Mikan, George Lawrence, Jr.

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Mikan, George Lawrence, Jr.

(b. 18 June 1924 in Joliet, Illinois; d. 1 June 2005 in Scottsdale, Arizona), college and professional basketball player, coach, and executive who was the National Basketball Association’s first dominant big center and the top player of the first half of the twentieth century, leading the Minneapolis Lakers to seven titles in nine seasons.

Mikan was one of three sons of Joseph L. Mikan and Minnie (Blinstrup) Mikan, who owned a restaurant in Joliet. As a child he was constantly teased about his height and seemed skilled only at playing the piano and marbles. Mikan attended Joliet Catholic High School in 1936 and 1937 and then transferred to Quigley Prep School in Chicago to study for the priesthood. He performed well academically, but he was cut from the basketball team because of his awkwardness and nearsightedness. During his tryout for the University of Notre Dame basketball team, the legendary head coach George Keogan criticized him for his lack of talent and very thick glasses.

Mikan did not qualify for military service because of height restrictions, and in 1941 he enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago. In 1942 Ray Meyer became DePaul’s new head basketball coach and taught Mikan how to take advantage of his height (six feet, ten inches) and size (245 pounds). He worked with Mikan for six weeks, making him shoot 200 hook shots left-handed and right-handed every day to improve his dexterity. Mikan’s rigorous workout schedule also included skipping rope, learning modern ballet dancing to improve his footwork, and shadow boxing with a punching bag to increase his strength. Meyer’s regimen transformed Mikan into an aggressive, dominating basketball center.

During the 1942–1943 season Mikan averaged 11.3 points in 24 games, helping DePaul to finish 19–5 and reach the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament semifinals. He was an All-American at center in 1944, 1945, and 1946, leading the nation in scoring with 558 points and a 23.3 point average in 24 games in 1944–1945 and with 555 points and a 23.1 point average in 24 games in 1945–1946. The Helms Athletic Foundation named him the College Player of the Year in 1945 and 1946. After losing the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Championship in 1944, DePaul defeated Bowling Green State University for the 1945 NIT crown. Mikan led the NIT in scoring with 120 points in three games in 1945 and was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP). He tallied 1,870 points and averaged 19.1 points in 98 career games, helping DePaul to a 81–17 record, and proved such a defensive force under the basket that the NCAA banned goaltending. Mikan graduated from DePaul in 1946.

In March 1946 Mikan signed a $60,000 five-year contract with the Chicago Gears of the National Basketball League (NBL). As the era’s largest player, Mikan used his height and bulk to dominate near the basket. He faced considerable double-teaming and triple-teaming and took a constant physical beating. During his career he sustained a broken leg, two wrist fractures, a broken nose, several broken fingers, and several lost teeth. Led by Mikan, the Gears finished third in the 1946 World Professional Basketball Tournament at Chicago. Mikan appeared in only 25 of Chicago’s 44 games during the 1946–1947 season because of a contract dispute, but he still made the All-ABL First Team and led the American Basketball League (ABL) in scoring with a 16.5 point average. The Gears won the 1947 NBL title, defeating the Rochester Royals in the ABL Finals.

Chicago joined the sixteen-team Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA) in 1947, but the PBLA folded within a month. Mikan was awarded to the expansion Minneapolis Lakers of the NBL in November 1947. Wearing number 99, Mikan employed a sweeping hook shot in the lane and exceptional rebounding, lifting the Lakers to five league titles in their first six years. In the 1947–1948 season he led the NBL in scoring with 1,195 points and a 21.3 point average, made the All-NBL First Team, and was selected unanimously as the NBL MVP, helping the Lakers to capture the 1948 NBL title over Rochester as well as the World Professional Basketball Tournament. During the summer of 1948 the Lakers joined the rival Basketball Association of America (BAA). Mikan paced the BAA in scoring with 1,698 points and 28.3 points average in 1948–1949, ending the regular season with games of 48, 51, 53, and 46 points, ensuring him the scoring title over Joe Fulks. He made the All-BAA First Team and sparked the Lakers to the 1949 BAA title, defeating the Washington Capitols in the BAA Finals.

After the BAA merged with the NBL to form the NBA in 1949, the Lakers became the league’s first dynasty with Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen, and Slater Martin. Mikan played on his fourth straight championship team and won his fourth straight scoring title with 1,865 points and a 27.4 point average in 1949–1950, as Minneapolis, coached by John Kundia, finished with a 51–17 record. During that inaugural NBA season, he tallied at least 30 points 25 times. Mikan repeated as scoring champion with 1,932 points and a career-high 28.4 point average the following season, but he fractured his ankle as the season ended. Rochester eliminated the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

With no shot clock to hurry them, Mikan’s teammates patiently waited for him to get open underneath. The Lakers often took at least thirty seconds to shoot, but Mikan scored consistently with his patented running hook and used his size and elbows to clear room for various close shots. To counter his inside scoring, the NBA in 1951 widened the foul lane from six to twelve feet and developed the three-second lane violation. The new rules diminished Mikan’s offensive production, but he still finished second to Paul Arizin in scoring with 1,523 points and 23.8 point average and third in rebounding with a 13.5 average in 1951–1952.

