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George Mikan

By Todd Spehr·

When mapping out the history of the NBA, it’s crucial to understand its beginnings. If faced with the exercise of lining up, one after the next, each of the legendary and pivotal figures in the league’s history and sorting them chronologically, there’s only one candidate for the head of that line -- George Mikan.

The history books paint him first as a winner -- and he was. Between 1946-47 and 1953-54, a period of eight professional seasons across the NBL, the BAA, and the NBA, teams that featured Mikan on its roster won seven championships. He was the common denominator in domination. But when appreciating the Mikan impact, the trophy cabinet is only one way to view him. His presence on the floor brought about repeated tinkering of the rules -- from goaltending to the widening of the lane to 12-feet. Off the floor, he was able to connect with an indifferent public unsure about the prospects of a basketball league. And today, he remains an irreplaceable part of the league’s story.

The greatness of Mikan, which enhanced with each passing season and seemingly inevitable championship, aided an infant league as it crossed the bridge from upstart to big-time, helping it carve out a place on the American sporting landscape that it has never relinquished.

On Dec. 13, 1949, Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers were in New York. Venturing out into the city, Mikan and his teammates wandered towards Madison Square Garden, the site for their matchup with the Knicks the following day.

Craning their collective necks towards the building’s marquee, what the group of players saw ultimately formed the basis for the first true landmark image in the NBA. And the message left no room for interpretation.

What was perhaps the whimsical work of a Garden staffer in fact served as the perfect encapsulation of Mikan’s standing within professional basketball as of the winter of 1949-50, which was to say -- he was professional basketball.

The picture itself remains timeless. And the story, as told by the man whose name indeed was up in lights, too has its own special charm

Consider this a preface for what you’re about to see. Yes, Mikan was an immovable force for his time, scarcely facing an opponent of his outgrown dimensions -- let alone one capable of slowing him. And you will see that here. But physique aside, this historical document serves as a celebration of the league’s first superstar and how he got it done: Use of both hands on the hook shot, an ability to go glass, deft footwork in the post that seems unbefitting for a man of his size, even the underhanded free throw form that led to a lifetime percentage unmatched by the select immortals at his position. This is the Mikan mix you need to see -- Mr. Basketball in all his glory.

 

Respect your elders. Show appreciation for the things that took place before you. Listen when people of experience give advice. No, this is not a lecture from your mother. This is one legend of the game showing love for another.

Pro basketball in Minneapolis didn’t take for much longer following Mikan’s second and final retirement in 1956; the Lakers bolted for California in 1960. Yet almost 30 years later, in 1989, the Timberwolves emerged and thus the NBA was reunited with the state of Minnesota. In 1995, they drafted a teenager straight out of high school: Kevin Garnett. On the surface, Garnett and Mikan may not appear to have much in common.

But they remain the two most outstanding basketball players to have played in Minneapolis, and as you’ll see here, Garnett’s appreciation for all that Mikan accomplished runs deep.

 

The Mikan Drill. For basketball players who have gone through the process of being introduced to the developmental side of the game, the drill itself needs no introduction. Aimed at furthering coordination, enhancing shooting touch, and building endurance, coaches around the world for decades have encouraged their players to perfect this most basic practice. Standing under the hoop, players move from one side of the basket to the other, alternating between right- and left-handed layups.

While its origins remain murky, it was mastered by Mikan while at DePaul, with the help of his coach Ray Meyer, and served as the foundation for a post-game that came to first devastate the sport, and ultimately, bring about its change. From Mikan down on to Bill Russell, to Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed, Wes Unseld and Dave Cowens and Bill Walton -- each of the subsequent greats to play the center position have attributed this drill as a starting point in their development.

We move now to the practice floor, to Mikan, and watch as he demonstrates the drill that bears his name.

The Minneapolis Lakers of the late 1940s and early 1950s were professional basketball’s unstoppable juggernaut. Champions of the NBL in 1948, they joined the BAA and duplicated the feat in 1949; from there through 1954, there was only one season they didn’t finish as champion, a record of sustained excellence bettered only by the Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s.

Mikan was part of a frontline that devastated its opposition, with the great Jim Pollard, multi-dimensional and athletic, to one side; the other, Vern Mikkelsen, a rugged, brute of a competitor. Slater Martin, dynamic and diminutive, piloted from the backcourt, and the team’s coach, John Kundla, oversaw the operation through the duration of the dynasty run. In an era before the shot clock, where control of possession was tactically vital, it demoralized opponents to go against players of this caliber, only to have it end with a Mikan score in the post. Like subsequent great teams, these Minneapolis Lakers were best in the big games, that beautiful combination of talent and wherewithal.

But what about behind the scenes? What exactly was basketball like in the early 1950s? How did the best operate? The only information you need here is this: Kundla, Mikan, a film projector, and an early rendition of banter between teammates.

Not only were the Minneapolis Lakers of the early 1950s a genuine main attraction, but they on occasion also faced great basketball teams from other leagues. Did you know: Mikan appeared in seven games against the might of the Harlem Globetrotters? He averaged 29.1 PPG in those games, four of which were played before crowds of over 20,000. Some 17,000 people saw Mikan and the Lakers beat the New York Rens in the 1948 World Professional Basketball Tournament, and Minneapolis never lost to the esteemed College All-Stars – the elite graduating seniors, many who would later journey to the NBA – with Mikan in the line-up.

Mikan and Minneapolis were the pinnacle of basketball for this era – a superstar and team for all occasions and more than a match for all opponents. And here is the proof: from the flight out of Minneapolis, to the packed house in Chicago – a road trip with the Lakers.

George Mikan part of the Silver Anniversary

George Mikan was named to the 50th anniversary team

In January of 1950, an Associated Press mid-century poll named Mikan the greatest player of the first half of the twentieth century. He had beaten out famed barnstormers and early pros, and from that, the moniker of “Mr. Basketball” was at once earned and enshrined for eternity.

The visuals you have seen in this space, the surviving films from the league’s earliest days, are testament to the fascination that was held for Mikan. His arrival in road towns with his Lakers would prompt a full-page advertisement, announcing to the locals that if you saw him – if you saw his team – you were seeing something special. And Mr. Basketball delivered, from the start to the finish. He was and will forever be the NBA’s first true superstar.

This is Mikan from that season, at his trophy cabinet, showing off what his career meant to him. On the NBA’s 75th anniversary, consider this required viewing.