Nowadays his name is often forgotten when the greatest basketball centers are listed, but no pivotman was more dominant or did more to revolutionize the game than George Mikan, who led the Minneapolis Lakers to half a dozen pro crowns
The following story originally appeared in the November 6, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated.
George Mikan's offices on the 12th floor of the Flour Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis could as easily be the exhibit halls of some spectacularly eclectic museum. In the outer area, game birds of all description are suspended from the ceiling, soaring above the detached heads of antelope, waterbuck and smaller prey nailed to the walls. A fearsome stuffed polar bear rears up on its hind legs from the floor, rising to a height of eight feet, and a huge Alaskan wolf bares its yellow teeth at startled visitors leaving the elevator. Much of the game was bagged by Mikan's business partner, Deil Otto (Gus) Gustafson. Mikan and his eldest son, Larry, also accounted for some of it.
Mikan's private office is a sort of sports hall of fame. Plaques, trophies and other memorabilia from the old basketball star's playing days fill all available shelf space. There are souvenir basketballs from college days, the National Basketball Association, the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America as well as the defunct American Basketball Association. There are photographs of Mikan with everyone from Jack Dempsey to Dwight Eisenhower. Larry occupies an adjoining office, where he is employed as his father's business partner, unofficial publicity agent and full-time alter ego. And since Mikan has not yet finished unpacking after recently moving from the eighth floor, he daily uncovers some new artifact he must find space for in this vast melange.
"Here's one for you," Mikan says, proffering a photo of him wielding a shovel at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the arena that will next year house the Minnesota Timberwolves, an NBA expansion franchise. The inscription signed by Timberwolves president Bob Stein reads: "It is only proper that Mr. Basketball help create the new home of the NBA in Minnesota." Mikan smiles bitterly on this late summer day, for he is not at all happy with the Timberwolves, a team that will play this, its inaugural season, in the Metrodome. In fact, Mikan has just returned from a disheartening meeting with Timberwolves co-owner Harvey Ratner, who, in recounting how he and his partner, Marv Wolfenson, came to acquire the franchise, virtually ignored Mikan's own considerable role as chairman of Governor Rudy Perpich's special committee to bring the NBA back to Minnesota. Mikan is also unhappy because he feels left out in the cold, despite assurances from Ratner and other team officials that he will have some meaningful position in the Timberwolves organization. Stein, an energetic former University of Minnesota and Kansas City Chiefs defensive end and linebacker, insists that there will be a spot on the front office team for Mikan, possibly as an "assistant to the owners." But, he says, "we still have to flesh out just how he will function practically in that job. We want to maximize the synergism. We would certainly be small-minded if we ignored the basketball heritage George Mikan and the old Lakers created here."
Mikan doesn't really need the Timberwolves. Barely eight months ago, he started a company, Major League Sports Franchises, Inc., which will put together "the whole package, politically and financially" for anyone seeking either to relocate or to start a sports franchise. He is also head of Apollo/ Revcon, a Southern California company that manufactures and sells recreational vehicles. But he doesn't want to be excluded from the rebirth of - professional basketball in a city where he, more than anyone else, introduced the game. And yet, even as the season is about to open, that's what seems to be happening. Mikan is 65, and though old basketball injuries plague him -- he walks with a limp from having lost a kneecap, and he can't fully straighten his oft-shattered arms -- he is otherwise in good health and ready to reenter the arena. He looks as huge as that polar bear outside his door. His own flourishing thatch of white hair gives him an almost Biblical grandeur, and when he's angry, as he is now, he could be Moses descending the mount.
