Mikan 'set the table for everybody'

NBA historian Ken Shouler looks back at George Mikan and wonders whether the big man would thrive in today's game.

Updated: June 2, 2005, 6:13 PM ET
By Ken Shouler | Special to ESPN.com

Adapted with permission from "Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years."

With thick-rimmed glasses, looking not unlike Clark Kent, George Mikan peers out from photos taken during the dawn of the NBA in the 1940s and '50s. He possessed the look of one who would eventually run for congress, which he did. A glance at George Mikan's stat line turns up nothing that would give anyone pause. Yes, he did average 22.6 points per game for his nine years. But he scored just 11,764 points and that wouldn't make the top 50.

Ah, but you must take that second look. In six consecutive seasons during 1947-1952 he led either the National Basketball League (NBL), Basketball Association of America (BAA) or NBA in scoring. There's more. From '47 through '54, he played on several championship Minneapolis Lakers teams (1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954). This 6-foot-10 center made his bones during times when blocked shots and steals were not even recorded. Minutes played, rebounds, field-goal percentage and assists were only available in certain years. Record keeping was spotty.

George Mikan
NBAE/Getty ImagesOne day the marquee at the old Madison Square Garden read, "Mikan vs. Knicks, Tonight, 8 pm."

It was a time when the sports world was attuned to the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, Army and Navy football. Basketball was an afterthought. The Harlem Globetrotters and college doubleheaders were far more popular than the pro game.

But Mikan, whose brother Ed had played ball with the NBA and Basketball Association of America, was thought highly of. How highly? Consider that Mikan would be named Associated Press top player of the half century in 1950. "Mikan called Best Netter" read the head on an Associated Press story. It was one of those awards for the ages. "Today," the copy read, "George Mikan was named the greatest basketball player of the last 50 years by sportswriters and broadcasters participating in the AP mid-century poll. He received 139 of the 380 votes cast, winning out over Hank Luisetti, Stanford's whiz of 13 years ago. Luisetti got 123 votes." Quite an honor, eh?

How did he get to that point? With great difficulty. At the time that Mikan began his career, there was certainly an opening for a man of his size (6-10, 245 pounds) and brawn. But his road to hardwood success would be bumpy. All he had won early in life was the marble-shooting championship of Will County in Illinois.

Then he tried out for the team, the basketball team that is, at Catholic High School in Joliet, Ill. When the coach, Father Gilbert Burns, noticed Mikan squinting, he demanded an explanation. Mikan explained that he squinted because he wasn't wearing his glasses. The good Father Burns would not accept that explanation. Basketball success and eyeglasses did not go together, he thought, and he cut Mikan from the squad.

At his next stop, it got worse. Notre Dame coach George Keogan claimed that Mikan was "too awkward, lacked talent and wore glasses." His condescending advice to young Mikan? "You should become a scholar." Bob Pettit confirms the story, recalling that Mikan was so ungainly that Notre Dame turned down his application for a scholarship.

But Mikan did not take the scholarly path. Rather, he took the road less traveled, the road he was advised not to take. Under the watchful eye of DePaul coach Ray Meyer, Mikan gradually built his skills. "Ray was a slave driver," Mikan said later. "But he was just what I needed. He taught me everything I know." Coach Meyer's first lesson was to teach Mikan, still lean and still growing at 6-8, how to use his height in getting up in the air and over his rivals.

Mikan constantly worked on his game and made All-American in 1944, 1945 and 1946. He was the nation's leading scorer these last two years, with averages of 23.9 and 23.1 points, respectively. His 120 points in three games enabled DePaul to win the 1945 National Invitation Tournament in 1945.

While Mikan was still at DePaul in 1945, James Enright of the Chicago Herald American wrote a story for Converse Yearbook. "With the war over and pro basketball expected to boom along with all other sports," Enright wrote, "there is a lot of money awaiting Mikan when he gets ready to take up the cash register game. Already one performer has offered the pride of Joliet $1,000 per month on a game-per-week basis."

Think of it – $12,000 a year. By 1949, Mikan was playing for the Minneapolis Lakers in the Basketball Association of America and drawing the league's top salary of $17,500 per year.

Mikan's game had broadened. He employed a sweeping hook in the lane, a shot he could make left-handed or right-handed. It was a shot that no one could stop. He swept the offensive boards and he scored in the lane or on the baseline. Printed on his shirt was "MPLS," with the number 99 across the front.

As Roland Lazenby wrote in "The Lakers," Mikan made use of his broad shoulders "and a bruising pair of elbows." He would get low position, back in and pivot and lead with the elbow. Teammate Jim Pollard said "he didn't get called for the offensive foul because he had both hands on the ball. He'd take it up in the air with both hands. If he took a hand off the ball and threw the elbow, he was going to get called for the foul. But George seldom did that. He was smart."

