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 6'7" 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 6'5", 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 6'10" 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 5'9" than 6'9", 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.