"Damn it," he says, filing away the ground-breaking photo. "I love basketball. It's been my life. I just wish these people could be more forthright. I've known Harvey Ratner for a long time, and he says I 'lobbied' for him. Well, in truth, I did, but what I did was a lot more important than that. Who does he think introduced him to all those people in the league? My committee orchestrated the whole thing. Now Harvey and Marv say they want me involved with the team, but they won't dictate to Bob Stein how he should run the business. And Stein apparently thinks of me as an old item around here. An old item! They say they want me to do something, but they haven't decided what that should be. Do they want me to sell tickets? Be a janitor? I tell you, I'm a proud man, and I don't need any more of this. As far as I'm concerned, they can go pee up a rope."
Later, lunching with pals at a restaurant owned by former Green Bay Packer broadcaster Ray Scott, Mikan spots a familiar figure across the room. "Hey, Mikkelsen," he calls out. A tall, silver-haired man answers him with a smile. "That's Vern Mikkelsen, my teammate on the old Lakers," Mikan explains. Mikkelsen approaches. Despite his impressive size, Mikkelsen has a gentle look to him; he could be everyone's favorite schoolteacher. "George, how are you?" he inquires in a soft, sincere voice. "Fine," says Mikan, "except that I've just had a talk with Harvey Ratner." He rolls his eyes. "Mikk, how does it feel to be an old item?"
Why is it that professional basketball seems to have no past? Maybe it's the nature of the game, the furious Ping-Pong pace of it, the soaring slam-bang dunkiness of it. Basketball simply refuses to stand still long enough to contemplate its origins. It's not that the pro game doesn't have a history; it's just that it's not much written about or even talked about. Other sports take their myths and legends to heart. Babe Ruth, dead more than 40 years, still swings for the fences in the mind's eye of the most casual baseball fan. Red Grange has snake-hipped his way through seven decades. Big Bill Tilden and Don Budge yet stir courtside recollections. Golfers know of Snead and Hogan and Bobby Jones. Even boxing's detractors remember Dempsey and Louis. But basketball's finest players sink into obscurity almost the moment they hang up their sneakers. Sometimes it seems as if Bob Cousy never played. When was the last time anyone ever mentioned the names of Joe Fulks or Bob Pettit? In basketball, if it isn't now, it never was. It is a game seemingly without yesterdays.
But if George Mikan and his old teammates have anything to say about it, the basketball past will be revived in Minneapolis even as the basketball future begins. George Mikan is a name that pro basketball, in Minnesota or anywhere else, should never forget. His team, the Minneapolis Lakers, was the NBA's first great squad, one that established a style of play that would influence future generations. And Mikan was the league's first superstar, the first big man to dominate the game. In retrospect, "superstar," that most inflated of encomiums, hardly seems big enough to fit what Mikan did for the professional game. It may be safely said that George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers truly made the NBA as we now know it. Mikan and two of his teammates, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin, are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Mass., and Mikkelsen is a prime candidate to make it. They are all part of history. Mikkelsen, at 6 ft. 7 in. and 225 pounds, was the pro game's first power forward. In 1949, when Mikkelsen teamed with Mikan at center and Pollard at small forward, the Lakers had the first modern front line. And that was 40 years ago. Martin was -- in modern terms -- the point guard in the best years, and he was so quick on defense that it was said he even had the mighty Cousy in his back pocket. Bob Harrison from Michigan and, later, Whitey Skoog from Minnesota were what are now called shooting guards. Mikan was not just in the middle; he was the middle. And Pollard, swift and graceful at 6 ft. 5 in., could shoot, pass, play tigerish defense and rebound with the giants. Pollard is regarded by his former teammates as one player who could make it in today's "over the rim" game. "I don't see why not," says original Laker Tony Jaros. "It's really Jim's game they're playing now."
Pollard would have been the star on any team but the Lakers. It was his fate, however, to play alongside a man named in an Associated Press poll as the best basketball player of the first half of this century. In that 1950 poll, Mikan joined the rarefied company of Ruth, Dempsey, Jim Thorpe, Bobby Jones, Johnny Weissmuller, Jesse Owens, Tilden and Man o' War as 50-year champions. He was called Mr. Basketball. New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick preferred, however, to crown him "the Babe Ruth of Basketball," arguing that "everyone forgets that Ruth was once an excellent pitcher and a fine outfielder, just as everyone forgets Mikan is the best feeder out of the pivot the game has ever had." On Dec. 13, 1949, the marquee outside Madison Square Garden, then on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, read: GEO MIKAN VS KNICKS.
