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 6'8". 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� 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 5'5" 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 little 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, De-Paul 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.