Minneapolis often built double-digit leads, making it difficult for opponents to launch comebacks. Teams tried to prevent Mikan from touching the ball by slowing their offense to a crawl. In November 1950 the Fort Wayne Pistons defeated the Lakers 19–18 in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history, denying Mikan the ball by stalling and limiting him to 15 points. Minneapolis captured consecutive NBA Championships over the New York Knicks in 1952 and 1953 and the Syracuse Nationals in 1954. Although very kind, warm, graceful, and mild-mannered off the court, Mikan led the NBA in personal fouls from 1950 through 1952.

In 1954 Mikan, who had made the All-NBA First Team from 1950 through 1954, retired as a player and became the Lakers general manager. When the Lakers experienced a losing record in 1955–1956, he returned as a player at mid-season. After averaging only 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in 37 games, he retired permanently. Upon his retirement Mikan held NBA records for most career points (11,764) in 520 games, career scoring average (22.6 points), and highest season scoring average (28.4 points). During his last five NBA seasons he averaged 13.4 rebounds. Minneapolis won 21 of 22 play-off series. In 91 play-off games Mikan tallied 11,764 points and a 22.6 point average. He appeared in four NBA All-Star Games from 1951 through 1954, scoring 76 points with 51 rebounds. Mikan helped his teams win seven titles in eight years and led the all-league team in votes seven straight years, the equivalent of today’s MVP award.

In 1956 Mikan ran unsuccessfully for the Third Congressional District of Minnesota. During the 1957–1958 season Mikan briefly coached the Lakers to a 9–30 mark. He left coaching to use his law degree, which he earned from DePaul University after attending classes during the off season. From 1958 through 1967 he practiced corporate and real estate law in the Minneapolis area, acquired and refurbished land in the region, and owned a travel agency. He participated in a syndicate establishing the American Basketball Association in 1967 and served as its commissioner through 1969. During this time he helped to create the league’s signature red, white, and blue basketball. In the 1980s he worked hard to secure an NBA franchise for Minnesota, which was awarded the Timberwolves expansion team in 1989.

In the 1990s Mikan and his wife, Patricia Lu Devaney, retired to Scottsdale, Arizona. They were married in May 1947 and had four sons and two daughters. Their son Larry briefly played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970–1971. Mikan’s numerous career honors included being named by the Associated Press in 1950 as the greatest basketball player of the first half of the twentieth century and being inducted into the inaugural class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959. He also was selected to the NBA Silver Anniversary, Thirty-fifth Anniversary, and Fiftieth Anniversary All-Time Teams and the Helms Athletic Foundation All-Time All-America Team.

Mikan suffered from diabetes and had his right leg amputated below the knee in 2000. He also experienced kidney problems and underwent dialysis for five years. Mikan, who received a $1,700 monthly pension, pressed the NBA and the players’ union to boost pensions for those who performed in the league before 1965. He battled his illnesses with fierce determination because he hoped to be alive when the collective bargaining agreement was reached and the decision finalized on the pre-1965 players. He died at a Scottsdale rehabilitation center following treatment for a diabetic wound in his leg. Mikan is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Mikan, the most dominant player of his era, brought fame and stability to the fledgling pro basketball world and transformed the game. He gave the NBA much-needed recognition and acceptance with his fierce determination to excel. As a gate attraction, he and the Lakers made the league a financial success. At the time of Mikan’s death, David Stern, the NBA commissioner, said, “George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA’s first true superstar.” The first big man in pro basketball, Mikan set the standard for future centers with his exceptional agility, competitiveness, and skill. A nine-foot bronzed sculpture of Mikan shooting his famous hook shot appears outside the Target Center in Minneapolis. Julius Erving and Michael Jordan are the only other NBA players so honored.

See the Mikan file at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, for clippings, photos, and programs. Mikan’s personal reflections are in his autobiography, Mr. Basketball: George Mikan’s Own Story, as Told to Bill Carlson (1951), and, with Joseph Oberle, Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan, the First NBA Superstar (1997). Ray Meyer with Ray Sons, Coach (1987), treats Mikan’s DePaul years, while Richard F. Triptow, The Dynasty That Never Was: Chicago’s First Professional Basketball Champions, the American Gears (1997), discusses his Chicago Gears stint. For his Lakers years, see Stew Thornley, The History of the Lakers: Basketball’s Original Dynasty (1989). Obituaries are in the Arizona Republic (2 June 2005) and USA Today (3 June 2005).

David L. Porter