"I know if I'd played somewhere else, I would've scored many more points," says Pollard, who averaged 13.2 for his career, "but George was such a dominant player, you just had to take advantage of a force like that. And he played his heart out. In my lifetime I've seen only two centers who could just take charge of a game, who could put so much fear in other players that they stayed away from the middle. One was Bill Russell. The other, and he was even more dominant, was George Mikan."
Big George played at 6 ft. 10 in. and 245 pounds. He was quite probably the strongest man then playing the game. "He could raise that left elbow and move to the basket, and the bodies would just start to fly," says former teammate Swede Carlson. "I used to like to pass him the ball, cut out around him and then listen to the sound the guy guarding me made when he ran into George." But it was not so much his strength or the accuracy of his short hook shots, left- and righthanded, that made him such a force -- it was his indomitable will. Bud Grant, who is certainly better known as the longtime coach of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, played for two seasons, 1949-51, with Mikan and the old Lakers. He had this to say about his famous teammate: "I have played with and coached many great players. And I've seen and coached against some of the best -- Walter Payton, to name one. But I'd have to say that George Mikan was the greatest competitor I've seen or been around in any sport. I studied George back before I realized I'd someday make my living studying athletes, and he was amazing. He played hurt. He played when he'd had no sleep because of our travel schedule. And he always played at one speed -- top. Then, when things got tough, he'd turn it up. His will to win permeated the whole team. It was a great thrill playing with such a man."
With Mikan at center the Lakers won championships in six of their first seven seasons -- one each in the NBL and the BAA, and four in the National Basketball Association, which was formed in 1949 after a merging of the older leagues. Mikan averaged a comparatively modest 22.6 points per game for his nine-year professional career, which started in 1946 and ended in '56 (he retired for one year before playing his last season), but in his peak years, 1948-51, he averaged 28.3, 27.4 and 28.4 points, respectively. He was the NBA's first official scoring champion, in 1949-50, and a four-time champion overall, including his years in the NBL and BAA. He had more than a thousand rebounds in both the '52-53 and the '53-54 seasons, when the seasons were 10 games shorter than they are now. In the 1949 BAA playoffs, Mikan averaged 30.3 points in 10 games, playing the last two against Red Auerbach's Washington Capitols with a fractured wrist. He played the final game of the 1951 playoffs against the Rochester Royals with two fractures of the fibula and still scored 32 points in a losing effort, the one year in the first seven that the Lakers failed to win a title. The next season he achieved a measure of revenge by scoring his career-high 61 points against these same Royals.
It was, to be sure, a different game then. There were a few seven-footers in the league, but not every team had them, and none was as mobile as the giants of today. The guards were more often 5 ft. 9 in. than 6 ft. 9 in., and none had the all-around skills of Magic Johnson. And there were no Michael Jordans flying overhead. Basketball is a much more vertical game today. In Mikan's day, 40% shooting from the floor was considered effective. The defense was more strictly a man-to-man and was mostly without disguised zones. It was a white man's game when Mikan joined the Lakers in 1947, and though blacks entered the NBA in 1950, it was still pretty much that when he retired for good in 1956. In a sense, the Lakers hastened integration with their rollicking series of games against the Harlem Globetrotters in the late '40s and the '50s. The Trotters were much more than showmen when they played the Lakers for the first time, on Feb. 19, 1948, at Chicago Stadium. Indeed, they had most of the best black players in the game, including Ermer Robinson, Babe Pressley, the dribbling genius Marques Haynes and, yes, even their chief clown, Reece (Goose) Tatum. The Globetrotters won the first two games of the annual series before packed houses. But as the Lakers steadily improved, the Globetrotters lost the next five before their boss, Abe Saperstein, a close friend of Laker general manager Max Winter, terminated the series. By then some of the Globetrotter stars, including Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, had moved to the NBA, the Laker games having established what had long been suspected: Black players could easily make it in the white man's game.
