NEW YORK — No. 99 on my scorecard while growing up during the NBA’s infancy, but No. 1 in almost everything else related to professional basketball, Mr. Basketball passed away last week at 80 when life is supposed to begin.
For several years George Mikan had suffered from kidney disease and diabetes that cost him a leg several years ago.
Voted to the NBA’s all-time Top 25, 35 and 50 he’s the fourth member of the 1996 commemorative team — Pete Maravich, Wilt Chamberlain and Dave DeBusschere — to make us pick up our dribble and reminisce about their greatness and what a breathtaking spectator sport they made the game.
Mikan was the league’s earliest centerpiece.
He was its logo before it used Jerry West’s shape as one without attribution or remuneration.
The eventual Hall of Famer was the NBA’s initial/only drawing card in its formative years, I mean, other than an occasional heavyweight matchup between his Minneapolis Lakers and the New York Rens, or featuring the Globetrotters on the same card.
Mikan was the Lakers’ foremost franchise player, their first of many centrifugal forces (Wilt, Kareem, Shaq) to come, the guy who may not have invented the sky hook but perfected it long before Abdul-Jabbar made his signature shot world famous.
At 208 cm and 110 kg his presence was so dominating it demanded legislation to ban goal tending, the precursor of regulations (widening of the lane, dunking prohibition, the legalization of zones, etc.) in hopes of evening up the odds in an attempt to contain future players like Wilt, Kareem and Shaq.
Mikan was the United States’ Yao Ming of his day, only with thick glasses that nobody made fun of, nor did opposing coaches complain about his moving picks.
Mikan was also the first NBA superstar to retire (1954-’55) and make a brief (37 games, averaged 10.5 points) comeback the next season. Had he been more successful Converse was prepared to stage a huge “Be Like Mikan” advertising campaign.
And when the ABA opened for business in 1967 and desperately needed a name to showcase Mikan was hired as its original commissioner.
Not bad for a clumsy oaf out of Joliet, Ill., whose aspiration upon enrolling in DePaul was to become a Jesuit priest.
Coach Ray Meyer caught sight of Mikan one day towering above the masses on campus and talked him into trying out for the team.
Legendary for doing things properly, never halfway, Mikan enrolled in ballet classes to develop his footwork. Though his speed remained well under the legal limit his agility drastically improved.
In an age of funky set shots he principally controlled the ultimate outcome of the NBA from 1950 to 1954 with his mobility and muscle.
Spanning three different pro leagues Mikan averaged 22.6 points in 527 games and snared over 1,000 rebounds in two of the four seasons (70 and 72 games) the league tracked such a statistic.
The Lakers’ Fab Five coached by John Kundla — Vern Mikkelson, Jim Pollard, Bobby Harrison, Slater “Dugie” Martin and Mikan — won four championships during their purple reign.
“George was humble, bright and caring, religious and polite,” recalls Zelda Spoelstra, who worked under NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff back in the day and continues at her post in player and basketball development.
“He was the man they came to see. They put him on radio. He showed up hours up before games to talk to the media.
“He climbed up a ladder and they would take pictures of him with his name on the marquee. He was so gracious. He did whatever the league wanted.
“And he never got angry,” Spoelstra remembers. “Opponents would do anything to antagonize him because he was so good and because they couldn’t budge him from underneath.
“They would actually pull down his shorts or pinch him. He once showed me his bruises on his back and sides from all the stuff they would do to him. Yet he would never get mean, never retaliated. He was always a gentleman.”
Tell me Larry Brown’s hysterical spew about unnamed sources before Game 4, the same day W. Mark Felt was revealed to be “Deep Throat,” didn’t remind you of Richard Nixon at the end of his administration?
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