The Story Behind Mikan's Statue

The Story Behind Mikan's Statue

Editor's Note: Six years ago, basketball pioneer George Mikan passed away due to complications from diabetes and kidney ailments. The former Minneapolis Lakers center was immortalized in the Twin Cities with a bronze statue that clearly displays his famous hook shot. To this day, fans waltzing into Target Center are greeted by the statue and reminded of Mikan's significant contributions to the game. The story below explains how the statue came to fruition over a decade removed from the ceremony that celebrated "Mr. Basketball".

Joseph Oberle
Wolves Contributor

On April 8, 2001, George Mikan finally got his due. Amidst family, friends, former teammates and coaches and fans, Mikan was honored with a nine-foot statue of his likeness that commemorates his work as one of the pioneers of the game of basketball. And if you were to ask most people in attendance, it was long overdue.

"George was the man," former Lakers forward Bob Harrison said. "He meant so much to all of us and this city. For them to honor him now is indescribable...because it is something that should have been done maybe 40 or 50 years ago."

That many years ago, Mikan was the biggest thing in basketball -- literally and figuratively. He filled arenas like Michael Jordan did decades later because he was the most dominating player of his time. Mikan put the game on the map and then caused it to be redrawn because no one could stop him. He was the Babe Ruth of his sport and paved the way for every big man collecting a salary in the NBA today.

But to list Mikan's accomplishments at this point would be superfluous; anyone being honored in this manner should be more than well known for his deeds before they ever star casting him in bronze. The NBA's history is a rich one, but it has never been mined to the extent of other sports. So making sure that Mikan's story is known is part of what the stature is all about.

"So every young hoopster, every NBA superstar and every fan stop for a moment and remember George Mikan who made it all possible" it reads on the plaque accompanying the statue.

The statue sits permanently in the front lobby of Target Center, which is home to the Timberwolves, another piece of Minnesota basketball history that Mikan helped to create. And that is where the event honoring Mikan took place. At halftime of the Lakers/Wolves game encircled by 20 of his former teammates, Mikan got his first look at the statue that will forever symbolize his toughness, skill, determination and success on the basketball courts in the early days of professional basketball.

The presence of his family and friends perhaps touched Mikan the most. At receptions preceding the Celebration at Center Court and press conferences throughout the weekend, Mikan was effusive in his praise for his teammates, "without who none of this George Mikan stuff would have been possible."
Certainly without friends and teammates, the honor might never have taken place. The process took a lot of teamwork to be performed quickly. It was almost like a good shot that didn't go down, was rebounded, then passed around the perimeter for another try that eventually became a game winner.

The shooter was former Minneapolis city councilman Denny Schulstad, a longtime friend of Mikan's whom he met when George was tabbed to help bring professional basketball back to Minnesota.

"We [on the council] were dealing with the building of Target Center, and I suggested we have some kind of remembrance of George Mikan in the building," Schulstad said. "And everybody said 'Great idea, great idea. We should do that.' And nobody did it. Over the years, I suggested it to other people and everybody said 'Terrific idea. We should really do that.' And nobody did."

So Schulstad, a former Air Force Brigadier General who had recently retired from politics, decided to take the project on himself, devoting four months of full-time effort. He checked on the cost of a statue and started seeking out friends to help foot the bill.

Along comes the rebounder -- and a great one at that --- Vern Mikkelsen. Just like in his playing days, where he became the first power forward in the NBA and cleaned up the boards with strength and power for his Laker teammates, Mikkelsen grabbed Schulstad's idea and ran with it. Around the same time he had been speaking with Schulstad, Mikkelsen, diagnosed three years ago with diabetes, had been in contact with former Green Bay Packer receiver Max McGee, who had started the Maxi Fund to combat childhood diabetes. When Mikkelsen thought about the Maxi Fund and his friend Mikan, who had lost a leg to the disease, he crafted the idea of putting the two together into a bigger event.

"All I did in the deal was put people together," Mikkelsen said. "I was not a mover or a shaker -- I'm not that kind of guy. I arranged a meeting between Dennis and Max. And it's turned into just an unbelievable situation. When you consider the halftime ceremony, a national television audience, and all the money we raised, it's taken on a life of its own."

But not without the tireless effort of Mona McGee Olson, daughter of Max, and Gifts Manager for the Maxi Fund. The McGee's have lost several family members to the disease and in 1989 started work to help battle the disease. According to Mona, all the money was going to the Max McGee Research Center (housed in Children's Hospital of Wisconsin) and applied directly to diabetes research.

The event included the halftime celebration a pre-game reception and a players dinner on the evening of April 7, when Mikan, Mikkelsen and all the Lakers, including coach John Kundla, and Mikan's college coach from DePaul, Ray Meyer, turned out to reminisce and tell stories. Bud Grant, who played forward on one Laker title team, called Mikan the toughest competitor he had ever seen in all his years involved with sports. Slater Martin told the story of how, when the Madison Square Garden marquee read George Mikan vs. the Knicks, Martin, as a joke, held back his teammates and let George walk out on the court alone to face the Knicks.
But no one knew better than Mikan, who was overcome with emotion at the outpouring of affection from his friends and family, how much his teammates meant to his success.

For much of the weekend, Mikan's teammates walked around with smiles rivaling Mikan's famous grin. For many of them it had been over a decade since they had been together, and it would happen again. For Harrison, the event was difficult to put into words.

"We went through war together. We stuck together through thick and thin. This group of guys had as much do with the success of the NBA now as any group that even played the game. We went through a lot of adversity and rule changes and poor facilities and you name it. But we did it because we the loved the game and had a lot of fun doing it."

The Lakers all came back for George Mikan. And Mikan accepted the honor on their behalf. Even Shaquille O'Neal joined in on the ceremony, receiving statuettes on behalf of the Wolves and Lakers for their teams' contributions to the cause. But sitting in his wheelchair at center court, the first NBA big man seemed dwarfed by his modern-day counterparts. Yet Mikan's smile was broad.

"One thing I liked about being a Laker, when you saw one you saw all the rest of them," Mikan stated at the ceremony. "We were a team," he said. "So when they put that statue up, there should be plenty of thoughts going with it that my teammates were all a part of it. Thank you so much for helping me accomplish these things, I couldn't have done it without you."

Surrounded by his friends on April 8, it was obvious Mikan's Laker teammates still had his back.

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