1949 Finals: Minneapolis 4, Washington 2
Mikan, Lakers Begin Championship Run
He led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships in six years, but George Mikan sure didn't look dominating -- at least not with the wire-rim glasses and the wavy hair. He looked more like a bookworm, which he was.
But Mikan underwent a miraculous development at DePaul. The unpolished prospect seemingly was transformed overnight into the premier player in college basketball and the big-time gate attraction during the years of World War II. Remarkably, he developed agility while growing from 6-foot-8 to 6-foot-10.
"He was an awkward kid at first," DePaul head coach Ray Meyer once explained, "but he just kept improving. I guided him, but he had talent, and he just kept getting better and better. The superstars are like that. They have something inside."
Ned Irish, who owned the New York Knicks in the Basketball Association of America, knew that Mikan held an immense entertainment value, but because of payroll limitations he couldn't afford him. Mikan signed with the National Basketball League's Chicago Gears; when the team folded after one season, he went to the Lakers.
He played in the NBL another year, leading the Lakers to the championship. But just before the 1948-49 season opened, the NBL's four best teams -- Fort Wayne, Rochester, Indianapolis and Minneapolis -- jumped over and joined the new league. The BAA had boasted the best arenas in the big cities, while the NBL had long been considered the league with the best players, although most of its franchises were in smaller cities. That changed overnight with the move of the four teams. The NBL teams moved into the BAA's Western Division with Chicago and St. Louis, while Baltimore and Washington returned to the East, creating a balanced 12-team league.
Because of their superior talent, the Rochester Royals and Minneapolis Lakers compiled the best records. The Royals won the Western Division regular-season crown with a 45-15 record, while Mikan and the Lakers finished just one game back at 44-16. The best Eastern Division team, Red Auerbach's Washington Capitols, finished 38-22.
The Lakers weren't a one-man show. First of all, they had former Stanford star Jim Pollard, who in his second pro season averaged 14.8 points. Pollard was a multifaceted player, an extraordinary leaper who could execute acrobatic dunks (mostly in practice, since dunking in games was thought to be ungentlemanly in the 1940s) despite the fact that he stood only 6-foot-3½.
To go with Pollard and Mikan, there was 6-foot-5 Arnie Ferrin, a 23-year-old rookie who had been named the most outstanding player in the 1944 NCAA Tournament while leading the University of Utah to the national championship. Ferrin averaged 7.3 points in his first pro season. The Lakers' other offensive threats were Herm Schaefer, a veteran pro who averaged 10.4 points, and Don Carlson, a University of Minnesota product who scored at a 9.3 clip.
With this cast, Minneapolis powered into the 1949 playoffs. Now that the league had two six-team divisions, it finally had an equitable playoff system that allowed the first-place teams in each division to play the fourth, and the second-place teams to play the third. It probably didn't matter -- the Lakers could have overwhelmed any team they met. They swept both Chicago and Rochester in two games apiece on their way to a meeting with the Capitols in the Finals.
The Caps had a deep, talented team that featured Bob Feerick, Bones McKinney, John Norlander and Fred Scolari. To this lineup Auerbach had added 6-foot-8 Kleggy Hermsen, who had helped Baltimore to the title the previous year.
Washington, however, was undermanned in the playoffs, with Feerick, a double-figure scorer, knocked out of action by a knee injury. And Scolari, who had gotten banged up against New York in the Eastern Division Finals, was just returning. Still, the Caps made it a battle on April 4, when the series opened at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Mikan powered around the basket for 42 points, but with a little more than a minute to go, the score was tied at 84 apiece. Then Carlson hit a pair of late free throws, which helped boost the Lakers to an 88-84 win.
In Game 2 on April 6, Auerbach shifted his defense to deny Mikan the ball. That strategy worked on the big center, who scored only 10 points while taking nine shots from the field. But the rest of the Lakers got untracked -- Carlson and Schaeffer scored 16 and 13 points, respectively -- as Minneapolis took a two-game lead with a 76-62 win.
The series then moved to Washington's Uline Arena (seating capacity about 4,000) on April 8 for Game 3, in which Mikan again dominated, scoring 35 points and leading the Lakers to a 94-74 win. He scored another 27 points in Game 4, but Washington won, 83-71, after Mikan broke his wrist late in the game.
"Kleggy Hermsen hit me up in the air while I was on a fast break," Mikan recalled. "I went up at the free-throw line and got hit by Kleggy and knocked into the first row of seats. I got hit from behind. It was a tackle.
"Red told them to drag me off the court and get the game going," Mikan remembered with a laugh. "Hermsen made sure he fouled out quick after that. There's such a thing as retribution in sport. You didn't necessarily have to get back at someone because your teammates would."
Hermsen, a Minneapolis native, feared that if the series returned to Minnesota, the hometown crowd would want to lynch him for being involved in Mikan's injury. "He was scared to death," said McKinney.
But Mikan appeared in a cast two nights later for Game 5 in Washington. "That cast was hard as a brick; it fit right in with his elbows," McKinney recalled. "It would kill you. And it didn't bother his shooting a bit."
Even with the cast, Mikan scored 22 points in Game 5, but Washington took the series lead with a 74-66 win. The Capitols, however, weren't ready to start crowing; they had to head back to Minnesota for Game 6. Because of scheduling conflicts with an annual sportsman's show, the game had to be shifted from Minneapolis to St. Paul. Playing in their twin city, the Lakers still packed in a crowd and won the championship handily, 77-56. Mikan had scored an unprecedented 303 points in 10 playoff games.
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