When presenting the history of the NBA, it is crucial to understand its beginnings. When faced with the task of listing each of the legendary and pivotal figures in the history of the League one by one and sorting them chronologically, there is only one candidate for the head of the row – George Mikan.
The history books initially paint him as a winner – and he was. Between 1946-47 and 1953-54, a span of eight professional seasons in the NBL, BAA and NBA, teams that had Mikan on their rosters won seven championships. He was the common denominator of domination. But appreciating Mikan’s influence, the trophy cabinet is just one way to see him. His presence on the ground led to repeated tinkering with the rules – from goalkeeping to widening the lane to 12ft. Off the hardwood floor, he was able to connect with an indifferent public unsure of the prospects of a basketball league. And to this day, he’s an irreplaceable part of the league’s history.
Mikan’s greatness, growing with every season and seemingly inevitable championship, helped a fledgling league cross the bridge from upstart to big and helped it carve out a place on the American sports landscape that it has never relinquished.
On December 13, 1949, Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers were in New York. Mikan and his teammates ventured out into town and wandered towards Madison Square Garden, the location for their matchup with the Knicks the next day.
What the group of players saw, craning their collective necks toward the building’s tent, ultimately formed the basis for the first truly groundbreaking image in the NBA. And the message left no room for interpretation.
What may have been the quirky work of a Garden employee actually served as the perfect summary of Mikan’s standing in professional basketball during the winter of 1949-50, that is – he was professional basketball.
The image itself remains timeless. And the story, told by the man whose name was actually in the limelight, has its own special appeal.
Wait wait. We’ve talked about its aura, its success, its impact – but before we delve any further through the Mikan Vault, let’s look at what all the fuss was about, what made the newsboys scream and the writers hacked on the typewriters . This super rare game material from the late 1940s – yes, the late 1940s – shows the complete package.
Consider this a foreword to what you are about to see. Yes, Mikan was an unshakable force for his time, rarely facing an opponent outgrown his proportions – let alone one capable of slowing him down. And you will see that here. But physical condition aside, this historic document serves to celebrate the league’s first superstar and how he did it: use of both hands on the hookshot, ability to make glass, deft footwork off the post all for a man from incongruous appears his size, even the sneaky free-throw form that resulted in a lifetime percentage unmatched by the chosen immortals at his position. This is the Mikan mix you need to see – Mr. Basketball in all his glory.
Respect your elders. Show appreciation for the things that happened before you. Listen when experienced people offer advice. No, this isn’t your mother’s lecture. This is a legend of the game that shows love for another.
Pro basketball in Minneapolis didn’t last much longer after Mikan’s second and final retirement in 1956; the Lakers went to California in 1960. But almost 30 years later, in 1989, the Timberwolves emerged and the NBA was reunited with the state of Minnesota. In 1995, they designed a teenager straight out of high school: Kevin Garnett. On the surface, Garnett and Mikan don’t seem to have much in common. But they remain the two most outstanding basketball players to have played in Minneapolis, and as you’ll see here, Garnett’s appreciation for all that Mikan has accomplished runs deep.
The mikan drill. For basketball players who have gone through the process of being introduced to the development side of the game, the exercise itself needs no introduction. Aiming to improve coordination, improve touch and build endurance, coaches around the world have for decades encouraged their players to perfect this most fundamental exercise. Standing under the hoop, players move from one side of the basket to the other, alternating between being right- and left-handed.
While its origins remain obscure, it was mastered by Mikan at DePaul with the help of his trainer, Ray Meyer, and served as the basis for an aftermath that first devastated the sport and eventually brought about its transformation. From Mikan down to Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed, Wes Unseld and Dave Cowens and Bill Walton – each of the subsequent greats to play middle position has identified this exercise as the starting point of their development .
We now go to the exercise level, to Mikan, and watch as he demonstrates the exercise that bears his name.
The Minneapolis Lakers of the late 1940s and early 1950s were the unstoppable juggernaut of professional basketball. Champion of the NBL in 1948, they joined the BAA and repeated the feat in 1949; From then until 1954 there was only one season they did not finish as champions, a record of enduring excellence surpassed only by the Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s.
Mikan was part of a front line that crushed her opposition, with the great Jim Pollard, multidimensional and athletic, on one side; the other, Vern Mikkelsen, a tough, brutal competitor. Slater Martin, dynamic and small, controlled from the backcourt, and the team’s coach, John Kundla, oversaw the operation throughout the Dynasty Run. In a pre-shot clock era where possession control was tactically crucial, it demoralized opponents to come up against players of this caliber only to end up with Mikan hitting the post. Like subsequent big teams, these Minneapolis Lakers were the best in the big games, that nice combination of talent and money.
But what’s behind the scenes? How accurate was basketball in the early 1950s? How did the best work? The only information you need here is: Kundla, Mikan, a film projector, and an early rendition of banter between teammates.
Not only were the Minneapolis Lakers a real draw in the early 1950s, but they occasionally ran into great basketball teams from other leagues. Did you know: Mikan faced the might of the Harlem Globetrotters in seven games? He averaged 29.1 PPG in those games, four of which were played in front of over 20,000 spectators. Some 17,000 people watched Mikan and the Lakers defeat the New York Rens at the 1948 World Professional Basketball Tournament, and Minneapolis never lost to the respected College All-Stars — the elite graduates many of whom later traveled to the NBA — with Mikan the preparation.
Mikan and Minneapolis were the pinnacle of basketball for that era—a superstar and a team for all occasions and more than a match for all opponents. And here’s the proof: from flights out of Minneapolis to packed houses in Chicago, a road trip with the Lakers.
In January 1950, a mid-century poll by the Associated Press named Mikan the greatest player of the first half of the twentieth century. He had beaten famous barnstormers and early pros, hence the nickname “Mr. Basketball” was instantly earned and enshrined for eternity.
The images you saw in this room, the surviving films from the early days of the League, are testament to the fascination felt for Mikan. His arrival in street towns with his Lakers would spark a full-page ad telling locals that if you saw him — if you saw his team — you would see something special. And Mr. Basketball delivered from start to finish. He was and always will be the NBA’s first true superstar.
This is Mikan from this season showing off what his career has meant to him at his trophy cabinet. For the 75th anniversary of the NBA, this is a must see.
More about George Mikan
+ Player page for the 75th anniversary of the team
+ 75 stories: George Mikan