Home-court advantage took on a whole new meaning when the Minneapolis Lakers and New York Knicks clashed in ‘52

It’s a story that has been told numerous times through the years, and it remained one of George Mikan’s favorites. If you had asked the legendary Laker about his illustrious career, he surely would have mentioned December 14, 1949, when his Minneapolis squad rolled up to Madison Square Garden for a game against the Knickerbockers.

“On the marquee they had ‘George Mikan vs. the Knicks,” recalled the NBA legend, whose teammates ribbed him by refusing to dress for the game. “They were all just sitting around. They said, ‘Alright big guy, if you’re going to play them, go play them.'”

A source of laughs in the Laker locker room, the phrase was a serious one for the Knicks, whose primary focus whenever playing Minneapolis was the 6-10, 245-pound center. Mikan – whom New York coach Joe Laphcick once blamed for his gray hair – was downright dominant in the middle thanks to an unprecedented combination of power, size and speed, and a hook shot that was gold.

But by the time the Lakers and Knicks were the NBA’s marquee matchup in the 1952 NBA Finals, Mikan was not quite as frustrating as he had been in the early years of the League. And his dip in scoring from an NBA-best 28.4 points a night in ’50-51 to 23.8 in ’51-52 was due in large part to Lapchick.

“He would go out of his mind every time he saw me play,” said Mikan, who passed away in June 2005. “He wanted to try to do something to stop me.”

Lapchick did more than try. The Knicks coach led the movement to rewrite the NBA’s rulebook by widening the lane from six to 12 feet, thereby limiting Mikan’s low-and lower-post moves. The change was even referred to as “The Mikan Rule," and it added to the intensity of the first championship series between the teams.

Despite the new rule, the Lakers entered the Finals with the second-best record in the League at 40-26. Still an offensive force and a defensive stopper, big George had spent that season getting his teammates more involved on the offensive side of things, and the move had paid dividends.

Having knocked off the team with the best record, the Rochester Royals, in the Western Division playoffs, Minneapolis boasted homecourt advantage over New York, which had defeated the Boston Celtics in the East. And while the Knicks had to travel west, the first two games of the series were actually played in St. Paul, Minn., as the Lakers’ usual home, the Minneapolis Auditorium, was already booked.

Mikan claimed that the change of venue made no difference, but the Knicks surprised the Lakers by splitting the games in St. Paul. In fact, as veteran Knicks fans still contend, Lapchick’s bunch nearly stole both games on the road, had it not been for a controversial call in Game 1.

In the first quarter, Knicks guard Al McGuire drove inside for a bucket and was fouled. But the goal wasn’t awarded, and McGuire was sent to the free-throw line instead.

“Neither referee saw it and they gave him two shots instead of the basket and one,” explains Al’s brother and teammate, Dick McGuire. “I saw the ball going in the basket, and we couldn’t believe they gave him two shots.”

“I remember that very well,” says Knicks All-Star forward Harry Gallatin. “If they had counted that shot, it would’ve made a big difference in the series.”

Maybe, maybe not, but the call stood in spite of the pleading Lapchick made to then-NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff, who was seated at courtside. The contest continued; without the additional Knicks’ point on the scoreboard, the Lakers pushed the game into overtime where they won, 83-79.

If there was a moral victory for New York, it was the defensive effort asserted on Mikan, who scored just 15 points before fouling out in the extra period. But the Knicks had no answer for Lakers forward Jim Pollard, the Stanford standout who notched a career-high 34 points in guiding the way for Minneapolis.

“I think he was one of the best that ever came along,” said Mikan of the late Pollard, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in ’78. “He had the talent to be able to play today.”

Neither Mikan nor Pollard had a particularly good offensive outing in Game 2, when their opponents’ aggressive defense slowed the Lakers’ top scorers. Big George did collect 21 rebounds that night, but Knicks guards Ernie Vandeweghe and Ray Lumpp sparked a second-quarter run that put New York out front for good; they prevailed, 80-72.

The Knicks returned home feeling good about themselves. After all, they’d won 23 straight in New York. But if they were going to extend the streak to 24 and beyond, they would have to do so at the 69th Regiment Armory. A company by the name of Barnum & Bailey had reserved the Garden, and so the series, as it had in Minnesota, would continue elsewhere.

“It would never happen today,” laughs Dick McGuire of the clowns and elephants upstaging the Knicks. “I think in those days the circus might have been bigger. They probably did more business with the circus.”

Mikan recalled the “drill shed,” the Knicks’ home-away-from-home, as a poorly lit building.

“It seemed like it was always a little hazy in there,” said Mr. Basketball. “But we broke the fog.”

Minneapolis forced a slower pace in Game 3, disrupting New York’s patented fast-break offense. But it was Mikan who was largely responsible for the visitors’ 82-77 win, recording 26 points and 17 boards in one of his better performances of the series.

“If you ever tried to play in front of him, they’d lob the ball over your head,” says Gallatin, who had to move over and defend Mikan whenever Knicks center Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton got into foul trouble. “But that’s about the only way I could try to guard George, because he was so strong. Once he made his turn towards the basket, if you were behind him, it was almost impossible to stop him.”

The Knicks just about did the impossible in Game 4, limiting the five-time All-NBA First Team selection to just 11 points. But it wasn’t the work of Clifton or Gallatin, at least neither man alone.

“They were using two or three men guarding me,” explained Mikan. “They’d have one guy behind me, one guy in front of me and one on the side.”

Whatever they did, it worked, and the Knicks knotted the series, 2-2, rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit to grab a one-point 90-89 win in overtime. The toughest loss for the Lakers that night, however, was the loss of Pollard, who injured his back and would be sidelined for Games 5 and 6.

Short-handed, the Lakers still managed to pull out a 102-89 win in Game 5 back in St. Paul. Mikan and Vern Mikkelson, the game’s first “power” forward, netted 32 points each, and the momentum had shifted once again.

Fearing the worst, many New York fans passed on Game 6 and would have to read about guard Max Zaslofsky’s heroic 23 points in The New York Times the following morning. A crowd of just 3,000 was on hand as, in the words of the Times headline, "NEW YORK QUINTET TRIUMPHS BY 76-68."

For two weeks the series went back and forth. Like the Sugar Ray Robinson-Rocky Graziano fight staged that same April a half-century ago, the Lakers and Knicks traded blows round after round.

“It was just a really competitive series,” says Galatin, whose nickname “The Horse” befitted a heavyweight match. “Could’ve gone either way, based upon who happened to be shooting well that night.”

On the night of April 25, 1952, the Lakers were shooting well. And rebounding well. And defending well. In other words, it was not the Knicks’ night. Mikan was his usual overwhelming self, collecting 22 points and 19 rebounds, and Pollard returned to chip in 10 points in the fourth quarter, cementing the 82-65 championship-clinching victory. The Lakers, who earned $7,500 to split amongst themselves for the victory, lifted coach John Kundla up on their shoulders as an electric crowd of more than 8,600 stormed the court at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

Yes, the seventh and final game of the memorable series was played at the Auditorium; it was the only game in either team’s home gym. A gym where the Knicks had lost their previous 11 games, on a court famous for being narrower than the rest of the League’s by several feet – a big benefit, of course, to the bigger Minnesotans. Not that anyone’s putting an asterisk by the ’52 champions in the record books. “I don’t think it mattered at all,” says Dick McGuire, who is just proud to have played in the series. “We had no excuse. They were a very good ballclub.”

The Lakers became the NBA’s first dynasty and claimed four titles in five campaigns, including the rematch with the Knickerbockers in ’53. They were a very good ballclub indeed. Even if only one of them saw his name up in lights.