George Lawrence Mikan, Jr. (June 18, 1924 – June 11, 2005), nicknamed Mr. Basketball, was a Croatian-American professional basketball player primarily for the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Invariably playing with thick, round spectacles, the six-foot, 10-inch, 245-pound Mikan was one of the pioneers of professional basketball, redefining it as a game of so-called "big men" with his prolific rebounding, shot blocking, and his talent to shoot over smaller defenders with his ambidextrous hook shot.
Mikan had a successful player career, winning seven championships in three leagues, an All-Star MVP trophy, three scoring titles, and named to the first four NBA All-Star teams. Mikan was so dominant that he caused several rule changes in the NBA, among them widening the foul lane—known as the "Mikan Rule"—and introducing the shot clock.
After his playing career, Mikan worked as a lawyer and real-estate developer, became one of the founding fathers of the American Basketball Association (ABA), and was instrumental in forming the Minnesota Timberwolves. In his later years, he fought a long-standing, legal battle against the NBA, struggling to increase the meager pensions for players who had retired before the league became lucrative. Mikan tragically became a martyr of his own cause when he died in poverty after a long-standing battle against diabetes.
For his feats, Mikan was declared "Greatest Basketballer in the First Half-Century" by the Associated Press in 1950. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and was elected one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players in 1996. Since April 2001, a statue of Mikan shooting his trademark hook shot graces the entrance of the Timberwolves' home arena in Minneapolis, Target Center.
Despite physical prowess and aggressive performance when playing basketball, Mikan was universally seen as the prototypical "gentle giant," tough and relentless on the court, but friendly and amicable in private life. He left his workday pressures on the court and was a loving husband and a responsible father to his six children. His marriage with his wife, Patricia, lasted 58 years, until his death.
Mikan was born in Joliet, Illinois to Croatian parents. As a boy, he shattered his knee so badly that he was kept in bed for a year and a half. In 1938 Mikan visited Chicago’s Quigley Prep High School and originally wanted to be a priest, but then moved back home to finish at Joliet Catholic. He did not seem destined to become an athlete. When Mikan entered Chicago's DePaul University in 1942, he had grown to six feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds. He moved awkwardly because of his frame, and needed thick glasses for his near-sightedness.
However, Mikan met DePaul basketball coach Ray Meyer, then 28, who saw potential in the bright, but also clumsy and shy freshman. Meyer's thoughts were revolutionary, because in those days common sense dictated that players as tall as Mikan were too awkward to ever play basketball well.
In the following months, Meyer transformed Mikan into a confident, aggressive player who took pride in his height rather than being ashamed of it. Meyer and Mikan worked out intensively, and Mikan learned how to make hook shots accurately with either hand. This routine would become later known as the "Mikan Drill."
From his first NCAA college games for DePaul, Mikan dominated his peers. He intimidated opponents with his size and strength and was virtually unstoppable on offense with his hook shot. He soon established a reputation as one of the hardest and grittiest players in the league, often playing through injury and punishing opposing centers with hard fouls.
In addition, Mikan also stunned the basketball world by his unique ability of goaltending—swatting the ball away before it could pass the hoop. In today's basketball, touching the ball after it reaches its apogee is forbidden, but in Mikan's time it was legal because reaching above the rim was such a rarity.
"We would set up a zone defense that had four men around the key and I guarded the basket," Mikan later recalled his DePaul days. "When the other team took a shot, I'd just go up and tap it out."
Mikan was named NCAA College Player of the Year twice, in 1945 and 1946. He was an All-American three times, leading DePaul to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) title in 1945. Mikan led the nation in scoring with 23.9 points per game in 1944-1945 and 23.1 in 1945-1946. When DePaul won the 1945 NIT, Mikan was named most valuable player for scoring 120 points in three games, including 53 points in a 97-53 win over Rhode Island, outscoring the entire Rhode Island team.
After the end of the 1945-1946 college season, Mikan signed with the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League, a predecessor of the modern National Basketball Association. He played with them for seven games at the end of the 1946 season, scoring an impressive 16.5 points per game in his rookie games. He then led the Gears to the championship of the World Basketball Tournament, where he was elected most valuable player after scoring 100 points in five games.
However, before the start of the 1947-1948 NBL season, Maurice White, the president of the American Gear Company and the owner of the American Gears NBL team, pulled the team out of the league. White created a 24-team league called the Professional Basketball League of America, in which he owned all the teams and arenas. However, the PBLA folded after just a month, and the players of White's teams were equally distributed among the 11 remaining NBL franchises. As a consequence, every team had a 9.1 percent chance of obtaining the basketball prodigy, Mikan. With a stroke of good luck, the Minneapolis Lakers landed him.
In the 1947-1948 NBL season, Mikan donned his trademark number 99 Minneapolis Lakers' jersey for the first time and joined fellow two future Hall-of-Fame forwards, high-flying Jim "The Kangaroo Kid" Pollard and fellow wing man Vern Mikkelsen to form one of the first great front lines of professional basketball. Under the tutelage of future Hall-of-Fame trainer John Kundla, Mikan averaged an impressive 21.3 points per game in the regular season.
