The Fab Five
Led by George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers - basketball's first dynasty - ruled the league with five titles in six seasons
In a pop culture that serves youth on an MTV-inspired platter, there is a tendency to believe that nothing happened before last week. There were no TV shows before Friends. There were no movies before Jerry Maguire, certainly none before the Star Wars trilogy.
There were no basketball dynasties before the Chicago Bulls, certainly none before the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics.
The faster the world spins forward, the less interested it seems in the past. In the case of the pro basketball world, that is a pity because the story of the Minneapolis Lakers is as rich and fresh today as it was in 1952. The Lakers were not only the NBA’s first dynasty, they would be a tantalizing hint of what the game would become almost 50 years later.
There is a tendency to believe that Michael Jordan was the first real athlete to endorse commercial products. Wrong. Lakers center George Mikan was selling Beech-Nut gum in 1952.
There is a tendency to assume that the prototype front line – center, power forward and small forward – is a development of the modern NBA. Wrong, again. In the mid-1950s, the Lakers started the 6-10 Mikan at center, the bruising 6-7, 230-pound Vern Mikkelsen at power forward and the high-flying Jim Pollard, who was such a prodigious jumper that he was called “the Kangaroo Kid,” at small forward.
There is a tendency to believe that when Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, Riley was the first Lakers coach who won titles yet received little credit because of being handed such wealth of talent. Again, wrong. In the early and mid-50s, John Kundla won titles with a team that included Mikan, Mikkelsen, Pollard and Slater Martin, all Hall of Famers, and later coached Elgin Baylor, and, at the time received little credit.
“You know, there were a lot of things that people don’t know about our old Lakers team,” said Mikan. “People like to think that Red Auerbach and the Celtics never lost, and they were the first dynasty. Well, we beat ‘em 16 or 17 straight times, something like that. It’s only been recently, what with the NBA’s 50th Anniversary celebration, that we’ve started receiving some recognition for what we did. That makes me feel real good.”
From 1948 to 1954, the Minneapolis Lakers ruled professional basketball. They would win six championships in seven years while playing in three different leagues – the National Basketball League (1948), the Basketball Association of America (1949) and the NBA (1950, ’52, ’53, ’54).
The original franchise cost: $15,000.
In 1947, a Minneapolis group purchased the Detroit Gems from the NBL and moved them to Minnesota. That same year, Mikan was playing for the Chicago Gears of the Professional Basketball League of America.
On the night before the Lakers had their NBL debut in Minnesota, Mikan scored 19 points to lead the Gears over the St. Paul Saints. In the Minneapolis Tribune, Mikan was identified as “Hikan.”
The big fellow would never be misidentified again in Minnesota. Today’s rule – that you win with superstars applied even then. So the Minnesota ownership went out to find its superstar. At the end of the 1946-47 season, the PBL folded. The Lakers had drafting rights to Mikan, but he did have other options. He came to Minneapolis to talk contract.
(There is a tendency to believe that contract squabbles are a thing of the ‘90s. In 1946, Mikan missed 19 games as a member of the Gears over a contract dispute.)
Mikan wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. He apparently was leaving town without a contract when a very mysterious thing happened. Sid Hartman, who ran the team behind the scenes and was – still is – a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, managed to get “lost” on the way to the airport.
“I mean, we drove all over the place,” Mikan said. “He acted like he just couldn’t quite find his way to the airport, but it was fairly obvious to me that he wasn’t trying to find the airport. He gave us a tour of Minneapolis and St. Paul.”
Sure enough, Mikan missed his flight and, given more time to lobby, the Lakers were able to land him. They would never look back. He led the league in scoring for four consecutive years, averaging as many as 28.4 points (1950-51).
At 6-10, he was the first center to use the hook shot as a devastating weapon. Because of Mikan, goaltending would become a rule, the lane would be widened, and the game would be forever altered. A teammate named Bud Grant, who would go on to win a game or two as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, said this about Mikan: “George changed the game … I have played with and coached many great players. But I’d have to say that George Mikan is the greatest competitor I’ve seen or been around in any sport.”
But Mikan was more than just the game’s first dominant center. He was its first star. When the Lakers would hit the road, Mikan would often travel a day ahead of the team, so he could do interviews to promote the upcoming game. Most Lakers players never made more than $5,000-$7,000 a season. Mikan made as much as $35,000. Just like Jordan today, he was worth every penny.
“In our time, George was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rolled into one,” said Mikkelsen. “Everywhere we played, he was who people wanted to see. In fact, he was more acclaimed on both coasts than he was (in Minneapolis). Here, people are more laid-back and they respected his privacy. People talk about all the endorsements players do today, but George was doing that sort of thing even then.
“He used to be on the back cover of Life and Look magazines, in one case, selling beer. I still remember George got some heat for that, and his answer was: 'For this kind of money, I’ll swim in it.'”
This kind of money? Mikan says he rarely received more than $500 for an endorsement.
“I didn’t mind being the guy who had to promote the games,” said Mikan. “That was just part of the job, as far as I was concerned. I loved the game. I wanted to do anything I could to help it grow.”
