1950 NBA Finals: Minneapolis 4, Syracuse 2
Lakers: First Champs of Newly Formed NBA
As strong as the Minneapolis Lakers appeared after winning the title in 1949, the 1950 draft made them nearly unstoppable. The prizes were 5-foot-9 guard Slater "Dugie" Martin out of the University of Texas, 6-foot-7 forward Vern Mikkelsen from little Hamline College, and Bob "Tiger" Harrison, a 6-foot-1 guard out of Michigan who enjoyed a solid nine-year NBA career.
All three promptly moved into the starting lineup. Strange as it might seem today, their presence didn't cause so much as a ripple among the veterans on the championship team. The prototypical power forward, Mikkelsen averaged 11.6 points that season and provided the rebounding muscle. Martin contributed by running the team, and Harrison was a hustling defensive guard.
The Lakers were unique, and for that coach John Kundla and president-general manager Max Winter deserve credit. Although it happened somewhat by chance, Kundla was the architect of the prototypical modern team, the first to include the distinct positions of power and small forwards. With this lineup as his core, he substituted frequently, a strategy that later coaches would attempt to duplicate.
As with other great coaches, he kept the offense uncomplicated, choosing to depend on a pick-and-roll play down low with George Mikan and Jim Pollard. If the defenses ran a switch, leaving Mikan against a forward, Pollard would drop the ball off to the center and watch him score.
If the defenses didn't switch it meant an easy drive to the basket for the quick forward. "It was a simple little play," Kundla said proudly. "But it was very successful."
Even with this depth, the Lakers didn't run up the best regular-season record in 1950; that went to Syracuse, which finished 51-13.
Part of the reason was the league's expansion. The six surviving National Basketball League teams -- the Syracuse Nationals, Anderson Packers, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Denver Nuggets, Sheboygan Redskins and Waterloo Hawks -- merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the National Basketball Association, a 17-team league aligned in three cumbersome divisions. Syracuse was placed in the Eastern Division but played most of its games against teams in the new Western Division, which was made up of the recently added NBL teams and the new Indianapolis Olympians.
The old Western Division, meanwhile, became the Central, in which Minneapolis and Rochester battled to a tie with twin 51-17 records. Both had 33-1 home records, but with Mikan scoring 35 points the Lakers won the tiebreaker game at Rochester, 78-76, to claim the division title. From there, the Lakers swept both Fort Wayne and Anderson in two games apiece to meet Syracuse in the Finals.
Mikan presented problems for the Nationals, to say the least. The two teams had battled mightily during the regular season. Syracuse's Paul Seymour laughingly recalled being infuriated during one game that spring because of an encounter with big George's elbows.
"I had a goose egg on my head, I was on my butt on the floor, and the ref was pointing at me," said the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Seymour. "I chased George right up into the stands. I don't know what I would have done if I had caught him. But Mikan was great with those elbows. He used to kill our centers. Used to knock 'em down, draw the foul, then help 'em up and pat 'em on the fanny."
The Nationals had the home-court advantage in the Finals. The series opened at State Fair Coliseum, just outside Syracuse. Mikan was his usual overwhelming self, powering inside for 37 points, but the Nationals answered each time. In the closing minute, Syracuse had a 66-64 lead, but Bud Grant, a Minneapolis sub who later went on to fame as coach of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, hit a hook shot to tie it.
Syracuse got the ball back but couldn't get an open shot. With time running out, player-coach Al Cervi took a pass from Alex Hannum and headed for the basket. "Cervi decided to win it himself," Seymour said. "He went inside and threw up an underhand shot. Mikan just tapped it away." Cervi later insisted that he "was fouled and didn't get the call."
Minneapolis controlled the ball and rushed upcourt for a final shot. Harrison, the rookie out of Michigan, nailed a 40-footer at the buzzer to give the Lakers the first victory. "He went wild, jumping up and down," Kundla said of Harrison, who had played high school ball with Seymour.
But in the giddiness of the victory, the Lakers made a major mistake in the locker room. Kundla recalled that Mikan told reporters that he was allergic to all the smoke in the arena. Mikan, on the other hand, was adamant that the admission was Kundla's. Whatever the case, the story made the Syracuse papers the next morning.
"That next night all the fans came out smoking cigars," Mikan said.
"You could hardly see across the floor," agreed Kundla. "It was filled with smoke."
Allergic or not, Mikan muscled in another 32 points in Game 2, but that wasn't enough. The Nationals evened the series at a game apiece with a 91-85 win. Even so, the Lakers felt good. They had taken away the Nats' home-court advantage and were now heading back to Minnesota.
Because of scheduling conflicts in the Auditorium, the Lakers were again forced to move the game to neighboring St. Paul. There, on April 14 and 16, the Lakers' frontcourt led the way to decisive wins, 91-77 and 77-69.
Game 5 was back at smoky State Fair Coliseum, where Seymour scored 12 points and played furious defense against Pollard, holding him to six points. "I hugged him and he had no place to go with Mikan clogging the middle," Seymour said of Pollard. Mikan scored 28 points, but Syracuse nailed down an 83-76 win.
The Nationals returned to Minneapolis for Game 6 determined to fight, which they did, but it didn't help much. The Lakers were unstoppable in the Minneapolis Auditorium, where they had never lost a playoff game. First of all, the court was narrower by a few feet -- a typical inconsistency in the early days of pro basketball.
"That made them much more effective," Syracuse's Dolph Schayes said of the Lakers. "We always had a difficult time with them. If you double-teamed George, then Mikkelsen would clean up. And Pollard was able to drive, and he was a great passer."
"They used to say that when Mikan, Mikkelsen and Pollard stretched their arms across that narrow court, nobody could get through," said Cervi. Seymour laughed at the memory of trying to play against the Lakers' frontcourt. "Those three big guys made every court look narrow," he said. "Mikkelsen was a brute."
The Nats' strategy for Game 6 called for Seymour to hold down Pollard, which he did. But Mikan continued to dominate and scored 40 points. Eventually, the game degenerated into a series of brawls. Most of the excitement was occasioned by the fisticuffs. Seymour fought Pollard, Gabor battled with Martin, and Gabor mixed it up with Don Carlson. The officials ejected Cervi in the third period and fouled out four Lakers in the fourth.
It was all window dressing, however, as the Lakers claimed their second championship, 110-95. Counting Mikan's two NBL titles with Chicago and Minneapolis, he had been the center of four straight championship teams. But the kid with the thick glasses and wavy hair was only getting started.
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