Professional basketball, like Hollywood, has always moved on star power. The regional rivalries and go-team-go mania that made college hoops was not what fueled the NBA and its predecessor, the National Basketball League.
We must credit pro basketball's first star, George Mikan, for giving the game a kick start. Who knows if pro hoops would've made it without the 6-foot-10 Mikan, invariably described as "the bespectacled Gentle Giant?" But he did for pro basketball what Arnold Palmer did for golf -- he brought it to the masses. Mikan's name alone would light up the Madison Square Garden marquee in the early 1950s: TONIGHT: MIKAN VS. KNICKS!
The NBA's first great center died Thursday at 80 after a long battle with diabetes and kidney failure. In recent years Mikan, who lost a leg to diabetes, spoke haltingly but eloquently about what he considered inequitable pensions granted to players before '65. He never got satisfaction from league officials, even as they trotted him out for special occasions and honored him as one of the game's pioneers.
But he wasn't a table-pounder or a glory hound. He crusaded the way he played -- with stolid determination. The thick glasses he wore throughout his career because of nearsightedness seemed to define him as a player. This was Everyman in a big package. This was a guy who had to work to get to the top, never mind what God gave him in size. This was a guy who got battered (he had 10 broken bones over a nine-year career that was cut short by injuries) but kept on coming back.
His Minneapolis Lakers were the NBA's first great team. They won five titles in six years, setting the tone for their glitzier successors in Los Angeles. There have been a string of great Lakers centers who won championships -- Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal -- and it began with Mikan.
Mikan looked clumsy and slow as a player, but he was strong and skilled. He appeared an unimaginative and conservative sort in coat and tie. But as the commissioner of the ABA in '67 he introduced the 3-point line and the red, white and blue ball not only because he thought it easier to see in some of the empty auditoriums the league was playing in, but also because it was patriotic.
That was Mikan: He defied expectations. He lost his pension battle with the NBA and he had to sell most of his memorabilia to help defray medical costs. But his place as the game's Alpha Legend is secure.