George Mikan was professional Basketball's first superstar. It was Mikan who redefined basketball from a game dominated by quick, small players into a game dominated by giants. The Associated Press voted Mikan the basketball player of the half-century in 1950.
'Fans came out to see Mikan, first and foremost, and without a player of such magnitude, it is hard to imagine that the new leagues (NBL, BAA, or NBA) would have had much better prospects for survival than any of their forerunners. Mikan was such a drawing card that he quickly became almost bigger than the league itself.
This was sufficiently demonstrated when the Lakers paid their first NBA visit to New York in 1950 and the Madison Square Garden marquee simple advertised, "Tonight George Mikan versus the Knicks!"' wrote Peter C. Bjarkman in The Biographical History of Basketball.
According to John Durant and Otto Bettmann in a Pictorial History of American Sports, "Big George Mikan was superior to the old-time basketball heroes. The six-foot, ten-inch forward was twice named on All-American teams at De Paul University, and later as a pro on the Minneapolis Lakers (1947-56), he led the National Basketball Association in scoring four years and was named on the N.B.A. All-Star first team for six consecutive seasons. The Mighty Mikan was as graceful as a 245-pound giant could be."
Pachter wrote, "after he graduated in 1946, he joined the Chicago Gears for a record salary of $12,000. When the Gears folded at the end of the season, he began his astonishing career with the Minneapolis Lakers. In his first season, Mikan led the Lakers to the National Basketball League championship, averaging 21.3 points per game and earning unanimous recognition as the league's Most Valuable Player."
"He could raise that left elbow and move to the basket, and the bodies would just start to fly," teammate Swede Carlson was quoted as saying in A Century of Sports by the editors of Time-Life Books.
Pachter reported that Mikan had been six feet when he was only 11 and had been '"so bitterly self-conscious as a youth "that my height nearly wrecked my life." He played some neighborhood basketball in Joliet, Illinois-with his grandmother often serving as referee-but was too ungainly even to make his high-school team.' Curt Gowdy quoted Mikan in Seasons to Remember as saying, "I was a freak. I was like the fat lady in the circus or the tattooed man."
Gowdy told how after Bob Kurland came onto the College Basketball scene, "we began hearing about another big guy up in Chicago who was having the same impact." According to Gowdy, George Mikan had been cut from the high school team at Joliet Catholic because he needed glasses. All of the college coaches ignored him except for Ray Meyer at DePaul.
Gowdy wrote, "Meyer took one look at Mikan's six feet ten inches and two hundred forty-five pounds and decided there was terrific raw material there. The only thing missing was coordination. So Meyer worked Mikan the same way Iba worked Kurland: drilling, drilling, drilling, getting all those arms and legs to work in synch. Meyer trained Mikan the way you would a fighter-skipping rope, shadowboxing. And before long, he was a basketball player who could dominate."
'"As soon as George stopped feeling sorry for himself and realized his height was something to be admiredů he was on his way to being great,"' Pachter quoted coach Ray Meyer as saying.
Bjarkman wrote that Bob Kurland and George Mikan unquestionably transformed the "role of the towering big man from that of curious goon to that of potent offensive and defensive force. For the first time a single player could dominate a game merely by setting up under the basketů."
According to Gowdy, "When Mikan and Kurland met head-on five times, it was like a couple of Tyrannosauri rex clashing in a prehistoric forest. The ground shook. And basketball was never the same. The era of the big man had arrived and Dr. Naismith's rules were suddenly obsolete."
Gowdy reported that the difference between Mikan and Kurland was that Mikan was an offensive weapon with amazing strength to go along with his size and "once he developed a hook shot which he could launch from either side with either hand, Mikan was all but unstoppable.
The dimensions of the lane helped him, too. Even though the
three-second rule was already on the books in 1936, the lane was
only six feet wide. So even if Mikan had to move out of it, he was
still within easy range of the hoop."
According to the Time-Life editors, Mikan was so hard to defend that the league doubled the width of the foul lane in 1951. They also tried another tactic of stalling, which made the game so boring that in 1954 the league instituted a 24 second clock to speed up the action.
Bjarkman wrote "The genius behind it all was Syracuse owner Danny Biasone, who first articulated for his fellow league bosses the notion that their game could be repaired simply by putting a restriction on how long teams could hold the ball before being forced to fire at the basket. There was no magic behind Biasone's selection of 24 seconds as the appropriate time for an offensive possession. He had simply calculated the approximate time that teams were already taking between shots, easily arrived at by dividing game length (48 minutes) by average shots taken a season earlier." The change immediately played to rave reviews and soon generated immediate box-office appeal.
The second change to be made that season was limiting each club to five personal fouls per period. Any more fouling would give added bonus to the other team.
According to Bjarkman, there were questions as to how the new faster game would affect "the slow-moving Lakers and cramp the style of an aging George Mikan. For his own part, Mikan had already seen the writing on the wall." Though barely 30, Mikan who had earned an off-season law degree, retired.
The Time-Life editors reported that it wasn't the rule changes that had instigated Mikan's retirement in 1954 but rather the fact that he had been subjected to such cruel physical punishment including two broken legs, three broken fingers, a broken wrist, a broke nose and dozens of stitches.
Pachter described how physically demanding the game had been. "Once, after a rival accused him of rough play, Mikan ripped off his shirt to reveal a torso covered with black-and-blue marks, and growled, 'What do you think these are-birthmarks?' His height, while making him a great popular draw, also made him a convenient target. He had lost four teeth in his first professional game and, as he said, 'You've got to give it right back to them with a basket or a punch or they'll pound you right out of the league.'"
A Century of Sports
Editors of Time-Life Books, 2000
Time Life Inc.
The Biographical History of Basketball
Peter C. Bjarkman 1998
Champions of American Sport
Edited by Marc Pachter with Amy Henderson, Jeannette Hussey, and Margaret C. S. Christman, 1981
The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Harry N. Abrams., Inc. New York
Seasons to Remember The Way It Was in American Sports 1945-1960
Curt Gowdy with John Powers, 1993
Pictorial History of American Sports
John Durant and Otto Bettmann 1952, 1965
A.S. Barnes and Company
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