If Mikan was the superstar everybody wanted to touch, the Lakers were the team that everybody wanted to see. It’s just like Jordan and the Bulls of the ‘90s, with one notable difference. While the Bulls were almost treated like royalty when they visited many NBA towns, Mikan and the Lakers found other gyms to be slightly more hostile.
Take Fort Wayne, for example. “There was a fan there named Ma Collins,” Mikan said. “Nice little old grandmother type, or so it seemed until the night of a game. She had this saddlebag with a strap on it. And when we would come out on the court – it was on top of the fans – she’d wind up that strap and use it like a weapon on us. We used to have to dodge Ma’s strap.”
There were worse alternatives, as Mikan and the Lakers would find out one night in Rochester, N.Y. Pollard went up for a layup and was tackled from behind. Mikan, as team enforcer, started heading towards a referee to protest. “No sooner am I within about a foot of the ref than I see a knife go by me and it sticks in the court,” Mikan said.
On the court, other teams tried slightly less dangerous methods, though one that was no less deadly to the game. Some tried the dreaded slowdown to try to keep the ball out of Mikan’s hands. On Nov. 22, 1950, the Lakers and the Fort Wayne Pistons played the lowest-scoring game in league history, with the Pistons winning 19-18. Several years later, the league would finally institute a 24-second clock to save the game.
Yet the Lakers had enough versatility to deal with pretty much any style. As a power team that had the best rebounders in the league, the Lakers liked to dictate the tempo. But any team that tried to extend its defense and accelerate play found that Martin was perfectly capable of dribbling through the pressure and getting the ball inside. As former Celtics great Bob Cousy said in Mikan’s excellent autobiography, Unstoppable, co-written by Joseph Oberle, “It was literally impossible to interrupt or change their basic control of the game.”
Mikan was the ultimate go-to guy. Only in 1951, when he was injured, was the Lakers’ championship streak interrupted. Mikkelsen became the guy who did the dirty work – pounding the boards, setting picks, playing defense. He had come to the team as a center, but Kundla was persuaded to move him to forward, thus creating the first power forward. He missed five games out of 704. Karl Malone wasn’t the first durable power forward.
When he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, he said: “I’m accepting this award on behalf of all unsung power forwards.”
Mikkelsen also would become the name in a trade that, if it had been made, would have changed basketball history. Before the 1956-57 season, the Lakers were close to trading Mikkelsen to the Boston Celtics, who were desperate for a big man. Had the deal been made, it is quite possible that the Lakers never would have left Minnesota for Los Angeles in 1960, and the Celtics would never have become the storied basketball power that they are.
By trading Mikkelsen for three players who were in the military – including Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey – the Lakers would have been almost assured of finishing with the worst record in the league and getting the No. 1 choice in the draft. The player they wanted was Bill Russell.
But one of the Lakers owners backed out of the deal. Guess what? The St. Louis Hawks, not the Lakers, finished with the worst record, selected Russell and traded him to the Celtics. Even MTV Generation-types know the rest.
They would probably know little about Pollard, the Lakers’ 6-6 jumping-jack small forward who died in 1993 at age 70. “I can still remember his first game in Oshkosh, I believe,” said Kundla. “Jim went up for a rebound and pinned it up against the boards. When he returned to the huddle, his elbow was bleeding. I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I hit my elbow on the backboard.’ You didn’t see a player do things like that back then.”
The point guard was Martin, and the Lakers used a host of players at the other guard spot, including Whitey Skoog. Kundla, who had played at the University of Minnesota and was only 31 years old when he was hired to coach the Lakers, was the fellow who put it all together.
“Hey,” Kundla said, “how can you screw it up when you have Mikan?”
Didn’t they say the same thing about Riley when he had Abdul-Jabbar?
“That’s John being too modest,” said Mikkelsen. “The hardest thing in the world is to coach that kind of talent and handle the egos. The Xs and Os are the easy part. The hard part is handling the people. My rookie year, I walked into the locker room at halftime and there’s John getting on Mikan for something. It didn’t matter whether he screwed up or not. George would always hear it from John, and that’s how John sent a message. Nobody was above criticism.”
On April 12, 1954, the Lakers won their sixth title in seven years. They knocked off the Syracuse Nationals, 87-80, to win the series 4-3. It would be their last championship in Minnesota.
Mikan, at age 29, still had plenty of basketball left in him, but he decided to retire. And you thought only modern-day superstars like Jordan step away from the game in their prime?
“I felt like my sons were growing up and they didn’t even know me,” he said. “I was out on the road so much that I thought it was time to start thinking about my family.”
Mikan, who already had passed a Minnesota bar, would become a lawyer, then later become the first commissioner of the American Basketball Association. He briefly came out of retirement to rejoin the Lakers during the 1955-56 season. In his book, Mikan mentions that some critics said this short return tarnished his career.
Not a chance. His place in history is secure. Along with the team that had Ma Collins winding up her saddlebag strap like she did for no other.
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