Remembering George Mikan

Kurt —  June 2, 2005

Every time I’ve looked up into the rafters at Staples Center (and before that at the Forum) and seen the retired jerseys, I’ve been amazed at the legendary NBA talent that has played for the Lakers, many I’ve been fortunate to see play — Wilt, West, Baylor, Magic, Kareem, Goodrich, Worthy.

But there’s always been one jersey missing — George Mikan’s 99. He led the Lakers to five titles, was the game’s first superstar and was a member of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time list. He was voted at the time as the best basketball player of the first half of last century.

Now, that number will need to be retired posthumously as he passed away Wednesday, finally succumbing to a long-term battle with diabetes.

Mikan played eight of his nine seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers, retiring before the team ever moved to the sunshine (which is why Jerry Buss has never let his number be retired by the team, he was never a Los Angeles Laker). Yet Mikan was the first in the tradition of dominant big man to don a Laker uniform.

Back before World War II, the conventional wisdom was basketball was a sport best left to the small and quick. Then came the 6-10 Mikan, who was as athletic and coordinated as men a foot shorter, and he was intense. He could shoot over anyone in the league averaged 23.1 points per game in his career at a time when the average team scored in the mid 80s. In 1951 he averaged 28.3 PPG — 34% of the teams scoring. While he was at it he averaged 13.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists for his career. If you want to used the advanced stats (and you only can for the last few years of his career due to what stats were kept), in 1951-52 he had a PER of 26.6, followed by a 28.5 the next year and a 29 the year after that (for comparison, Neil Johnston was second in the NBA that last year with a PER of 25.8 — more than three points behind. That 29 is better than any NBA player had this past year, Garnett led the way with 28.8.).

But to tie Mikan just to his stats would be to miss the big picture — like all the greats he changed the game.

The reason there is a goaltending rule is George Mikan. The NBA widened the foul lane so he couldn’t hang out so close to the basket. Some say he invented the hook shot, and while that may be in question he was the first to use it regularly and effectively. He was the games first big star and drew countless new fans to the game — when his Lakers came to play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden the marquee read “George Mikan vs. Knicks” (thanks to Gatinho for reminding me of that one). He played a hard-nosed style in a hard-nosed era and had 10 broken bones in his nine-year career, but that never slowed him down or the rush of people who came to see him play.

Some people also forget that long after his legendary playing days, Mikan was the first commissioner of the ABA and is the person credited with coming up with the idea of the red, white and blue ball.

He was inducted into the first class of the Basketball Hall of Fame back in 1959. He is a legend enshrined everywhere basketball greats are recognized.

Except in the rafters at Staples Center.

Kurt

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