No one questions that it is a better game now, so much better that there might not even be room in it for a player as slow-footed as Mikan. "I'm afraid if he played now, everybody would be coming back from one basket while George was leaving the other one," says Jaros. "We'd probably get the hell kicked out of us today," Pollard acknowledges. "They're so big and agile and such great shooters. But I think I could've played in this game, and though George was a little slow and not much of a leaper, I think he could've adjusted. I do know this -- anyone who played against him would come out with bruises."
But this is idle speculation, for as the original Laker coach, Johnny Kundla, says, "The fact is, George made the game what it is today. He changed it." Mikan was so dominating under the basket that the NBA voted to widen the foul lane from six feet to 12 feet for the '51-52 season in hopes of neutralizing him. He found new freedom farther away from the lane and finished second in scoring (23.8) behind Paul Arizin of Philadelphia during the first year of the new rule.
Far more important than his impact on the rules was his popularity with the fans. Mikan was the NBA's first big drawing card, the superstar the new league so desperately needed. He had been a magazine cover boy since his All-America days at DePaul University in Chicago. A law student by the time he joined the pros in 1946, a family man, affable and intelligent and, with his great size, a curiosity, he was the delight of interviewers and photographers in every city in which he played. There would be big George in the morning papers, his great frame stretched across hotel room twin beds or folded inside a Pullman upper berth. He may have been a powerhouse on the court, but in person he looked, with his bottle-thick glasses and tousled black hair, more like a king-size Harold Lloyd. As a youngster in Joliet, Ill., he got an autograph -- for winning a marbles tournament -- at Comiskey Park from Babe Ruth, and he used the Bambino as his model for dealing with fans. So he was a sucker for anyone with autograph pad and pencil in hand.
He was also, as far as fellow players in the NBA were concerned, "money in the bank." From the moment he signed, in 1946, with the old Chicago Gears for the astronomical salary of $12,500, he was the game's highest-paid player, the salary pacesetter. In his entire career, he never earned more than $35,000 in a season, but he nevertheless converted what had been a game played in smoky arenas into a potentially prosperous business. The Lakers did their share of barnstorming in the early years, but it was never, as it had been for professionals before them, their principal source of income. As it turned out, the NBA needed Mikan more than he, a lawyer by 1952, needed it.
George Mikan became the marbles champion of Will County, Ill., when he was 10 years old, and as far as anyone could tell then, that looked as if it would be the pinnacle of a most unpromising athletic career. He was an ungainly boy, tall and skinny and so myopic he could scarcely make out a face without his glasses. He and his brothers, Ed and Joe, had played some basketball in the backyard of the family home in Joliet, games refereed by their fierce Yugoslav grandmother, but if anything, George showed more promise as a baseball pitcher. Then he started to grow.
After a year at Joliet Catholic High School, where he played no basketball, he transferred to the Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago to study, at Grandma's urging, for the priesthood. It was an hour's commute from Joliet, so Mikan had time to play no more than two or three games for the seminary basketball team, even though by his third year there he had grown to 6 ft. 8 in.. He also concluded that he had no calling for the priesthood.
Although he had almost no experience in schoolboy basketball, Mikan's height alone aroused the interest of two Catholic schools in the area, DePaul and Notre Dame. He was given a tryout at Notre Dame under the skeptical gaze of coach George Keogan and a somewhat more open-minded young assistant, Ray Meyer. Mikan was a disaster. "They kept throwing the ball at my feet," he recalls, "and I kicked more three-pointers that day than anyone on the football team." But Meyer had spotted his potential. "George did not have a good day," Meyer says, "but it was a case of his just growing too fast and not playing much basketball. He was awkward. What he needed was some agility and finesse."
