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George Mikan, 80; Minneapolis Laker Legend and NBA’s ‘First True Superstar’

Times Staff Writer

George Mikan, a giant of the early days of the National Basketball Assn. who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships as he transformed the role of the “big man,” has died.

Mikan, 80, died Wednesday in a Scottsdale, Ariz., rehabilitation center where he was being treated for diabetes and kidney failure, relatives said Thursday. He had lost a leg in recent years to diabetes.

Mikan -- who was 6 feet 10 and 245 pounds -- barely qualifies as a big man compared with stars of today like 7-foot-6 Yao Ming or 7-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal. But he entered a world of 6-foot-6 centers and showed that a post player not only could be mobile, he could be high-scoring.

With a virtually unstoppable hook shot and elbows that put to rest any idea that the bespectacled center was mild-mannered, Mikan three times led the NBA in scoring. He averaged 28.4 points in 1951 -- a season in which the Lakers averaged less than 83 a game.

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NBA Commissioner David Stern called him the league’s “first true superstar.” He was selected one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996 and once voted the greatest of the first half of the 20th century.

Mikan’s dominance forced the sport to adapt to him. The NCAA introduced a goaltending rule to keep him from swatting away shots with impunity at DePaul in the 1940s, and the NBA doubled the width of its original 6-foot “key” in the early ‘50s -- it is now 16 feet across -- to blunt his force at the offensive end.

Mikan was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959, and his influence continued long after his playing days ended. From 1967 to 1969, he was the first commissioner of the American Basketball Assn., in which he approved the use of a telegenic red, white and blue basketball, and he later advocated larger pensions for early NBA players.

He even wrought havoc with geography. Bill Sharman, who played against Mikan in the NBA and later was coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, credits Mikan in part for the fact that the Lakers retained that name when they relocated in 1960 despite the relative scarcity of such bodies of water in Southern California.

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“Mainly because of George Mikan and his reputation and the championships they won, they felt they wanted to keep that name and reputation,” Sharman said.

Mikan retired from the NBA in 1956, but current Laker owner Jerry Buss credited him with “blazing the trail” for such future franchise superstars as Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and O’Neal.

“Frankly, without George Mikan, the Los Angeles Lakers would not be the organization we are today,” Buss said in a statement.

Johnson called Mikan “the person who really started the Laker dynasty.”

“He started the championships and three-peated way before that was even known around here,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to start with Mikan first before you name any Laker. He paved the way for all of us who came after him.”

Born in Joliet, Ill., on June 18, 1924, Mikan attended Joliet Catholic High School and Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago, where he considered entering the priesthood. Far from the modern player who is a prodigy before he reaches high school, Mikan failed when he tried out for a Notre Dame team coached by George Keogan.

“The coach told him he didn’t look that good and he wasn’t in the class with the other boys, and told him to go to a smaller place,” said Ray Meyer, 91, the legendary DePaul coach who was an assistant at Notre Dame at the time.

In 1941, Meyer moved to DePaul in Chicago as an assistant, and a year later discovered Mikan there too.

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“I looked at that big guy and I said, ‘There’s my future,’ ” Meyer said Thursday.

Mikan appeared awkward at first.

“George Mikan didn’t play high school basketball. He had an accident with his knee or leg, and they didn’t think he could do much running,” Meyer said.

Meyer devised the Mikan drill -- now a staple even in high school practices -- in which a player quickly shoots layups while standing underneath the basket, alternating hands without letting the ball touch the floor.

“We watched a boxing team practice, and they used a speed rope, so we gave him a speed rope,” Meyer said. “We got a girl to teach him to dance. We put a boy who was 5-6 and made Mikan try to guard him, and he looked like an elephant chasing a fly for a while. But in about a week’s time, he was able to block his shots.”

Along with Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M;, now Oklahoma State, Mikan became a sensation, drawing big crowds to Chicago Stadium and the old Madison Square Garden in New York.

“With the 6-foot lane, both of us had a great advantage because of our size, much the way O’Neal does today,” Kurland said. “Once Mikan got the ball in that lane, church was out, as far as that goes.

”... He did instill, not a great deal of fear, but awe and respect. He wasn’t the best passer, but once he got the ball, he was a mean man. He was nothing but elbows. He was a hard player but a very fair player,” Kurland said.

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“Up until that time, somebody would score six or eight points a game and the team would score in the 40s and people thought that was a great night,” he added. “Then Mikan came along.”

When Mikan, twice the college player of the year and a three-time All-American, graduated from DePaul in 1945 after leading the school to the National Invitation Tournament title, professional basketball was still a hodgepodge of leagues.

He began his career with the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League, and was later involved in a dispersal system that gave the Lakers, then also in the NBL, a chance to sign him in 1947.

Sid Hartman, a longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist, was assisting the Laker front office at the time and was given the job of driving Mikan to the airport after he visited the team.

“We flew him in and were trying to sign him, but the guy wouldn’t sign,” Hartman said. “I was driving him to the airport, but instead of driving south, I went north and he missed his plane. The next day, we signed him.”

John Kundla, who coached Mikan in Minneapolis, recalled how the player’s dominance in the post led to the widening of the lane to try to force him away from the basket.

“Mikan was the greatest. He changed the rules of the game,” Kundla said.

The legacy of the Minneapolis Lakers has not always been tied to that of the Los Angeles team, but in recent years, both cities feted Mikan.

The Lakers honored their Minneapolis predecessors with a ceremony in 2002 at Staples Center, attended by Mikan, unveiling banners honoring the championship teams and Hall of Fame players from that era.

“We were also Lakers. How do you separate Minneapolis?” Mikan told The Times in 2001. “The only thing that separates us is miles.”

In 2001 the Minnesota Timberwolves unveiled a 9-foot statue of Mikan, and current star Kevin Garnett paid him tribute.

“Without George Mikan, there wouldn’t be any big men. There wouldn’t be any hook,” Garnett said at the time. “Just think, Kareem got 38,000 points off the hook alone. That tells you a lot about what [Mikan] has done, and the milestones he set in the game of basketball.”

Outside sports, Mikan worked in corporate and real estate law. He signed with the Lakers for $12,000 and never made more than $35,000 a year as a player, and sold much of his memorabilia to pay for healthcare.

“It was really tragic to see how his life ended, with his physical disability and the fact that he had to use all of his resources to pay for all of his medical care,” former NBA Coach Jack Ramsay said. “He was a good guy, great to the game, great for this league.”

Mikan is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia; six children; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Associated Press reported.

Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan, in Miami, contributed to this report.


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