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 m�lange.
"Here's one for you," Mikan says, proffering a photo of him wielding a shovel at the groundbreaking 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 groundbreaking 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 court-side 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.