By one of those inexplicable turns of fate, Meyer was hired as the new head coach at DePaul two months later. And Mikan had decided, after all, to enroll there. He had, that is, until he caught sight of Meyer. "I remembered him from that workout, and I started wondering right away what school I should go to next," says Mikan. But Meyer, who would remain as coach at DePaul for 42 years, wanted the big youngster on his first team. To make certain Mikan made it, he put him through one of the most rigorous and highly unusual training programs any college player has ever been obliged to endure. "I worked with that kid two to 2 1/2 hours every day," Meyer says. "There was no limit then to the length of workouts. I'd have George take 250 hook shots with his right hand, then 250 more with his left. I'd stand there and take shots and have him bat them away from the basket -- you could goaltend in those days before the 7-footers got it banned. I had him skip rope like a boxer. I brought in a coed to teach him to dance. I had him go one-on-one with a 5 ft. 5 in. guard, Billy Donato, and that was like watching an elephant guard a fly. I did everything I could to improve his agility because I wanted a big guy like that playing for me. I thought that was the way to go. I knew then that a big man could score more points by accident than a litle one could trying hard.
"Oh, George's practices were something to behold. The thing was, he really wanted to be good, so he worked as hard as any player I ever had. And he was so intelligent he could adjust to anything I gave him. That was probably his greatest asset. And he was tough. I don't think I ever had more fun than I had that season with George. It was like watching a flower bloom."
And oh, how he did bloom! In Mikan's junior year, 1944-45, DePaul won the then prestigious National Invitation Tournament in New York. Mikan scored a record 120 points in three tournament games, including 53 in a 97-53 win over Rhode Island State before a Garden crowd of 18,000. Mikan averaged 23.3 points that year and 23.1 as a senior. His four-year college average was 19.1.
Mikan stayed at DePaul a few more years, as a law student. And to finance his further education, he signed a five-year contract with the Gears of the NBL for $12,500 per year. It seemed an ideal setup for him: He could stay in Chicago, near home, go to law school, play basketball and get paid more money for doing it than he had ever dreamed of. Alas, it was a setup too good to last. The Gears folded in 1947, and Mikan eventually wound up with a new franchise in Minneapolis.
Mikan knew he didn't want to play basketball in a place he regarded as Siberia. But he did agree to talk to the new people there, whoever they were.
Those people, as it turned out, were Ben Berger, a Twin Cities theater-chain owner; Morris Chalfen, another showman, who owned the Holiday on Ice troupe; and Winter, a restaurateur and former fight manager who had been induced by the other two owners to buy into the team and act as its general manager. There was also an eminence grise in the person of Sid Hartman, a sportswriter for the Minneapolis Tribune. It was Hartman who had first pressured Berger and Chalfen into staging an exhibition game in Minneapolis between the NBL's Sheboygan, Wis., and Oshkosh, Wis., teams and then into picking up, for a mere $15,000, the defunct Detroit franchise.
