistons could not stop Mikan, who scored 15 of the Lakers' 18 points. The 24-second shot clock was instituted a few years later, largely in response to this game.
Following the 1953-54 season, Mikan surprised basketball fans by announcing his retirement. He was only 30, but the sport had taken a heavy toll on his body. During his career he had fractured both of legs, both feet, a wrist, several fingers, and his nose (numerous times). He had had 166 stitches, suffered from a permanent limp, lost a kneecap, and could not straighten his arms fully. Mikan also wanted to spend more time with his family. As he recalled for Sports Illustrated in 1989, "I came home one day and picked up my second son, Terry, and he began crying. He was afraid of me, because he didn't know who I was. It broke my heart." Despite his physical condition, Mikan was persuaded to return to the Lakers for the 1955-56 season. However, his best playing days clearly were over; he played in only 37 games and scored only 390 points. After that season, Mikan once again announced his retirement, this time for good. During his nine-season professional career, Mikan had led the league in scoring six times (1946-52). He also set a league record by scoring a career total of 11,764 points (an average of 22.6 points per game).
The season after Mikan retired permanently from professional playing, John Kundla—who had coached the Lakers since their founding—decided to move into the team's front office. Mikan seemed the logical choice to replace Kundla, but his coaching career, which lasted only the first half of the 1957-58 season, was short and disastrous. The Lakers started with a 9-30 record, and Mikan stepped down to let Kundla finish coaching the season. The Lakers could not rise again to the heights of their championship years and they lost many fans. And the stadium they used held only 8,000 people; it often was booked with trade shows during playoff season and the Lakers had to rent college gyms. In 1960 the team's management announced that it was leaving Minnesota and moving to Los Angeles, which had no professional franchise. Mikan decided to leave basketball entirely; he practiced law, renovated real estate in Minneapolis, and spent more time with his family. One consolation to him had to be that, when the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame elected its first inductees in 1959, Mikan was one of the players honored.
In 1967 Mikan returned to his beloved sport as the first commissioner of the new and short-lived American Basketball Association (ABA). During his two years as commissioner, he created the league's distinctive red, white, and blue basketball. Mikan then once again returned to his law practice but could not stay away from sports for long. In the mid-1980s Mikan and a group of Minneapolis businessmen convinced the National Basketball Association (NBA) to start a new team in Minnesota, the Timberwolves. He also became involved in a number of other business enterprises such as a California recreational vehicle company. In 1993 Mikan discovered a new sport: roller hockey. When Dennis Murphy (who also had founded the ABA) decided to expand his Roller Hockey International franchises, he asked Mikan to buy a team, and Mikan became the owner of the new Chicago Cheetahs.
Mikan looked back on his career and at modern basketball for Sports Illustrated in 1996. He acknowledged that the game had undergone huge changes. For instance, during his professional career Mikan's salary was only a fraction of what has been paid to superstars in recent years, and there were only a few thousand fans at many games. Mikan expressed one regret about the direction of the game: that it lacked the teamwork passing of earlier days, when "going upcourt, the ball wouldn't hit the floor."
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