PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER
In modern basketball, a 6 ft 10 in, 245 lb (2.09 m, 110 kg) center is something of a rarity—most National Basketball League players at that position are taller and much heavier. George Mikan, the man who revolutionized center play in the late 1940s and early 1950s, would be unlikely to succeed at his fabled position today. Like all athletes who truly changed the way in which their sport was played, Mikan, the 6 ft 10 in giant of his day, blazed a trail that all modern post players have followed.
When George Mikan first gave serious consideration to playing college basketball, many observers believed him to be too tall and ungainly for the speed and intricate passing systems then employed by most college teams. Mikan enrolled at DePaul University, where he was coached by the legendary Ray Meyer (1914–2006). Meyer saw a potential offensive weapon in the relatively slow and ungainly Mikan, and he worked with Mikan relentlessly to build the big man's overall fitness and agility. Meyer ran Mikan through a variety of individual drills to develop his coordination. Mikan was made to skip rope, shadow box, run various distances both inside the gymnasium and out, a training program that was unheard of for large basketball players at that time. Most importantly with respect to Mikan's long term impact on basketball, Meyer had Mikan spend countless hours practicing hook shots, using both his left and his right hands. Mikan also worked on the offensive rebounding techniques that Meyer believed Mikan would be able to employ using his size and reach.
This series of shooting and footwork drills evolved into a sequence known universally among modern basketball coaches as the Mikan drill. The long hours of practice paid off as Mikan's footwork continued to improve through out his college career.
When Mikan enrolled at DePaul, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, (NCAA) of which DePaul was a member, prohibited freshmen from playing varsity sports. This three-year eligibility rule correspondingly limited Mikan to a three-year university playing career. In those three seasons Mikan established himself as the greatest force ever to play at the NCAA level until that time. In his junior and senior years, he led the NCAA in scoring. Mikan helped DePaul to an 81-17 record during the course of his university career.
Mikan's dominance at DePaul also spurred the first basketball rule amendment directed specifically at his ability to change the game. In 1945, the NCAA instituted a goaltending rule, to prohibit a defensive player from either touching the ball when shot by an offensive player at any time on its downward arc towards the basket, or from playing the ball in any way to sweep it from the basket if the ball was on or inside the rim of the basket. Mikan had been a force with his shot blocking prior to the rule change; he remained very effective at altering the manner in which the opposing player shot the ball after the new rule was instituted.
Professional basketball in the United States in 1946 was composed of a number of small and struggling leagues, each battling to survive. Mikan was the greatest possible gate attraction that any league could possibly secure at that time, as he was the best-known college player in the United States. In 1946 Mikan signed his first professional contract with the Chicago Gears of the National Basketball League (NBL); his contract provided a then astounding $25,000 signing bonus, with a further $12,000 per season for five years. After winning the league championship in 1947, the Gears promptly folded, and Mikan was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBL in a dispersal draft.
Mikan would remain with the Lakers for seven seasons, as the Lakers joined the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1948, ultimately moving to the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. It is a remarkable sidebar to the history of George Mikan that the Minneapolis Lakers' NBA championship in 1950 was the third title won by the Lakers in three years, each in a different professional league.
Through the 1954 season, Mikan continued to be one of the dominant players in the NBA. He regularly placed among the top five players in every scoring statistical category. Mikan was at the peak of his basketball powers when in 1954, he announced his retirement from basketball, citing a desire to quit while he was still at the top of his game. Mikan decided to pursue the practice of law.
Mikan's legacy in professional basketball includes the institution of two further rule changes. When Mikan commenced his professional career, the key, the lane that runs from the circle that encompasses the free throw line, extending underneath the backboard to the baseline, was six feet wide (1.8 m). Mikan would position himself at the edge of the key (as an offensive player was permitted stand inside the key for a maximum of three seconds), using his size to gain a significant advantage against a defender, as the tall Mikan and his remarkable hook shot ability was positioned only three or four feet from the basket. The effectiveness of this technique, known in basketball as establishing a post up position, was reduced when the NBA widened the key to 12 ft (3.6 m), to take Mikan further from the basket when he posted up.
The second rule change, the institution of a 24 second clock, was made by the NBA in 1954, in an effort to speed the pace of the game and to force teams to shoot within the prescribed period. Mikan influenced the introduction of this change, as a team lacking a large dominating center such as Mikan could slow the game to a crawl by holding the ball, controlling the tempo and keeping the big post player out of the game, as Fort Wayne did to Mikan's Lakers in a game in 1950. Fort Wayne stalled the entire game to negate the threat of Mikan. The institution of the 24 second clock was an innovation that helped establish the NBA as an exciting spectator product.
Mikan never really left basketball after his retirement as a player. He served as the Lakers general manager in the 1955–1956 season, and he unsuccessfully coached the Lakers during the first half of the 1957–1958 season. When the now-defunct American Basketball Association (ABA) organized in 1967, Mikan accepted an offer to become the league's first commissioner, a position he held for two years. The ABA was noteworthy for the development of stars such as Julius (Dr. J) Erving and Dan Issell, as well as the introduction of a red, white, and blue basketball.
Mikan was named the greatest player of the first half of the twentieth century. He was also named as one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA in 1996. At the time of his death in 2005, Mikan was lauded by numerous other greats of the game for his enduring contributions to basketball. Shaquille O'Neal paid for Mikan' funeral in tribute to Mikan' influence on the career of O'Neal and other great centers. Hall of Fame players Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar both credited Mikan in their own progression to basketball stardom.