All Berger and Chalfen received for their $15,000 investment was membership in a financially troubled league and a dozen tattered uniforms. They changed the name of the team to the Lakers, because the state has more than 10,000 lakes. They then spent as much as they had for the entire franchise to acquire two Minneapolis-reared players, Jaros and Carlson, from the Chicago Stags, in the hope of giving the team some local flavor. But their most important early acquisition was Pollard, from the faraway San Francisco Bay Area. Pollard had been an All-America on Stanford's 1942 NCAA championship team, had played service basketball with Coast Guard teams in the Bay Area and Hawaii and had returned from World War II to star in AAU ball, first in San Diego and then with the crack Oakland Bittners team. He had been the object of a bidding war between the rival NBL and BAA, but he pushed the Lakers hard during negotiations and signed for $12,000, plus a $1,000 bonus. The Lakers began their first season with Jaros, Carlson and another local player, Don Smith, plus Pollard and three other Californians he brought east with him, Paul Napolitano, Bill Durkee and Jack Rocker. Their center was to have been a Detroit holdover, 6 ft. 5 in. Bob Gerber. Mikan hadn't agreed to a contract when the season started. But the Laker owners by now were accustomed to rejection. Their first choice for coach, Joe Hutton of Hamline University in St. Paul, had turned them down, and so, initially, had their second choice, 31-year-old Johnny Kundla of the College of St. Thomas, also in St. Paul. Kundla finally gave in when Berger agreed to double his college coaching salary of $3,000 and guarantee his wages for three years. Mikan, however, seemed adamant. He was going to law school in Chicago, had just married a Chicago girl, Patricia Daveny, and his home was in Joliet. Minneapolis, as far as he was concerned, was still Siberia. He asked, after what he assumed were the final contract talks, to be driven to the airport for a flight home. Hartman agreed to drive him. Hartman got lost en route, and Mikan missed his plane. Hartman kept up a steady patter on the virtues of life in the Twin Cities both to and from the airport, and by the time Mikan was delivered once more to general manager Winter's office, his formidable will had been broken. He signed for the then extraordinary sum of $12,500, but just for one year.
The Lakers were 51-19 (including playoff games) that year, champions of the NBL and winners of the World Professional Tournament, in Chicago, where they beat the New York Rens, who were, besides the Globetrotters, the ranking black team in basketball. The Lakers moved to the BAA the next season, 1948-49, and finished 44-16 in regular play. They won eight of the 10 playoff games and knocked off Washington 77-56 for the championship. The following year, Mikkelsen, Martin and Harrison joined the team as rookies for the inaugural NBA season, and all three started on the team that set the mold for the future. The Lakers went 51-17 in the regular season and polished off Syracuse 110-95 for their 10th playoff win and the championship.
Mikkelsen, just 21 in 1949, was the final link in the winning chain. The son of a Danish Lutheran pastor from Minnesota, he was as mild and scholarly off the court as he was a muscular presence on it. He had played center at Hamline -- "every big clumsy guy was a center then," he says -- but he despaired of ever playing for his hometown team, what with Mikan planted like the Colossus of Rhodes before the basket. He expressed his reservations to Winter in their contract negotiations. "I said, 'Max, I'm a center, and you've already got the best center in the history of the game.' Max told me not to worry. George was going to retire in just a few years, he said, and then I'd replace him." But George had no intention of retiring, so Kundla switched the new man to forward. "It was an unbelievable change for me," says Mikkelsen. "I'd never really handled the ball before, and I'd never played facing the basket. But I started right away as a rookie, and I lasted 10 years, so I guess it worked. Finesse was never my game. Brute strength was. I was a power forward before they even had a name for it." He also averaged nearly 15 points and nine rebounds a game during his career. The Lakers missed the title in '51 because of Mikan's leg injury, but they won the next three years. They were the darlings of an entire state, Minnesota's first major league team, the only game in town, and champions of all they surveyed. But it wasn't long before certain apparently unsolvable problems reared. The Minneapolis Auditorium, the Lakers' home court, was an antiquated building with an undersized court and a seating capacity of barely 8,000. Furthermore, it was unavailable, because of trade show commitments, during playoff time. The team was frequently obliged to play important games either in the even more inadequate Minneapolis Armory or in small college gyms. The owners had not had the foresight to call their team the Minnesota Lakers, which miffed St. Paul authorities, so it was always difficult to get bookings in that adjacent community. And the University of Minnesota, jealous of the Lakers' popularity, made its facilities scarce. Then Mikan and Pollard, the big gate attractions, retired. Mikan quit after the 1954 season to become the team's general manager. He was only 29, but his big body had taken a beating over the years. He had broken at least 10 bones, and he was about to have his left kneecap removed. More important to him, he had become over the years of constant travel a stranger in his own house. "I came home one day and picked up my second son, Terry, and he began crying," Mikan says. "He was afraid of me, because he didn't know who I was. It broke my heart." Mikan's retirement didn't last. Spurred by more than 1,500 fan letters urging him to return, he left his desk job as general manager for the Lakers and played the last half of the '55-56 season, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in 37 games for a team that finished under .500 for the first time in the history of the franchise. Mikan and Kundla exchanged jobs in 1957, but Mikan retired in January 1958, with the team at 9-30. Owner Bob Short endured two more losing seasons on the court and at the gate, and then he moved the team and its star, 26-year-old Elgin Baylor, to Los Angeles. Perversely, he kept the name Lakers, which was as appropriate to Southern California as, say, Timberwolves. Short eventually added future Hall of Famer Jerry West to the new Lakers, and in 1965 he sold the team to Jack Kent Cooke for $5 million.
