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Mark Heisler On The NBA/Honoring The Minneapolis Lakers

Old Glory

Lakers Remember Past Tonight at Staples Center With Banners for Mikan-Led Title Teams

April 11, 2002

The lane was thinner in 1948 when George Mikan joined the Minneapolis Lakers, and no one called it "the paint."

It was six feet across, instead of the current 16, crowned on top by the free-throw circle and called "the key," a term that has since faded into the mists.

Players didn't dunk--it was considered showing off--or go between their legs on the dribble, or cross-over. They'd have to start using their left hands before they could think of crossing over.

They had begun jumping off both legs to shoot, but it wasn't called a "jumper," much less a "J." Rather than the all-purpose weapon it is now, the "jump shot" was just part of repertoires that included the hook (the old rolling variety, jump hooks being decades away), the running one-hander and that old stand-by, the set shot, which could be one-handed, or, for purists, two-handed. Free throws often were taken underhanded.

The national TV schedule was limited, as in nonexistent. There wouldn't be any until 1953, when the Dumont Network (another goner) ponied up $39,000 for a 13-game package, then dropped the NBA after one season.

Players didn't do TV commercials for sneakers, sports drinks, hamburgers or anything, much less rap CDs, there being no rap or CDs. There wasn't even any rock 'n' roll yet. Elvis was 13.

There were no basketball "superstars," another word that didn't exist. Celebrity was a lot to hope for, until the Lakers arrived in New York to see their game billed on the marquee of (the old) Madison Square Garden as:

WED BASKETBALL

GEO MIKAN VS. KNICKS

However, it wasn't because Mikan embodied that young/hot look that's in favor today.

Jim Pollard, a 6-5 forward who was the Laker star, remembers Mikan, who'd been the main attraction of a rival league, first walking into their dressing room before a game in Sheboygan, Wis., which was then a league city, or village, and introducing himself.

Happily, he was 6 foot 10, or they might have thought he was the new trainer.

"I thought that was the biggest-looking dumb character that I'd ever seen for a guy that was barely 23 years old," Pollard said later. "He had these great big thick glasses and he had this homburg hat on."

The lenses in Mikan's glasses, secured during games by an elastic band, were said to be a quarter-inch thick. He was anything but a prodigy, having been cut by his high school team in Joliet, Ill. Amazing as it sounds now, basketball was considered a small man's game of cutting and passing. Coaches didn't wait on big guys who were always so far behind developmentally.

That was until DePaul Coach Ray Meyer made Mikan the first great project, improving his mobility painstakingly, with dance lessons and shadow boxing, then turning him loose onto a world that suddenly couldn't match up.

An apt and enthusiastic student, Mikan became the Shaquille O'Neal of his day, a hulking, broad-shouldered 260-pounder among the Lilliputians, able to hook with either hand, dominating by whatever means necessary.

That tucked-elbow spin O'Neal kept laying out Dikembe Mutombo with last spring? That was Mikan's basic move into the lane.

"He just had his way in those days," former Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy said. "The Lakers ran no transition. It wasn't unlike what the Sixers did with Wilt [Chamberlain] after a while.

"The Lakers simply waited for Big George to get down the floor and then the offense started with him getting it. They'd run some splits and things, but basically, he would just overpower you.

"He wasn't clumsy. I say awkward and plodding and I suppose that implies clumsy, but he wasn't clumsy. But he wasn't agile either. It was somewhere in between that. He simply was able to go where he chose to go."

This was no dinosaur. This was the first big NBA center to walk erect.

In the days when they celebrated high-scoring "point-a-minute" teams, Mikan began tabbing big numbers, winning five scoring titles in a row, averaging 23 points--before they put in the 24-second clock--turning it up in the biggest games ... averaging 30 in the '49 playoffs ... getting 40 in Game 6 when the Lakers clinched the title in '50.

Before him, NBA centers ran about 6-8, 220, like Boston's "Easy" Ed Macauley, who was OK the rest of the time but an endangered sub-species when the Lakers were in town.

"We'd walk through train stations," Cousy said, "and he would walk by one of these huge columns. Macauley had a wry sense of humor and would bump into the column and say, 'Oh, excuse me, George.'

"To Macauley, trying to guard him in the pivot, that's what it seemed like, trying to guard one of these huge columns. Mikan was unmovable. He was so much stronger than anyone in the league at that time."

Despite his gentlemanly, "square" ('50s term, also yet to come into favor) manner, Mikan was anything but shy, demanding the ball and letting people know about it when he didn't get it.

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