The Egyptians had the pyramids, the Greeks had the Acropolis and the Romans had the aqueducts.
What the first NBA superstar left behind is no less enduring: the Mikan Drill.
Go into a gym — any gym, anywhere in the world — and if there’s a real coach running a real practice, chances are you’ll eventually see it. A big man stands directly in front of the basket and shoots the ball off the backboard with his right hand, catches it and puts up the same shot with his left hand and then his right and then his left again, repeating the routine again and again and again until the motion and the shots become as precise as the inner workings of a Swiss watch.
In the modern world of professional sports, the money guys are always talking about growing the games financially. But it was the late George Mikan, with his practice drill and his unique skill, who literally grew the sport of basketball into an entirely different game.
Mikan made basketball bigger in every sense of the word. At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, he redefined the game from one that had been controlled and dominated by small, quick players into a sport that would be ruled by giants. And by leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships in six seasons from 1949 through 1954, he became the NBA’s first superstar. One night in the early ’50s, the marquee at Madison Square Garden read simply: “Geo Mikan vs. Knicks.”
“Everyone wanted to see him,” Lakers teammate Slater Martin once recalled. “When George came to town, it was an event.”
However, he was an event that was constructed and not merely born. Mikan was cut from the freshman team at Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High School back in the days when big men were considered too awkward to excel at the offensive end — especially one who took the floor wearing glasses.
“You just can’t play basketball with glasses on,” Mikan remembered his high school coach telling him. “You better turn in your uniform.”
Mikan eventually made it onto the floor in high school, but there was little interest in the big man from the better college programs. No one showed much interest except DePaul’s Ray Meyer, who had a vision and a plan. He got Mikan into the gym working relentlessly on improving his footwork and agility. He’d have Mikan run to try to keep up with the guards. He’d have him move side-to-side, up-and-back.
“When we had dances at school, he would tell me to dance with the shortest and smallest girls,” Mikan said. “He figured that would force me to improve my footwork. Otherwise, I’d step on them and hurt them.”
It wasn’t long before the only ones Mikan was hurting were opponents. He’d tower over them near the basket and became virtually unstoppable with a soft, deadly hook shot. He led DePaul to the National Invitational Tournament championship in 1945.
“As soon as George stopped feeling sorry for himself and realized his height was something to be admired… he was on his way to being great,” Meyer said years later.
Mikan signed on with the Chicago American Gears in the National Basketball League — the NBA’s forerunner — for $12,000 and won his first pro title in 1947. When the Gears folded, a lottery gave Mikan’s rights to the Lakers and thus began the championship dynasty and the royal lineage of big men that has passed to the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Dwight Howard.
“George changed the game,” said Lakers teammate Bud Grant, who would go on to become the Hall of Fame coach of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. “I have played with and coached many great players. But I’d have to say that George Mikan is the greatest competitor I’ve ever seen or been around in any sport.”
Mikan was certainly one of the most dominant. Counting his season with the Gears and a championship won with the Lakers in the old NBL, Mikan captured titles seven times in eight pro seasons. He was the league’s scoring champion six years in a row, topping out with an average of 28.4 points a game. The Associated Press named him the greatest basketball player of the first half of the 20th century and in 1997 he was recognized as one of the 50 greatest in NBA history.
It was Mikan’s deadly hook shot that became the foundation for Abdul-Jabbar’s magnificent skyhook and which prompted the rule-making powers of the early pro game to legislate against him. The lane was widened in 1951 from six to 12 feet — “The Mikan Rule” — to move him. The stalling tactics to keep the ball away from Mikan by the Ft. Wayne Pistons in 19-18 win over the Lakers in 1950 eventually led to the 24-second shot clock. But even in that game, Mikan scored 15 of the Lakers’ 18 points. Based on that percentage of his team’s total, on the night Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game, he would have needed 141 to equal Mikan’s output.
The eye-popping numbers and his sheer dominance made Mikan a force off the court as well. The bespectacled big man was the Michael Jordan of his time as a sports celebrity. He was on the cover of every major magazine, endorsed everything from gum to beer as was featured on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person-to-Person” national TV show.
“Back in those old days, I’d arrive by train or plane a day or two ahead of the team to promote the game,” Mikan said at the 1997 All-Star Game gathering of the NBA’s 50 greatest. “They’d take me to a hotel and I’d do interview after interview to try to drum up business and sell tickets.
“No, I never minded any of the extra obligations. You know, when you think about it, it was pretty good stuff for the big kid with the glasses who nobody thought would be able to play. Now all these years later, I’m just happy to have left my mark.”
Mikan died at 80 on June 1, 2005, of complications from diabetes and other ailments.