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George Mikan, 80; Minneapolis Laker Legend and NBA's 'First True Superstar'

June 03, 2005|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

George Mikan, a giant of the early days of the National Basketball Assn. who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships as he transformed the role of the "big man," has died.

Mikan, 80, died Wednesday in a Scottsdale, Ariz., rehabilitation center where he was being treated for diabetes and kidney failure, relatives said Thursday. He had lost a leg in recent years to diabetes.

Mikan -- who was 6 feet 10 and 245 pounds -- barely qualifies as a big man compared with stars of today like 7-foot-6 Yao Ming or 7-1, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal. But he entered a world of 6-foot-6 centers and showed that a post player not only could be mobile, he could be high-scoring.

With a virtually unstoppable hook shot and elbows that put to rest any idea that the bespectacled center was mild-mannered, Mikan three times led the NBA in scoring. He averaged 28.4 points in 1951 -- a season in which the Lakers averaged less than 83 a game.

NBA Commissioner David Stern called him the league's "first true superstar." He was selected one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996 and once voted the greatest of the first half of the 20th century.

Mikan's dominance forced the sport to adapt to him. The NCAA introduced a goaltending rule to keep him from swatting away shots with impunity at DePaul in the 1940s, and the NBA doubled the width of its original 6-foot "key" in the early '50s -- it is now 16 feet across -- to blunt his force at the offensive end.

Mikan was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959, and his influence continued long after his playing days ended. From 1967 to 1969, he was the first commissioner of the American Basketball Assn., in which he approved the use of a telegenic red, white and blue basketball, and he later advocated larger pensions for early NBA players.

He even wrought havoc with geography. Bill Sharman, who played against Mikan in the NBA and later was coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, credits Mikan in part for the fact that the Lakers retained that name when they relocated in 1960 despite the relative scarcity of such bodies of water in Southern California.

"Mainly because of George Mikan and his reputation and the championships they won, they felt they wanted to keep that name and reputation," Sharman said.

Mikan retired from the NBA in 1956, but current Laker owner Jerry Buss credited him with "blazing the trail" for such future franchise superstars as Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and O'Neal.

"Frankly, without George Mikan, the Los Angeles Lakers would not be the organization we are today," Buss said in a statement.

Johnson called Mikan "the person who really started the Laker dynasty."

"He started the championships and three-peated way before that was even known around here," Johnson said. "You've got to start with Mikan first before you name any Laker. He paved the way for all of us who came after him."

Born in Joliet, Ill., on June 18, 1924, Mikan attended Joliet Catholic High School and Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago, where he considered entering the priesthood. Far from the modern player who is a prodigy before he reaches high school, Mikan failed when he tried out for a Notre Dame team coached by George Keogan.

"The coach told him he didn't look that good and he wasn't in the class with the other boys, and told him to go to a smaller place," said Ray Meyer, 91, the legendary DePaul coach who was an assistant at Notre Dame at the time.

In 1941, Meyer moved to DePaul in Chicago as an assistant, and a year later discovered Mikan there too.

"I looked at that big guy and I said, 'There's my future,' " Meyer said Thursday.

Mikan appeared awkward at first.

"George Mikan didn't play high school basketball. He had an accident with his knee or leg, and they didn't think he could do much running," Meyer said.

Meyer devised the Mikan drill -- now a staple even in high school practices -- in which a player quickly shoots layups while standing underneath the basket, alternating hands without letting the ball touch the floor.

"We watched a boxing team practice, and they used a speed rope, so we gave him a speed rope," Meyer said. "We got a girl to teach him to dance. We put a boy who was 5-6 and made Mikan try to guard him, and he looked like an elephant chasing a fly for a while. But in about a week's time, he was able to block his shots."

Along with Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State, Mikan became a sensation, drawing big crowds to Chicago Stadium and the old Madison Square Garden in New York.

"With the 6-foot lane, both of us had a great advantage because of our size, much the way O'Neal does today," Kurland said. "Once Mikan got the ball in that lane, church was out, as far as that goes.

"... He did instill, not a great deal of fear, but awe and respect. He wasn't the best passer, but once he got the ball, he was a mean man. He was nothing but elbows. He was a hard player but a very fair player," Kurland said.

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