- Bruce J. Evensen
Mikan, George (18 June 1924–01 June 2005), basketball player, was born in Joliet, Illinois, the son of Joseph and Minnie Blinstrup Mikan. Both parents worked at Mikan's Tavern at the corner of Elsie Avenue and North Broadway in the city's working-class district alongside his extended family, headed by Grandpa George and Grandma Blondie, who had emigrated from Croatia.
Long and lanky George Mikan was a good athlete who enjoyed playing against his brother Joe in one-on-one, elbows-up basketball. When George was twelve a wood sliver from Joe's whittling injured his eye. George's eyesight weakened and he was forced to wear thick glasses. The Joliet Catholic High School coach kicked him off the team for having to wear them. Mikan commuted to Quigley Preparatory Seminary on Chicago's North Side and considered becoming a priest. He was a 6-foot 5-inch fourteen-year-old.
The DePaul University athletic director Paul Mattei saw Mikan at Quigley and offered him a scholarship. Mikan was 6 feet 8 inches during his freshman year at DePaul. His twenty-eight-year-old coach, Ray Meyer, observed, “When I saw George Mikan, I saw my future” (Associated Press, 17 Mar. 2006). Mikan struck Meyer as “a big awkward kid” who had the toughness and “the heart to be great” (Meyer and Sons, pp. 40, 42). In the summer before Mikan's sophomore year Meyer tirelessly worked on Mikan's timing, coordination, quickness, footwork, and hook shot. As a 6-foot 10-inch sophomore Mikan, eventually weighing 245 pounds and wearing his soon-to-be-famous number 99, averaged 11.3 points a game and helped lead the Blue Demons to a 19-5 record. Mikan's 1943–1944 team ran its record to 22-4, only to have Mikan foul out with fourteen minutes to play in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) championship game in Madison Square Garden. St. John's University won 47–39. The following year Mikan averaged 23.3 points a game and co-captained DePaul to the NIT championship, scoring 53 points in a semifinal game against Rhode Island State, matching that team's total. Mikan ended his college career with 1,870 points.
In 1946 Maurice White, owner of the Chicago Gears of the National Basketball League (NBL), signed Mikan to a five-year $60,000 contract that included bonuses for baskets. In 1947 Mikan led the Gears to the NBL championship with a 79–68 victory over the Rochester Royals.
White tried to parlay Mikan's stardom into an expanded twenty-four-team Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA), but it collapsed two weeks into its inaugural season. The NBL held a dispersal draft for the 160 PBLA players. Mikan was chosen first by the Minneapolis Lakers. He signed for a league-high $15,000 a year plus a signing bonus. The Twin Cities sportswriter Sid Hartman, who helped launch the Lakers franchise, noted, “Once we signed Mikan too, the whole perception about the team and league changed” (p. 11). Stanford's Jim Pollard soon joined the team as small forward. The power forward Vern Mikkelsen followed in 1949. The team was coached by John Kundla.
Mikan was the league's most valuable player in 1947–1948, leading the NBL in scoring with a 21.3-point average, while pacing the Lakers to the NBL championship over the Rochester Royals. The next year the Lakers were one of four NBL teams that were added to the twelve-team Basketball Association of America (BAA). Mikan again dominated; he led the BAA in scoring in 1948–1949. While playing with a broken wrist he paced the Lakers to its second consecutive championship, defeating the Washington Capitols four games to two. In August 1949 the BAA and the NBL merged, creating the National Basketball Association (NBA). Mikan led the NBA in scoring in 1949–1950 with a 27.4-point average. A record Laker crowd of 10,512 saw the team win its third championship in three years in three different leagues, beating the Syracuse Nationals in a fight-filled finals.
Off the court Mikan married his college sweetheart, Patricia Lu Daveny, in May 1947. They had six children. In June 1949 Mikan received his law degree from DePaul. The following year, an Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters named Mikan the greatest player in basketball's first half century.
A broken ankle prevented Mikan and the Lakers from repeating as champions in 1951, even though Mikan again led the league in scoring with a personal best 28.4 points per game. The following year the competition was no match for a healthy Mikan, who set a league high with a 61-point single game performance against Rochester. Mikan and the Lakers dominated the defending champion Royals in the semifinals but had to go seven games before beating the New York Knickerbockers for the championship. In 1952–1953 the Lakers continued its mastery with the best record in the league and its fifth championship in six years, when Mikan blocked 20 shots in a single playoff game and the Lakers swept the Knickerbockers at Madison Square Garden. The 1953–1954 season would be Mikan's last full season. Joined by the versatile Clyde Lovellette from the University of Kansas, the Lakers swept to their second three-peat, beating the Syracuse Nationals in seven games for their sixth championship in Mikan's seven years on the team.
