George Mikan, the "gentle giant" who a half-century ago brought fame and stability to the fledgling world of professional basketball and literally transformed the game, died June 1st just 17 days shy of his 18th birthday.
Mikan died at a Scottsdale rehabilitation center following a long fight with diabetes and kidney ailments. His right leg was amputated below the knee in 2000, and he had undergone regular kidney dialysis treatment 3 times a week for 5 years, his son Terry said.
"George Mikan was the model for all big men that followed him. He won 5 championships with the Minneapolis Lakers and would have won 6 consecutive championships had he not gotten hurt one year," Miami Heat president Pat Riley said in a statement. "He was truly a significant player from the standpoint that he was light years ahead of others from a size and fundamentals standpoint. A truly genuine human being as well as a great player. He made the game what it is today," Riley said.
A superstar decades before the term existed, George Mikan was the first big man to dominate the sport. No one before had seen a 6-foot-10 player with his agility, competitiveness and skill. When the Minneapolis Lakers came to New York in December, 1949, the marquee at Madison Square Garden read "Geo. Mikan vs. the Knicks."
"He literally carried the league," Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy said. "He gave us recognition and acceptance when we were at the bottom of the totem pole in professional sports. He transcended the game. People came to see him as much as they came to see the game."
College basketball instituted the goaltending rule because of him, and the NBA doubled the width of the free throw lane. Slowdown tactics used against him and his 1950 Lakers lost 19-18 to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history, which eventually led to the 24-second shot clock.
"George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA's first true superstar," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "He had the ability to be a fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off the court. We may never see one man impact the game of basketball as he did, and represent it with such warmth and grace."
Ray Meyer, who was in his first year as DePaul coach when he began transforming Mikan into a basketball star, said that despite Mikan's longtime illnesses, he was shocked and saddened at the death of his lifelong friend.
"He had the most positive attitude you ever heard," Meyer said. "Never once did he feel sorry for himself. He was a great basketball player, but I think he was a better human being. I loved the guy. I thought he was one of my family."
Born June 18, 1924, in Joliet, Illinois, George Mikan didn't play high school basketball, but when he entered DePaul, Meyer, the young new coach, recognized the potential. Meyer said he worked with Mikan for 6 weeks alone, making him shoot left-handed and right-handed, a procedure still known as the "George Mikan drill."
He had him punch a speed bag, take some dancing lessons to improve his grace and also jump rope.
Mikan was two-time college player of the year and led DePaul to the 1945 National Invitation Tournament title. He scored 53 points in the semifinals against Rhode Island, a phenomenal number in that era, and was named the tourney's MVP.
"He had a fierce determination to excel, which he exhibited in his athletic career and business career," Terry Mikan told The Associated Press on Thursday, "and that probably extended his life 5 years."
George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to 5 league titles in the first 6 years of the franchise's history. Nearsighted with thick glasses, he was as rough on the court as he was mild-mannered off it. Mikan led the league in personal fouls 3 times and had 10 broken bones during his playing career. He averaged 23.1 points in 7 seasons with Minneapolis before retiring because of injuries in 1956. Mikan was the league's MVP in the 1948-49 season, when he averaged 28.3 points in leading the Lakers to the title.
"Ed McCauley was our center. Eddie was 6-9, but weighed about 185 pounds where George was probably 250," Cousy recalled. "When we'd walk down the street in a group, Eddie would brush against a pole or big tree and say `Excuse me George.' Even to someone close to his height, George seemed humongous."
A statue of Mikan taking his trademark hook shot was dedicated at the Target Center in Minneapolis in April 2001 at halftime of a Timberwolves-Lakers game. "We were in hiatus a long time, the old-timers," Mikan said at the time. "They forgot about us. They don't go back to our NBA days."
Timberwolves star and 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett knew of Mikan, though. "When I think about George Mikan, I skip all the Wilt Chamberlains and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and I call him the 'The Original Big Man,"' Garnett said. "Without George Mikan, there would be no up-and-unders, no jump hooks, and there would be no label of the big man."
The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and became one of the most successful franchises in professional sports. "Frankly, without George Mikan, the Los Angeles Lakers would not be the organization we are today," Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss said.
Mikan played one season with the Chicago Gears before moving to the new Lakers franchise. "George was a giant among men in the early days of the NBA," said Celtics President Arnold "Red" Auerbach, who coached against him. "He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was the first player to really be an imposing and intimidating figure on the court."
After retiring George Mikan coached the Lakers for part of the 1957-58 season, and was commissioner of the American Basketball Association in 1967, introducing the 3-point line and the distinctive red, white and blue ball.
He practiced law and, in his later years, began pressing the NBA and the players' union to boost the tiny pensions given to those who played in the league before 1965. Terry Mikan said most of his father's awards and memorabilia has been sold. Mikan received a monthly pension check of $1,700, his son said. Under current rules, his widow will get half that much.
Terry Mikan said one of his father's reasons for fighting so hard against his illnesses "was his hope that he would be alive when the collective bargaining agreement was reached and the decision had been finalized on the pre-65ers and their surviving families. He gave his heart and soul to that effort."
George Mikan is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia; sons Larry, Terry, Patrick and Michael; daughters Trisha and Maureen, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I've got one word that describes my dad, and that's kindness," Terry Mikan said. "Whenever he would make a toast at a family function, dad would ask us to raise our glass to kindness, and that's the type of man he was."
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