Powered by his strong play, the Lakers dominated the Western Division. They charged through the playoffs and defeated the Rochester Royals 3-1 in the 1948 NBL Finals. In that series, Mikan averaged 27.5 points per game.
Before the 1948-1949 NBL season started, the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, and the Indianapolis Kautskys defected to the rival league Basketball Association of America (BAA). The advantage of the BAA was it housed big-city franchises like the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia Warriors and the Chicago Stags, making it more lucrative than the NBL.
In the 1948-1949 BAA season, Mikan scored an unbelievable 28.3 points, accounting for one third of the Lakers’ point total and winning the scoring title by a huge margin. Apart from Mikan, only Philadelphia's Joe Fulks, who became one of the co-inventors of the jump shot, and Chicago Stags player Max Zaslofsky managed to average 20-plus points.
The Lakers stormed all the way to the 1949 BAA Finals, where Mikan's team played against the Washington Capitols, coached by future Hall-of-Fame coach Red Auerbach. The Lakers quickly took a 3-0 edge, but Mikan broke his wrist in Game 4. The Capitols won the next two games despite Mikan scoring 22 points with his hand in a cast in Game 5. The Lakers convincingly won Game 6 by a score of 77-56 and also went on to take the BAA championship. In that playoff series, Mikan averaged an incredible 30.3 points per game, despite playing half the series with a broken hand.
After that season, the BAA and NBL merged to form the National Basketball Association. The new league started the inaugural 1949-1950 NBA season with 17 teams, with the Lakers in the Central Division. Mikan again was dominant, averaging 27.4 points per game and 2.9 assists per game and taking another scoring title. Only Alex Groza of Indianapolis also broke the 20-point-barrier that year.
After comfortably leading his team to a 51-17 record and breezing through the playoffs, Mikan's team played the 1950 NBA Finals against the Syracuse Nationals of future Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes, one of the first Jewish NBA stars. In Game 1, the Lakers beat Syracuse on their home court when Lakers reserve guard Bob Harrison hit a 40-foot buzzer beater to give Minneapolis a two-point win. The teams split the next four games, and in Game 6, the Lakers won 110-95 to take the first-ever NBA championship. Mikan scored a stellar 31.3 points per game in the playoffs
In the 1950-51 NBA season, Mikan was dominant again, scoring a career-best 28.4 points per game in the regular season, again taking the scoring crown, and also had 3.1 assists per game. In that year, the NBA introduced a new statistic, namely rebounds. In this category, the six foot, 10-inch Mikan also stood out, his 14.1 rebounds per game only second to the 16.4 mark of Dolph Schayes.
In that year, Mikan participated in one of the most notorious NBA games ever played. When the Fort Wayne Pistons played against his Lakers, the Pistons took a 19-18 lead. Afraid that Mikan would mount a comeback if he got the ball, the Pistons passed the ball around without any attempt to score a basket. With no shot clock to force them into offense, the score stayed 19-18 to make it the lowest-scoring NBA game of all time. The shot clock would come four years later. In that game, Mikan scored 15 of the Lakers' 18 points, thus scoring 83.3 percent of his team's points, an NBA all-time record which will be probably never be broken.
In the post-season, however, Mikan fractured his leg, making the 1951 Western Division Finals against the Rochester Royals a painful and futile affair. With Mikan hardly able to move, the Royals won 3-1. Despite basically hopping around court on one foot, he still averaged more than 20 points per game.
In the 1951-1952 NBA season, the NBA decided to widen the foul lane under the basket from six feet to 12 feet. As players could only stay in the lane for three seconds at a time, this forced big men like Mikan to play the "post" position from double the previous distance from the basket. The new regulation was dubbed "The Mikan Rule."
While Mikan still scored an impressive 23.8 points per game, it was a far cry of his 27.4 points per game the previous season, and his field-goal accuracy sank from .428 to .385. Still, he pulled down 13.5 rebounds per game, asserting himself as a top rebounder, and logged 3.0 assists per game. Mikan also had a truly dominating game that season, in which he scored a personal-best 61 points in a victory against the Rochester Royals. At the time, it was the second-best performance of all time, next to Joe Fulks' 63 point outburst in 1949. Mikan's output more than doubled that of his teammates.
Later that season, the Lakers charged into the 1952 NBA Finals and were pitted against the New York Knicks. This qualified as one of the strangest Finals series in NBA history, as neither team could play on their home court in the first six games. The Lakers' Minneapolis Auditorium was already booked, and the Knicks' Madison Square Garden was occupied by a circus. Instead, the Lakers played in Saint Paul and the Knicks in the damp, dimly lit, 69th Regiment Armory. Perpetually double-teamed by Knicks future Hall-of-Famers Nat Clifton and Harry Gallatin, Mikan had a hard time asserting himself. In the only true home game, Game 7 in the Minneapolis Auditorium, the Lakers won 82-65.
