The early 20th Century version of the game we know as basketball is scarcely recognizable to the contemporary fan. Innovations like the shot clock, let alone the three point line, weren't yet part of the game. To further boggle the minds of modern basketball enthusiasts, the icon of the big man had not yet entered the lexicon of Naismith's game. In fact, coaches and scouts considered very tall players to be uncoordinated and ill-suited for the hardwood.
Enter George Mikan. Mikan grew up in the small city of Joliet, Illinois. In many ways he typified the fears about the big man in early basketball. As a child, Mikan shattered a knee and was bedridden for over a year. His 7-foot tall, sub-250 pound frame led him to move awkwardly. Strikingly, he wore glasses due to his nearsightedness. Mikan's shy personality and awkward physicality appeared more that of a bookworm than a star athlete, much less future NBA star. He could have very well followed a different path toward his original dream of becoming an ordained priest.
This path shifted when Ray Meyer, the head coach of the basketball program at DePaul University, saw Mikan's potential and recruited him to the North Side of Chicago. After intense conditioning to get Mikan into basketball shape, Meyer unleashed Mikan on the NCAA. What transpired likely surpassed the expectations of either man.
Mikan averaged 24 points per game in the pre shot clock era of the mid 1940s, leading the nation. He bested this average in the NIT, then the premier college tournament rather than the bridesmaid it is today. Mikan scored 120 points in three games in the 1945 NIT, including 53 en route to a 44-point win. Despite his prowess on offense. Mikan made the largest impact on the defensive end. Unencumbered by latter day goaltending restrictions, DePaul played a zone defense and that allowed Mikan to exploit his natural height to tap the ball away as it descended towards the hoop. The true marker of Mikan's greatness arrived with the advent of the NCAA goaltending rule, his talent so great that it necessitated a rule change that remains on the books.
For his efforts, Mikan was awarded the NCAA Player of the Year Award in both 1944 and 1945. Mikan earned the MVP of the '45 NIT as well. No longer the shy, awkward high schooler longing for the clergy, Meyer had shaped Mikan into a basketball star. With this new direction came a new moniker for Mikan, the simple but effective "Mr. Basketball." And as his college career concluded, it was time for Mikan to test his talents at the professional level.
When Mikan entered the pros, the environment differed greatly from the glamor of today's NBA. With no pre-eminent league, a variety of regional and handful of national leagues were scattered around the country. Mikan started his career in the National Basketball League, a league owned by Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric, for the local Chicago American Gears, earning all-NBL honors, and receiving the MVP award of the league's playoffs after leading his team to the championship game his rookie year. However, Mikan truly made his mark in Minneapolis where he opted to play in an upstart professional league the next year. Staying in the familiar confines of the Midwest, Mikan joined a team that paid homage to the region with its nickname, the Lakers.
The Minneapolis Lakers originated as a Detroit NBL franchise and began play in the vestigial circuit. With Mikan, the Lakers boasted a star to showcase the franchise in its subsequent years as an NBA blue blood. Mikan brought immediate success. The Lakers would play one year in the NBL, winning a championship behind a Mikan MVP season, before moving to the Basketball Association of America, or BAA, in the 1948-1949 season. The Lakers and Mikan continued their success in the BAA, with Mikan winning the BAA scoring championship with over 28 points a game en route to another title. The NBL and BAA merged to form the NBA in the following year, but Mikan maintained his averages, winning another scoring title and giving the Lakers the first NBA championship and an unorthodox threepeat across the NBL, BAA and NBA. After one season where the Lakers came up short against the eventual champion Rochester Royals, the
Lakers won the first threepeat of NBA history from 1952-54, with Mikan registering solid albeit lower averages as a perennial NBA All Star. Mikan's 1948-1954 run is eerily reminiscent of Michael Jordan's 1990s team and individual performances when adjusted for era. To boot, Mikan inspired yet another rule change when he ended the era of "the key" and the size of the lane doubled to curb Mikan's dominance.
Moreover, one notorious game led to the adoption of the shot clock when the Fort Wayne Pistons used excessive stalling tactics to keep the ball out of Mikan's hands, resulting in a 19-18 finish. After the 1953-1954 NBA season, Mikan retired. Still, he anticipated Jordan in another way, coming out of retirement after one year to bolster a Lakers team now competing in the shot clock era. Perhaps because of the rule change, aging, or the lack of play and attempt to reintegrate midseason, Mikan was not the same player he once was. Still, Mikan put up averages of 11 points and 8 rebounds in the regular season and 12 points and 9 rebounds in the playoffs on respectable efficiency for the era. In the end, it wasn't enough for another championship and his playing career ended for good after the 1955-1956 campaign.
In most scenarios, this is where the story of George Mikan, and his influence on the game, in large part, would end. Mikan did plenty enough as a player to leave his impact where it had reached by 1956. Mikan wasn't successful in coaching and never became a general manager or front office executive for an NBA team. By all rights, the window for his impact had effectively closed. But truth is stranger than fiction. Fittingly, for the man who first made his name in a lesser circuit. Mikan would cement this legacy with another upstart competitor.
Competitor leagues to the NBA continued to rise and fall after the BAA-NBL merger. One notable though short-lived league, the American Basketball League (ABL), drew away talent like former NBA All Star George Yardley and future NBA All Star Dick Barnett in its one season from 1961-1962. Formed by the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein, the league sought to distinguish itself by its unique, exciting brand of play. This included the first three-point line, giving players who made a basket from a certain distance an extra point on the scoresheet. The three-pointer wasn't enough to keep the ABL afloat, but resurfaced with the most significant competitor to date, the American Basketball Association, or ABA.
Craving legitimacy, the new league brought in the legendary Mikan as its first commissioner when it formed in 1967. Under Mikan, the ABA made a variety of efforts to compete with the NBA. It allowed exceptions to the requirement that players graduate from college before joining professional leagues, presaging the current "one and done" policy in the NBA. Mikan personally encouraged the aesthetically pleasing red, white, and blue game ball. But most critically, the ABA took a page out of the ABL's book by adopting the three-point line.
Its effects were precipitous. The three-point line remains perhaps the most iconic part of the ABA and the league's decade long run of existence and success, leading to the NBA adoption of the line after the NBA-ABA merger in 1979. But the line's gradual effect on big men proved most ironic to the legacy of Mikan, who wouldn't live to see its enduring impact after his death in 2005.
Today, smaller, versatile big men are valued over statuesque centers like Mikan. While Mikan dispelled the myth of big men as uncoordinated oafs, the logic that preceded him returned to vogue, albeit for different reasons than in his youth. As the 2010s wore on, the trend towards "small ball" and "positionless basketball" took off, popularized by growing statistical information demonstrating the importance of three-point shooting. Big men like Mikan-and the center position he revolutionized-became endangered by the trend. For example, the three-point happy 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors started 6'6'' Draymond Green at center at times, and he shot 39% from three in the team's record setting 73-win regular season.
George Mikan, the unassuming, bespectacled, aspiring priest from Joliet, Illinois holds perhaps the strangest, yet most underappreciated legacy in basketball history. Far from a household name among basketball fans today, Mikan's impact endures as the man who, paradoxically, birthed two conflicting eras of basketball. Few gave rise to and killed a position. Whether he wanted to or wished it, George Mikan did.
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