A brand new sports league doesn't achieve success overnight. Then again, no other sport had George Mikan
The 6-foot-10 Mikan, who ushered in the role of the dominant big man, carried the Minneapolis Lakers (and, to a large extent, the NBA itself) to five NBA championships in six seasons and retired as the sport's first icon, died on June 1, 2005. He was 80.
After dominating the college ranks at DePaul (to the point of the goaltending rule being introduced) and two seasons in the pre-NBA National Basketball League, Mikan wasted no time in becoming quite literally the new National Basketball Association's marquee attraction. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1948-49, averaging a staggering 28.3 points per game in what were still the pre-shot clock days.
"He was the greatest impact player of that era," fellow Hall of Famer Bob Cousy told Celtics.com. "He was a big man who could do so many things on the court. He literally transcended the sport and he created such visibility. In the 1940s and '50s, he was the marquee player. He lifted us out of the doldrums and made the league respectable."
Mikan eclipsed 20 points per game through the next four seasons before injuries began taking their toll. He retired in 1956 after nine professional seasons, averaging 23.1 points in his seven-season NBA career. At the peak of his powers, the Associated Press in 1950 voted Mikan the greatest player of the first half of the century.
"George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA’s first true superstar," Commissioner David Stern said. "He had the ability to be a fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off the court. We may never see one man impact the game of basketball as he did, and represent it with such warmth and grace."
Another former dominant Lakers center, Shaquille O'Neal, may be in the heat of the Eastern Conference Finals, but he had Mikan on his mind at the start of a TNT postgame interview Thursday.
"He was a great man; we had many, many conversations and he was always nice to me," O'Neal said. "I know who he was and what he did. Without George Mikan, there'd be no me.
"If they contact the Heat office, I'd like to pay for the funeral."
O'Neal wasn't the only Lakers big man to understand Mikan's impact on the game and on a personal level. Kareer Abdul-Jabbar, who won six NBA titles, five with the Los Angeles Lakers said that Mikan made a difference in his life in more ways than one.
"He showed us how to do it," said the NBA's all-time leading scorer. "I certainly would not have the hook shot that went in if it wasn’t for the fundamentals I learned from George Mikan’s game.
"My prayers go out to his family. I know it is a tremendous loss. All of us are in a lot of debt to this gentleman. He was also a very warm and friendly human being. I just want say much respect, thank you, George.
"We all love you a lot."
After briefly coaching the Lakers during the 1957-58 season, Mikan devoted most of his energies to his law career and to raising his large family. He returned to the game as the American Basketball Association's first commissioner from 1967-69, coming up with the idea for the league's trademark red, white and blue ball.
Mikan's legacy was cemented in 1959 when he was part of the first induction class into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His accomplishments were further acknowledged when he was named one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
"George Mikan was the bedrock of the game we have today, not only as a player, but as a human being," Hall of Famer Bill Walton said. "His tireless work, on and off the court, changed all of our lives.
"When I first joined the NBA 30 years ago, I went to see George Mikan, desperately seeking advice. While he was instrumental in his words of wisdom, guidance and direction -- what really stuck with me was his parting words when he said, 'Bill, I learned a great lesson early on in life. The harder I worked, the luckier I got.'”
A half-century later, that work certainly has not gone unnoticed.
As Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett told the Minneapolis StarTribune, "Anybody who doesn't know who George Mikan is, is not a basketball fan."