In the next year, the 1952-1953 NBA season, Mikan averaged 20.6 points and a career-high 14.4 rebounds per game, the highest in the league, as well as 2.9 assists per game. In the 1953 NBA All-Star Game, Mikan was dominant again with 22 points and 16 rebounds, winning that game's MVP Award. The Lakers made the 1953 NBA Finals, and again defeated the Knicks, 4-1.
In the 1953-1954 NBA season, the now 29-year-old Mikan slowly declined, averaging 18.1 points, 14.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. However, under his leadership, the Lakers won another NBA title in 1954, making it their third championship in a row and the fifth in six years; the only time they lost had been when Mikan fractured his leg. The Minneapolis Lakers’ NBA dynasty has only been convincingly surpassed by the great eleven-title Boston Celtics of 1957-1969.
After the season, Mikan stunned the sports world when he announced his retirement, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Injuries also were a factor, as Mikan had sustained ten broken bones in his career and often had played through these injuries. Without Mikan, the Lakers made the playoffs, but were unable to reach the 1955 NBA Finals.
In the middle of the 1955-1956 NBA season, Mikan surprised the basketball world by returning to the Lakers lineup. He played in 37 games, but his long absence had taken its toll. He averaged only 10.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists, and the Lakers lost in the first playoff round. This prompted Mikan to retire for good. He was inducted into the inaugural Basketball Hall of Fame class of 1959, and was declared "Greatest Basketballer in the First Half-Century" by the Associated Press.
In the 1957-1958 NBA season, Lakers trainer John Kundla became general manager and persuaded Mikan to become trainer of the Lakers. However, this was a disastrous move, as the Lakers blundered to a terrible 9-30 record until Mikan stepped down and returned coaching duties to Kundla. The Lakers ended with a 19-53 to record one of the worst seasons in their history. Mikan then concentrated on his law career, raising his large family of six children, specializing in corporate and real estate law, and buying and renovating buildings in Minneapolis.
In 1967, Mikan returned to professional basketball, becoming the first commissioner of the American Basketball Association, a rival league to the National Basketball Association. In order to lure basketball fans to his league, Mikan invented the three-point line and the characteristic red-white-and-blue ABA ball, which he thought more patriotic, better suited for TV, and more crowd-pleasing than the brown NBA ball.
Retiring from the ABA in 1969, he disappeared from the public eye but headed a task force with the goal to bring professional basketball back to Minneapolis, decades after the Lakers had moved to Los Angeles to become the Los Angeles Lakers and after the ABA's Minnesota Muskies and Minnesota Pipers had departed. In the end, his bid was successful, leading to the inception of a new franchise in the 1989-1990 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In his late years, Mikan fought with diabetes and failing kidneys, and eventually, his illness caused his right leg to be amputated below the knee. When the insurance was cut off, Mikan soon battled severe financial trouble. He fought a long and protracted legal battle against the NBA and the NBA Player's Union, protesting the low, $1,700 a month pensions for players who had retired before 1965, the so-called "big money era." According to Mel Davis of the National Basketball Retired Players Union, this battle kept him going, because Mikan hoped to be alive when a new collective bargaining agreement would finally vindicate his generation. In 2005, however, his condition declined.
Mikan is lauded as the pioneer of the modern age of basketball. He was the original center, who scored 11,764 points, an average of 22.6 per game, retired as the all-time leading scorer and averaged 13.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 520 NBL, BAA, and NBA games. As a testament to his fierce nature, he also led the league three times in personal fouls. Mikan won seven BAA and NBA championships, an All-Star MVP trophy, three scoring titles, and being a member of the first four NBA All-Star and the first six All-BAA and All-NBA Teams. For his feats, Mikan was declared "Greatest Basketballer in the First Half-Century" by the Associated Press in 1950, was on the Helms Athletic Foundation all-time All-American team, chosen in a 1952 poll, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959, made the 25th and 35th NBA Anniversary Teams of 1970 and 1980, and was elected one of the NBA 50 Greatest Players in 1996. Mikan's impact on the game is also reflected in the “Mikan Drill,” today a staple exercise of "big men" in basketball.
In addition, when superstar center Shaquille O'Neal became a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Sports Illustrated graced its November 1996 issue with Mikan, O'Neal, and fellow Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, calling Abdul-Jabbar and Mikan "Lakers legends" to which O'Neal was compared, thus establishing Mikan as one of the greatest Lakers players of all time.
Since April 2001, a statue of Mikan shooting his trademark hook shot graces the entrance of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ home arena, the Target Center. In addition, a banner in the Los Angeles Lakers’ Staples Center commemorates Mikan and his fellow Minneapolis Lakers.
Mikan became so dominant that the NBA had to change its rules of play in order to reduce his influence by widening the three-second lane from six to twelve feet ("The Mikan Rule"). He also played a role in the introduction of the shot clock, and in the NCAA his dominating play around the basket led to the outlawing of goaltending.
It is no exaggeration to say that more than any other player, George Mikan set the stage for the modern age of the NBA dominated by tall, powerful players.
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