Mikan was a gangling youngster weighing 190 pounds when Ray Meyer, DePaul's Hall of Fame coach, took him in tow, but as he filled out and gained coordination, he matured into the toughest kid on the block.
"Combining great agility for a big man with a smooth shooting touch, a hook shot that was deadly from either side, elbows that could slice an opponent's face like a boxer's jab, and a highly competitive spirit, Mikan sometimes seemed like a one-man gang."
Could Mikan compete successfully in the NBA today?
"I think I could," he said.
Mikan's trademark was his sweeping hook shot, and old-time observers compare it favorably with the so-called sky hook of a latter-day Laker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"Kareem copied my hook shot," Mikan said.
Good as Mikan's Lakers were, they were a party to the lowest-scoring game in NBA history, and the way it ended troubles Mikan to this day. On Nov. 22, 1950, at the Minneapolis Auditorium, the Lakers lost to Fort Wayne, 19-18.
"Murray Mendenhall was the Pistons' coach, and they stalled from the beginning," Mikan recalled. "We would go downcourt and score quickly, and they would go back into their stall.
"We finally got up by one point with a few seconds left and Larry Foust, their center, drove to the basket. I deflected the ball and, lo and behold, it went into the basket as the game ended. I was just trying to block the shot without fouling and I put in the winning basket for the wrong team.
"It was a sad day for us because we had a full house [7,021] on 'Fathers and Sons Day.' "
Full houses were not the norm in those days, when pro basketball was still fighting for acceptance in the sports world.
After that game, the NBA moved to prevent any recurrence by installing the 24-second clock. The idea has always been attributed to Danny Biassone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals--now the Philadelphia 76ers--but Mikan gives equal credit to co-owner Max Winter of the Lakers.
"The 19-18 game really hurt Max, and he pushed for the clock," Mikan said. "He had a lot to do with the change."
On the flip side of the scoring ledger, Mikan scored a career-high 61 points against Rochester at Minneapolis on Jan. 20, 1952.
"My hook shot was really working that night, and I put in quite a few rebounds," he said. "I used to score a lot of points by putting in rebounds."
Mikan didn't start his pro career as a Laker. After completing his All-American career at DePaul, he joined the Chicago Gears in 1946 and promptly led them to the NBL championship. Then Maurice White, owner of the Gears, made a mistake that ultimately presented the newly organized Lakers the hottest property in basketball.
White put together a league of 24 teams, his Gears among them, and called it the Professional Basketball League of America. It folded after only two weeks and in a dispersal draft, Mikan went to the Lakers, the NBL's newest team.
The Lakers' three owners--Winter, Ben Berger and Carl Chalfon--had been prepared to fight for survival but suddenly found themselves with a hot ticket. The championships promptly followed.
The first Laker dynasty might have lasted even longer if Mikan hadn't retired so early.
"I had a family and it was time to practice law and take care of my family," he said.
The Lakers coaxed Mikan back to coach the team in 1957, but he resigned after a 9-30 start. He served briefly as the first commissioner of the American Basketball Assn. before going back to law.
Although the Lakers slipped after Mikan left, their outlook improved before they headed west. Elgin Baylor arrived in 1958 and with Jerry West coming out of college, they had a head start toward success in Tinseltown.