Slowed by injuries, Mikan retired as a player and became the team's general manager. He had broken bones in both elbows, both feet, his right wrist, his nose, a thumb, and three fingers. Covered in bruises, Mikan had also had teeth smashed out, taken 166 stitches, and had to have his kneecap replaced yet missed only two games in his entire career. After eighteen months behind the bench Mikan briefly returned as a player in January 1956 to guide the Lakers to the playoffs. Mikan narrowly lost a 1956 election bid to serve in the U.S. Congress and practiced corporate and real estate law in Minneapolis.
In February 1967 Mikan returned to professional basketball as commissioner of the colorfully flamboyant American Basketball Association. He severed connections with the league after two years, deciding to remain in Minneapolis rather than relocate to New York City. In April 1987 he led Minnesota's successful bid to land an NBA franchise that became the Minnesota Timberwolves (he Lakers had moved to Los Angeles in 1960.) On 9 April 2001 a life-sized bronze statue of Mikan firing his famous hook shot was unveiled at the Target Center, home of the Timberwolves franchise.
Bad real estate investments and increasing medical costs to combat his diabetes forced Mikan, starting in 1990, to auction off his basketball awards and trophies. For four and a half years Mikan needed dialysis three times weekly when his kidneys failed. His insurance was cut off. Diabetes forced the amputation of several fingers, his right leg, and all the toes on his left foot, forcing Mikan to use a walker. In an ESPN interview, broadcast on 2 May 2005, he implored the NBA commissioner David Stern and its players association to use their $3 billion in basketball-related revenues to fully fund veterans who had retired before 1965. It would have increased his annual pension from $20,000 to $45,000. “It's our prayer the players of today will help us out a little bit,” Mikan said in a frail voice.
Mikan so controlled the basket that the foul lane had to be doubled in width from six feet to twelve before the 1951–1952 season in an effort to diminish his dominance. He still went on to lead the league in scoring. The point guard Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics considered Mikan the first basketball player “to transcend the sport” (USA Today, 3 June 2005). Sports arenas filled when Mikan came to town. “Without Number 99 [Mikan's number], there is no me,” said the NBA superstar center Shaquille O'Neal, who covered the cost of Mikan's funeral (Associated Press, 4 June 2005). Stern noted that Mikan was “not only one of the greatest players in NBA history,” but also that, “for some period of time he was the NBA and its history” (SportsCenter, 2 May 2005).
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is the best repository of Mikan memorabilia, including press clippings and programs. Mikan's autobiography, Mr. Basketball: George Mikan's Own Story, was published in 1951. He cooperated with Joseph Oberle in the writing of Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan, the First NBA Superstar (1997). Michael Schumacher conducted interviews with Meyer, Bud Grant, Vern Mikkelsen, Richard Triptow, Clyde Lovellette, and other Mikan associates in Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA (2007). Mikan's years at DePaul are described in Ray Meyer and Ray Sons, Coach (1987), and Curry Kirkpatrick, “Out from the Shadow of the El,” Sports Illustrated, 18 Feb. 1980. His rank among NBA all-time greats is analyzed by Ron Fimrite, “Big George,” Sports Illustrated, 6 Nov. 1989, and Steve Jacobson, “Mikan Was the Giant of His Day,” Newsday, 5 June 1990. His contributions to the development of the NBA are examined in Larry Fox, Illustrated History of Basketball (1974). His work with the Chicago Gears is summarized in Richard F. Triptow, The Dynasty That Never Was: Chicago's First Professional Basketball Champions, the American Gears (1997). Mikan's championship years with the Minneapolis Lakers are chronicled in Scott Howard-Cooper, “The NBA Championship Series: How It All Began,” Los Angeles Times, 11 June 1989; Sid Hartman with Joel Rippel, Sid Hartman's Great Minnesota Sports Moments (2006); Bob Wolf, “The Original Big Man,” Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2002; and Benjamin Markovits, “Showtime!” Guardian, 30 Sept. 2007. Major obituaries include Associated Press and USA Today, 2 June 2005; the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, 3 June 2005; and the Guardian, 7 June 2005.
- Online obituaries include Jack McCallum, “Star Power: Mikan Defied Expectations as NBA's First Superstar,” 2 June 2005, available athttp://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/jack_mccallum/06/02/mikan/index.html
- See also ESPN Classic, “Mikan Was First Pro to Dominate the Post,” 3 June 2005, available athttp://espn.go.com/classic/obit/s/2005/0602/2074322.html