The Lakers were a troubled, disorganized and impoverished club by the time they moved west, and their departure from Minnesota was mourned by only a few diehards. But as time has passed, that old basketball team has taken on a mythic stature, the good memories effectively erasing the bad. And memories come easily when there are constant reminders of what once was; the fact is, most of those original Lakers stayed in town even after the team left. Pollard did eventually return to California, where he now teaches history in a Lodi middle school, and Martin went back to his native Houston. But most remained in the Minneapolis area: Mikkelsen, an insurance broker; Skoog, an associate professor of health and P.E. at Gustavus Adolphus College; Carlson, a retired high school teacher; Jaros, a tavern owner; and Kundla, who finally retired after nine years of coaching at the University of Minnesota. All are still strong presences in the community.
And George Mikan? Oh, he never did leave Siberia. In the years since he made his first reluctant appearance there, he has been a lawyer, a political candidate (he lost a congressional race in 1956), a stockbroker, a travel agent, the first commissioner of the ABA ("I had a lump in my stomach the whole time I had that damn job") and a successful businessman. He and Pat recently moved out of the five-bedroom house they built in 1950 and into a more convenient townhouse.
"This community," says Bud Grant, "is very, very proud of George Mikan."
Mikan and his son Larry are entertaining at Yvette's, a posh and popular Minneapolis restaurant on the banks of the Mississippi River. Larry, 41, is 6 ft. 7 in. and a former University of Minnesota basketball star who played some in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Heads swerve as the father-son Brobdingnagians enter the darkened restaurant. Mikan maintains a sober demeanor, but Larry, who is divorced, is very much the man about town, and he strides confidently to one of the best tables in the house. Then he listens closely as his father speaks.
"I guess I've done just about everything in life people told me I wasn't able to do," Mikan says. "I respond pretty well to somebody telling me there's something I can't do. I started wearing glasses when I was 12, and people told me then that anyone who wore glasses could never be a great athlete. And I always took a lot of taunts because I was so big. I was always being challenged as a kid, but I grew stronger, and ((the taunts)) stopped pretty fast. In college they laughed and said I'd trip over the foul line. After a while, that stopped too. I guess you could say I've always had a burning desire to be successful. I still do."
"Dad is still a legend around here," says Larry, flagging down a waiter. "And he's been a wonderful father to his six kids." "Now that touches me," says Mikan. "And I'll tell Mom what you said. It's true, I suppose, that I can't go anywhere in this town without somebody coming up to me and saying they know who I am. Some of the younger ones will even say, 'I never saw you play, but I know you were great.' After all these years, I find it flattering. I still get from 20 to 25 autograph requests in the mail every week. Hell, everybody likes to be recognized. At the same time, this Timberwolves thing makes me think you're never really a hero in your own town. I just want to have a meaningful role with them."
He pauses, smiles at his son and says finally, "But I don't want to belabor that point. We've heard enough about that. Let's eat. I've got a big day tomorrow."