True or false: Basketball has always been a game dominated by big men. False. Prior to the 1940s, basketball was thought to be geared towards smaller players. That changed when the 6-10 George Mikan started playing.
Born in Joliet, Ill., on June 18, 1924, the man the Associated Press would name the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century didn’t play basketball in high school. It was at DePaul University that Mikan began dominating the hardwood. First year coach Ray Meyer was intrigued by Mikan’s potential and worked with him for six weeks alone. Besides shooting left-handed and right-handed (later called the “George Mikan drill”), Mikan’s training included punching a speed bag, taking dancing lessons to improve his grace and jumping rope. The work paid off: Mikan was a three-time All-American and twice named College Player of the Year. On the way to DePaul’s 1945 National Invitation Tournament title, Mikan outscored the entire Rhode Island State team by recording 53 points. Mikan was so good, in fact, that he inspired a rule change. Goaltending had previously been legal; it was considered impossible for someone to have the height and jumping ability to swat away a ball that was above the basket. When the NCAA saw how often Mikan was goaltending, it outlawed the practice.
The National Basketball League’s (NBL) Chicago American Gears signed Mikan in 1946. As a rookie, Mikan was named to the All-NBL team and lead Chicago to the league championship. Maurice White, the team’s owner, had an ambitious plan to create a 24-team Professional Basketball League of America and own all of the teams and arenas. To help achieve his goal, White pulled the American Gears out of the NBL. His dream became a short-lived reality, with the league barely lasting a month and the players being sent to the 11 remaining NBL teams. Mikan was sent to the first-year Minneapolis Lakers and led the team to the 1948 championship.
Before the 1948-49 season, the Lakers were one of four teams who moved to the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Mikan led the league by averaging 28.3 points per game – one-third of the Lakers’ point production – and was named the season’s Most Valuable Player. Once again advancing to the Finals, the Lakers took a 3-0 series lead over the Washington Capitols, only to see Mikan suffer a broken wrist in a Game Four loss. Mikan wore a cast on his hand in Game Five and scored 22 points, but the Capitols won again. A 77-56 Game Six victory stopped the Lakers’ slide and clinched the championship. Following that season, the BAA and NBL merged to create the NBA.
Mikan was popular enough that the marquee over Madison Square Garden for a December 1949 game said, “Geo. Mikan Vs. Knicks.” He led the NBA by averaging 27.4 points per game in the 1949-50 season (only one other player averaged 20-plus points). The Lakers defeated the Syracuse Nationals in the Finals in six games to win the championship. Although the 1950-51 season saw Mikan fail to win a championship for the first time in his professional career, he averaged a career-best 28.4 points per game. Efforts by the Fort Wayne Pistons to keep the ball out of Mikan’s hands during a 1950 game resulted in a 19-18 final score, lowest in NBA history. This eventually led to the implementation of the 24-second shot clock. Another Mikan-inspired change: the NBA increased the width of the key from 6 to 12 feet to make it harder for him to score.
Despite Mikan’s decreased scoring, the Lakers reclaimed the title by defeating the New York Knicks in seven games in the 1952 Finals. The Lakers defeated the Knicks again in the 1953 Finals, this time in five games. After the team’s third consecutive championship – and fifth in six years – in 1954, Mikan abruptly retired, saying he wanted to spend more time with his growing family. He had been center on the All-NBA First Team from 1949-54 and played in the first four All-Star Games.
Retirement was apparently less than satisfying to Mikan, who rejoined the Lakers in the middle of the 1955-56 season. However, he was past his prime and averaged only 10.5 points in 37 games. The Lakers posted a losing record and were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs, leading Mikan to permanently retire. John Kundla transitioned from being the Lakers head coach to the front office for the 1957-58 season and convinced Mikan to take his place on the bench. Mikan quit after beginning the season with a 9-30 record. In 1959, Mikan was a member of the first class elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mikan returned to the game in 1967 as the American Basketball Association’s first commissioner. It was Mikan’s idea for the league to use a multicolored ball. His tenure as commissioner ended in 1969, but in the mid-1980s he led a task force looking to bring professional basketball to Minneapolis once again. The result of these efforts was the Minnesota Timberwolves joining the NBA in 1989. In 1996, Mikan was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. A statue of Mikan shooting his signature hook shot was dedicated at the Target Center, the Timberwolves’ home arena, at halftime of an April 2001 game.
Diabetes and kidney problems plagued Mikan in the final years of life, forcing his right leg to be amputated below the knee in 2000. He also spent five years undergoing kidney dialysis treatment three times a week. Mikan died at a rehabilitation facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., on June 1, 2005. Commissioner David Stern praised Mikan as “the NBA’s first true superstar.” A moment of silence was held to honor Mikan before Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat. Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal credited Mikan’s career with making his own possible and said he wanted to pay for Mikan’s funeral.