A half-century of centers assembled under one basket, elbows instinctively deployed, shoulders square to the hoop, eyes on the ball. It's a posed shot, except that they can't help leaning into each other. Almost everything has changed in 50 years—as you move forward in Lakers history, each center has more and more "people," and his "people" have thinner and thinner cell phones—except the battle for position. The photographer poses them for this intergenerational portrait, and the three centers, representing a sustained arc of achievement, quietly jockey under the lights, pressing, pushing. They can't help it.
George Mikan to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal (Wilt Chamberlain, the other superlative center in Lakers history, who played for Los Angeles from 1968 to '73, declined the photographer's invitation) define a spectacular evolution, not only of eyewear but also of big men playing on a glamour franchise. Few teams have a tradition this rich, and none have a tradition this long, beginning with one of the pro game's pioneers, carrying through basketball's most complete center and culminating (for the moment) in a one-man multimedia empire. Knees slightly bent, long arms outstretched, they back the rest of history right out of the paint.
Mikan, whose career went from the 1946-47 season (which he spent with the Chicago American Gears) to the 1955-56 season, was the dominant center of his time, before the National Basketball Association was very national and before the Lakers were even in Los Angeles. (You understand, don't you, that the Lakers were named when the franchise was based in Minneapolis, or else today's dancers would be called the Reservoir Girls.) The game then was basically a cult activity. Yet there is no denying Mikan's excellence. His teams won five championships, and his play under the basket was so overwhelming that in 1951 the lane had to be widened from six feet to 12 feet to move him farther out, to give others a chance.
The game was very quaint in those days. Mikan averaged $12,000 a year in salary, played in front of a few thousand in towns like Sheboygan and Fort Wayne, and studied in the off-season at DePaul for a law degree. Did we say quaint? Mikan never had a shoe contract, did not star in a movie and has no "people" except for one business associate. He has lived just long enough to see his wire rims come back in style.
On this day he is flabbergasted at his legacy, delighted to be considered some kind of patriarch of pivotry. But even at 72 years old, he feels much more fraternal than paternal in the presence of Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. Pushing and shoving, he can't quite get the grin off his face. He's the source, the wellspring, of this Lakers genealogy, yet he's acting like the kid. Perhaps it helps that he still has his hair. Oh, that's the other thing you notice as you study Lakers evolution: The centers, as you move toward the present, actually have less and less on top, going from Mikan's full head, to Abdul-Jabbar's transitional pate (it was sort of patchy there for a while), to O'Neal's preemptive strike, at age 24, against male-pattern baldness.
Mikan remains a fan after all this time and does not lapse into the grouchiness that so often marks old-timers' comments about modern players. He would not change the game as it is today, except maybe to extend the shot clock from 24 to 30 seconds, "to reward teamwork, to get coaching back into the sport," he says. And while he believes that he and his peers could survive in today's superfast NBA—"We'd have our players, Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin, they could still play"—he's not blind to the physical changes. "Slater Martin was 5'10"," he says. "Now you have guards playing at 6'9". They run like deer, great shooters." He does lament the passing of that old-time passing. "We played more team ball than they do today," he says. "Hit the open man. Today the Chicago Bulls call it the triangle offense, but that's how we played: The first cutter would be the guy who scored. Nobody stood around; there were lots of picks, lots of passing. Going upcourt, the ball wouldn't hit the floor."
Mikan's vantage point is unique. The history of the NBA is compressed within his lifetime; he has seen the game discover the wheel and land on the moon. Epochs in physical development—Slater Martin to Magic Johnson—have passed on his watch. Yet it's Abdul-Jabbar who bridges the old and the new, who was grounded in Mikan's tradition of quiet workmanship and still enjoyed a good portion of the flamboyant celebrity in which O'Neal basks. Born in 1947, the year Mikan played his first pro season, and retired in '89, only a few months before O'Neal burst onto the basketball scene at LSU, he throve in both worlds. Even after seven years of retirement, he is hard-pressed to say which he preferred.
By his nature, which is thoughtful, Abdul-Jabbar tends to side with history. He is now a published historian, and his observations are laced with a perspective that Mikan and O'Neal lack. Though he became, after joining the Lakers in 1975 and winning five NBA championships, one of the country's most famous people, he remembers a simpler time.
"I was unusual in that I got to see a lot of those old NBA guys play," says Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up in New York, achieved his first basketball fame at Power Memorial High School and caught games as a kid at Madison Square Garden. "Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan—they'd come to the Garden, and my high school coach would get us tickets. And of course I knew who George Mikan was. In the sixth grade. I was taught the Mikan hook-shot drill, right hand, left hand."
In time Abdul-Jabbar would get a six-figure contract to wear a certain kind of shoe, which was very big endorsement money in the pre-Michael Jordan days. Yet he remembers that when he came into the NBA in 1969 with the Milwaukee Bucks, Adidas merely "asked" him to wear its shoe. "Well," he says, "we're talking about a sport where, in the 1970s, the broadcast of a playoff game was interrupted to show Old Yeller."