In 1949, the year the Yankees won their first of five consecutive World Series, Minneapolis quietly beat the Washington Capitols in six games. It wasn't the NBA, but it began a trend for Mikan. Winning would become his hallmark. His 28.2 points per game gave him his third scoring title in a row. He had led the NBL in scoring while playing with Chicago and then Minneapolis in the previous two years.

With Mikan scoring 40 in the final sixth game, the Lakers beat Syracuse 110-95 for the initial NBA championship in 1950. Minnesota got a bonus of $19,500, enough for each player to enjoy a "nest egg of $2,027.27," the New York Times reported.

Mikan won the scoring title that year, too, with an average of 27.4 per game. He went on to win three titles in a row, the first of six NBA players to accomplish that feat. The remaining five were Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo, George Gervin and Michael Jordan.

In the playoffs he put up phenomenal numbers, too, averaging 30.3, 24, 23.6 and 19.8 points in the Lakers' title years.

Mike Gminski chose Mikan as the fourth-best center in history, behind only Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell. "Mikan was the league early on," Gminski points out. "He was the drawing card."

"He set the table for everybody," Bill Walton said. "He came in and showed it wasn't about just being big but about being skilled and being smart. It's not the biggest, strongest guy who wins all the time. Shaq and Wilt have only two titles between them in 18 years of play. They're phenomenal players, but look where the titles are: with Russell, Mikan, Jabbar. The titles are with Magic, Bird, Jordan, Hakeem, Isiah."

With the combination of winning and the scoring titles, it is no wonder that he was elected to the NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1970 and the 35th Anniversary Team in 1980. His greatness and historical importance are beyond dispute.

Despite this, I have heard the argument from keen observers of the league that Mikan would not have played well in today's game.

"The game has expanded much further than Mikan's physical ability would have taken him," said the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan.

But wouldn't he have been a brute down low, as he was in the '40s and '50s?

"Guys would block his hook shot today," Ryan said. "They would just block it. I know he's a great competitor; no one can achieve what he's achieved at any time in history without being a competitor. But I don't think it would have added up to enough. He just wasn't the athlete the guys are today. I could name 10 backup centers who are better athletes, and I just don't think he could deal with them."

Mikan was large for his time and would be comparatively small in the pivot today. But centers no larger than Mikan – Reed, Unseld, Cowens, to name just a few – enjoyed brilliant NBA careers. So it's not clear that "The Mighty Mikan" would have flopped.

Could he have gotten along down low?

"I think great players adapt," Gminski said. "Alright, maybe that hook shot wouldn't fly. But he was great and would have found a way to score by doing something else. He did win five titles in six years."

Mikan was known for mixing it up underneath and getting many of his points off of tip-ins.

"Grandmother gets credit for that," was Mikan's innocent explanation. "She made me practice the piano two hours every day for eight years and I finally earned a conservatory diploma. The keyboard practice made my fingers strong and sensitive and gave me the quick instinctive touch you need in those under-the-basket scrambles."

Walton is also convinced that Mikan would still flourish in today's game.

"Coach Wooden had a very famous saying: It's not how big you are, it's how big you play," Walton said. "It's not how high you jump, it's where you are when you jump. It's not a game of size and strength; it's a game of skill, timing and position. That fits George Mikan to a T. People say he wouldn't be able to do it today, but he was about 6-10 and 250. I don't see why he wouldn't be a talented player. All the great players from the past would be great ones today. The reason they got to be great was how hard they worked, how smart they were, and their competitive greatness, and that's something you can't measure."

Mikan stayed around for the 1955-1956 season, long enough to see the game change significantly with the advent of the 24-second shot clock.

"This new rule," a reporter wrote for Time magazine in December 1954, "adopted for the 1954-1955 season, has made the game a better, faster, more exciting sport. In other years 'freezing' the ball in the late stages was the name of the game. A team that found itself a few points ahead near the end would simply pass the ball around from player to player without trying for a basket. The trailing team would then deliberately foul to get possession, risking a one-point foul shot for a possible two-point basket. The leading team would then foul back and the game would dissolve in a dreary welter."

Mikan retired for a year after Minneapolis' last title in 1954 and then returned for the 1955-1956 season. But he played only 37 games. After he retired for good in 1956 he turned to coaching.

"It was the shortest coaching career on record," Mikan said.

With Mikan guiding the team from the bench, the Lakers won nine games and lost 30 for the 1957-58 season. The next year, Elgin Baylor was a rookie for the Lakers.

In 1959, Mikan was elected to the Hall of Fame. He became the first commissioner of the newly formed ABA in 1967.

The Clark Kent lookalike played like Superman in the early years of the NBA. What type of player would Big George be today? Like Reed? Cowens? Unseld?

"He would be a George Mikan-type player," Walton said. "And the game would be better for it."

Ken Shouler is editor of "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.