George Mikan looked more like an accountant than a basketball revolutionary, but he's remembered for his role in redefining the game in the late 1940's and early `50's. Mikan was a 6-foot-10 center in an era when the sport was dominated by shorter players. Following a storied career at DePaul, Mikan made an indelible mark as a professional and helped put the NBA on the map.
Mikan was a two-time College Player of the Year at DePaul and led the team to the NIT title in 1945. He turned professional in 1946, after being signed by the National Basketball League's American Gears of Chicago. His unseemly height coupled with superb basketball skills, helped make Mikan an immediate star, as he led the Gears to the league championship and was named All-NBL.
But before the start of Mikan's second season, the Gears were disbanded after a failed attempt by their owner to move the team to the short-lived Professional Basketball League of America. Gears players were entered in an NBL draft pool, with Mikan's contract going to the Minneapolis Lakers. Mikan also was being courted by the rival Basketball Association of America.
During the 1947 contract negotiations, Lakers general manager Max Winter and Minnesota sportswriter Sid Hartman-who worked for the team and helped Minneapolis land the Lakers - were driving Mikan and his agent to the airport after a day of unsuccessful talks.
"I was assigned to drive him to the airport," Hartman wrote in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article, "but on Winter's suggestion, I managed to get lost driving around Minneapolis. Mikan missed his flight, and he came back and signed the next day."
And so basketball's first dynasty was born.
With Mikan aboard, the Lakers went on to win the NBL championship in 1947-48. Before the 1948-49 season, four teams from the NBL, including the Lakers, moved to the BAA. Though the league was different, the end result was the same, as Mikan led the Lakers to another championship. After the season, the NBL and BAA merged to form the NBA.
Mikan's dominance in the new league continued. Overall, he led the Lakers to titles in five out of six years. New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, whose team lost to Mikan and the Lakers in two finals, called him the Babe Ruth of basketball. Mikan was so dominant, the NBA eventually widened the lane from 6 feet to 12 to make it tougher for him to score. Years later another big man would cause the league to widen the lane to 16 feet: Wilt Chamberlain.
Mikan also played a part in the introduction of the 24-second clock. In 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons simply held on to the ball to keep Mikan from getting his hands on it. The result was a not-so-exciting 19-18 Pistons victory, the lowest scoring game in NBA history.
Mikan retired at age 30 after the Lakers' fifth title in 1954. He made a brief comeback a year later before calling it quits for good. Not surprisingly, Mikan was a charter member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time team in 1996.
Plenty of Mikan memorabilia is available to collectors. Although many cards featuring the former Lakers great are from recent releases, nearly a dozen cards exist from his playing days. Among the more desirable, are a 1950 Lakers Scotts, a 1948 Bowman, a 1950 Bread for Energy, a 1950 Bread for Health and a 1952 Royal Deserts. A Mikan web site also offers signed memorabilia.