When charting the history of the NBA, it is crucial to understand its beginnings. If you are faced with the exercise of lining up, one after the other, each of the legendary and pivotal figures in the history of the league and sorting them in chronological order, there is only one candidate for the head of this line – George Mikan.
The history books first describe him as a winner – and he was. Between 1946-47 and 1953-54, a span of eight professional seasons across the NBL, BAA and NBA, teams that featured Mikan on its roster won seven championships. He was the common denominator of domination. But when appreciating Mikan’s impact, the trophy cabinet is only one way of looking at it. His presence on the field has led to repeated rule changes – from goalkeeping to widening the lane at 12 feet. Off the ground, he was able to connect with an audience that was indifferent and unsure of a basketball league’s prospects. And today, he remains an irreplaceable part of the league’s history.
Mikan’s greatness, which grew with the seasons and seemingly inevitable championships, helped a fledgling league as it crossed the bridge from upstart to big time, helping it carve out a place for itself in the sporting landscape. American that she never abandoned.
On December 13, 1949, Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers were in New York. Venturing into the city, Mikan and his teammates headed to Madison Square Garden, the site of their game against the Knicks the following day.
Craning their collective necks toward the building’s marquee, what the group of players saw eventually formed the basis of the NBA’s first true historical image. And the message left no room for interpretation.
What may have been the fanciful work of a Garden staff member actually perfectly summed up Mikan’s position within professional basketball in the winter of 1949-50, that is, he was a professional basketball player.
The image itself remains timeless. And the story, as told by the man whose name was indeed in the lights, also has its own special charm.
Wait. We’ve discussed his aura, his success, his impact – but before we go through Mikan’s Vault, let’s take a look at what it was all about, what had newsboys screaming and writers pecking at the machine. to write. This super rare game footage from the late 1940s — yes, the late 1940s — shows the full package.
Consider this a preface for what you’re about to see. Yes, Mikan was an unstoppable force for his time, barely facing an adversary of his outdated dimensions – let alone able to slow him down. And you will see it here. But physique aside, this landmark document serves as a celebration of the league’s first superstar and how he did it: use of both hands on the hook, ability to go to the glass, deft footwork in the position that seems unworthy of a man of his size, even the devious free-throw form that has led to a lifetime percentage unmatched by immortals selected to his position. It’s the Mikan mix you need to see – Mr. Basketball in all its glory.
Respect your elders. Show your appreciation for the things that have come before you. Listen when experienced people give advice. No, it’s not a sermon from your mother. He’s a gaming legend showing love for another.
Professional basketball in Minneapolis didn’t take much longer after Mikan’s second and final retirement in 1956; the Lakers flew to California in 1960. Yet nearly 30 years later, in 1989, the Timberwolves emerged and thus the NBA was reunited with Minnesota State. In 1995, they drafted a teenager straight out of high school: Kevin Garnett. At first glance, Garnett and Mikan don’t seem to have much in common. But they remain the two most notable 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 exercise. For basketball players who have gone through the introductory process of developing the game, the drill itself needs no introduction. Aiming to strengthen coordination, improve shooting touch and develop endurance, coaches around the world have been encouraging their players to perfect this most basic practice for decades. Standing under the hoop, players move from side to side of the basket, alternating between right-handed and left-handed layups.
Although its origins remain murky, it was subdued by Mikan at DePaul, with the help of his trainer Ray Meyer, and served as the basis for a post-game that first devastated the sport and ultimately caused its change. From Mikan and Bill Russell, to Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed, Wes Unseld and Dave Cowens and Bill Walton – each of the following greats to play at center has credited this drill as a starting point in their development.
We now move on to the training ground, 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. NBL champions 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 sustained excellence only bettered by the Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mikan was part of a front line that devastated his opposition, with the great, multi-dimensional and athletic Jim Pollard on one side; the other, Vern Mikkelsen, a tough, raw competitor. Slater Martin, dynamic and small, steered from the backcourt, and team coach John Kundla oversaw the operation for the duration of the Dynasty run. In an era before the shot clock, when controlling possession was tactically vital, it demoralized opponents to face players of this caliber, only to end up scoring Mikan in the post. Like subsequent great teams, these Minneapolis Lakers were the best in big games, that fine combination of talent and means.
But what about behind the scenes? What exactly was basketball like in the early 1950s? How did the best perform? The only information you need here is: Kundla, Mikan, a movie projector, and an early rendition of teammate banter.
Not only were the Minneapolis Lakers of the early 1950s a real main attraction, but they also faced major basketball teams from other leagues on occasion. Did you know: Mikan played seven games against the powerhouse Harlem Globetrotters? He averaged 29.1 PPG in those games, four of which were played in front of crowds of over 20,000. Some 17,000 watched Mikan and the Lakers beat the New York Rens in the 1948 World Professional Basketball Tournament, and Minneapolis has never lost to the esteemed College All-Stars – the elite graduating seniors, many of whom would later make it to the NBA – with Mikan in the lineup.
Mikan and Minneapolis were the pinnacle of basketball of that era – a superstar and a team for all occasions and more than a game for all opponents. And here’s the proof: from the flight from Minneapolis to the packed house of Chicago – a road trip with the Lakers.
In January 1950, an Associated Press mid-century poll named Mikan the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century. He had beaten famous barnstormers and early pros alike, and from there, the nickname “Mr. Basketball” was both earned and enshrined for eternity.
The visuals you’ve seen in this space, surviving films from the early days of the league, speak to the fascination with Mikan. His arrival in road towns with his Lakers would trigger a full-page advertisement telling locals that if you saw him – if you saw his team – you saw something special. And Mr. Basketball delivered on its promise, from start to finish. He was and will forever be the NBA’s first true superstar.
Here’s Mikan from this season, in his trophy cabinet, showing what his career meant to him. On the occasion of the NBA’s 75th anniversary, consider this viewing mandatory.
Learn more about George Mikan
+ 75th Anniversary Team Player Page
+ 75 stories: George Mikan