George Mikan

Center, #99

Coached one season


At 6 feet 10 in a sport then dominated by much smaller men, George Mikan was the prototype for the dominating tall players of later decades. Towering over most of his competitors, he was one of the most effective scorers of his day, averaging 22.6 points over a professional career that lasted nine seasons -- one with the Chicago American Gears and eight with the Minneapolis Lakers.

Mikan was so hard to defend that the NBA changed its rules to keep him from completely overwhelming the league. How dominant was Mikan? In his nine seasons, his teams won seven titles and in 1950 he was selected the greatest player of the half-century.

Mikan led the NBA in scoring three times and in rebounding twice and he played in the league's first four All-Star games.

"We would set up a zone defense that had four men around the key and I guarded the basket," Mikan told in an interview shortly before his death in June 2005. "When the other team took a shot, I'd just go up and tap it out."

Wearing a Lakers uniform in 1947-48, Mikan joined forward Jim Pollard to form an imposing front line. The Lakers dominated the Western Division, then rolled through the playoffs, winning a best-of-five championship series against the Rochester Royals in four games. After averaging 21.3 points per game in the regular season, Mikan averaged 27.5 points in the Finals.

In the 1948-49 season, Mikan led the league in scoring at 28.3 points per game, accounting for one-third of the Lakers' production. Only two other players in the league, Joe Fulks of Philadelphia and Max Zaslofsky of Chicago, managed to average more than 20 points.

In the 1949 playoffs, the Lakers advanced to the Finals, where they faced the Red Auerbach-coached Washington Capitols. Minneapolis won the first three games easily, but Mikan broke his wrist in Game 4 and Washington won. Mikan played Game 5 with a cast on his hand and scored 22 points and led the team to victory in Game 6. In 10 postseason games, two of them played with a broken wrist, Mikan averaged 30.3 points.

In 1949-50, Mikan averaged 27.4 points. Only Alex Groza of Indianapolis joined him in the 20-plus bracket.

One of the legendary stories about Mikan concerns a game played Dec. 13, 1949, between the Lakers and the New York Knicks. The marquee over Madison Square Garden read: "Geo. Mikan vs. Knicks." When Mikan walked into the locker room before the game, he found his teammates sitting around in their street clothes. One of them greeted Mikan by saying, "They're advertising you're playing against the Knicks, so go play them. We'll wait here."

Mikan was so dominant that the NBA made two big rules changes during his career. They tried to make it more difficult for him to score by expanding the width of the key from six feet to 12 feet and they instituted the 24-second clock after a game in 1950, when the Fort Wayne Pistons decided that the only way they could win was to hold onto the ball and not let the Lakers have it. They ended up winning, 19-18, in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history.

Mikan led the Lakers to three consecutive titles from 1952-54 (which gave them five titles in six seasons). He stunned the Lakers by announcing his retirement after the 1954 championship run.

"I had a family growing, and I decided that I wanted to be with them," he said. "I felt it was time to get started with the professional world outside of basketball."

The Lakers couldn't win without Mikan, and he returned to play again in the middle of the 1955-56 season. He played in 37 games for the Lakers and averaged only 10.5 points.

John Kundla, who had coached the Lakers since their inception, persuaded Mikan to assume the coaching duties in the 1957-58 season. After Minneapolis stumbled to a 9-30 record, Mikan stepped down, returning the reins to Kundla. The team finished with a 19-53 record, last in the Western Division.

Mikan was in the first class elected to the basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and was selected to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time team in 1996.

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

Magic Johnson also paid tribute to Mikan: "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."

Mikan was virtually penniless at the time of his death, with much of his money going to pay for his growing medical expenses. Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal paid for Mikan's funeral.

— Houston Mitchell
Feb. 12, 2011