On a cool Los Angeles morning on October 1998, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar climbed into his Ford Expedition to take a drive.

A long drive.

Mikan influenced generations of big men, including Kareem and Shaq.
Peter Read Miller/NBAE/Getty
His objective was to clear his head a bit of the L.A. bustle and smog, and to try something new. So he headed for a little town called Whiteriver, Ariz. There, on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, he would become a volunteer coach for the Alchesay Falcons High School basketball team for one season. There, he would instruct the team's teenaged big men on the fundamental. There, he would show them something called the Mikan drill, a drill conceived by DePaul coach Ray Meyer, but perfected by Mikan.

"The kids, of course, had never heard of George Mikan," Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book, A Season on the Reservation.

Mikan, who started his nine-year pro career in 1946 with the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League, had done "something that up until the coaches and critics believed could not be done. He'd shown everyone that a truly big man -- he was pushing seven feet -- could develop agility and skills needed to play basketball ... Mikan quickly opened their minds," wrote Abdul-Jabbar.

"Along the way, George developed his own drill, in which he would stand close to the goal and shoot the ball off the backboard with his left hand , then with his right hand, then switching between his left hand and right hand again, back and forth, over and over again until he was scoring with either hand in one fluid motion."

"His drill is still the best way to learn how to score under the basket. Since Mikan's day, his routine has been passed along to all the significant centers who have played pro basketball. That list includes Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Dave Cowens and Nate Thurmond, Bill Walton and Wes Unseld and Moses Malone, myself and Hakeem Olajuwon."

There can be no greater testimonial to Mikan's influence on the pro game than from the center who would become arguably the most dominant college player of all time, then the most prolific scorer in the history of the NBA.

The kids may forget about Mikan, but Abdul-Jabbar has not, and others should not. Abdul-Jabbar is black, grew up in New York City and was molded by the turbulent '60s. Mikan is white, grew up in Joilet, Ill., and was molded by World War II.

Yet, Abdul-Jabbar sees Mikan in himself, and sees Mikan's historic place in the continuum.

At the center position, Mikan was the start of the royal succession that, until Michael Jordan came along, virtually defined the game. Mikan was the first dominant big man. As a college center discovered and developed by Meyer, Mikan led the Blue Demons to the 1945 to the 1945 National Invitation Tournament title, the only college title that mattered at the time.

As a member of the Minneapolis Lakers, he was the anchor of a basketball dynasty. He led the Lakers to six championships in seven years from 1947-18 through 1953-54 -- on in the old National Baskteball league and five in the NBA. He also won another title with the American Gears in 1946-47, meaning he led his team to the league championship in seven of eight seasons.

He was named the game's best player for the first half of the 20th Century, and was also named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

He won scoring titles in six straight seasons, once averaging as many as 28.4 poing. He developed a devastating hook shot that, some 20 years later, Abdul-Jabbar would define as the sky-hook.

At 6-10, with broad shoulders and shar elbows, the bespectacled Mikan was so dominant that the foul lane was widened from six to 12 feet to move him away from the basket and the 24-second shot clock implemented so teams would not try to win 19-18.

"George changed the game," said Bud Grant, a Lakers teammate who went on to coach the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. "I have played and coached with many great players. But I'd have to say that George Mikan is the greatest competitor I've ever seen or benn around in any sport."

Yet none of this captures Mikan's intangible quality the way a marquee at the old Madison Square Garden did the night of a Lakers-Knickerbockers game in the early 1950s: "Geo Mikan vs. Knicks."

It's not just Abdul-Jabbar's basketball roots that can be found in Mikan. It's also Jordan's.

Miakn was the game's first bigger-than-life star, a precursor of how far a team or league could go in marketing one player to stoke the business. He was on the back of national magazines endorsing beer and chewing gum. He was the subject of an Edward R. Murrow Person-to-Person national TV documentary. He was the one player everyone wanted to touch.

"In our time, George was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird all rolled into one," said teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen.

"In those days," Mikan remembered, "I'd come in by train or plane a day ahead of the team to promote the game. They'd take me to a hotel and I'd do interview after interview with reporters trying to promote the game."

It is difficult to believe that this was the gangly fellow who was cut from this freshman basketball team at Joliet Catholic High School. Yes, Mikan was even the first superstar, long before Jordan, who suffered this indignity. Those were the days when there were certain stereotypes about big, tall fellows trying to play basketball, especially with eyeglasses.

"You just can't play basketball with glasses on," his high school coach told him. "You better turn in your uniform."

Mikan did, but he would never wear one again. He would work day after day to improve his agility. Not just on the court, but on a dance floor at DePaul.

"Coach Meyer had all kinds of ideas on improving my coordination," Mikan said. "When we had dances at school, he would temm me to dance with the shortest and smallest girls. He figured that it would force me to improve my footwork. Otherwise, I'd step on them and hurt them. He figures that would be a pretty good incentive."

Before long, Mikan being big and tall wasn't viewed as a hindrance to playing basketball. Before long, nobody was complaining about the footwork or the glasses.

This is what Abdul-Jabbar admires about the game's first significant big man. This is what he tried to tell the kids at the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Mikan broke down the stereotypes of what a big man can't be, and ultimately, Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Olajuwon and so many more big men followed in his legendary footsteps.

Courtesy of The Official NBA Encyclopedia