Born June 18, 1924, in Joliet, IL; died of kidney failure, June 1, 2005, in Scottsdale, AZ. Professional basketball player. In the early days of basketball, George Mikan was a superstar; he literally changed the way the game of basketball is played. He also turned the position of center from a forgettable one into a key role in his short nine-year career, earning the nickname "Mr. Basketball." Matt Zeysing, historian and archivist for the Basketball Hall of Fame told the Washington Post, "He was a guy who changed the game.… He was the intimidator. He was the guy taking contact."
Mikan was born on June 18, 1924, in Joliet, Illinois. His parents owned a restaurant, and the family lived upstairs. By age eleven he was six feet four inches, but very clumsy. Although he wanted to play basketball in high school, the coach discouraged him because of his clumsiness and his thick glasses. Also during that time, he stepped on a basketball and broke his leg.
Mikan became interested in becoming a priest, and entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary. He still had hopes to play basketball, and had a tryout with the coach from Notre Dame. The coach told him that he should go to a smaller school so he could get individual attention. A year later, Mikan enrolled at DePaul University and tried out for the basketball team. The coach, Ray Meyer, decided to train him to try to turn him from a clumsy boy into a basketball player. Mikan practiced daily for two and a half hours. He jumped rope to gain speed and also shadow boxed. He practiced shooting the ball with one hand (called a hook shot) and then switched to throw with the other, a practice known today as the Mikan shot. Meyer paired him with a female student to learn how to dance so he could become graceful.
After all the practice, Mikan became the go-to person on the team. He led DePaul to the championship. During play, the team strategy was to have the 6'10" Mikan stand under the basket and whenever the opposing team would take a shot, he would block the ball. This was called goaltending; the National Collegiate Athletic Association created a rule against it.
After he graduated from college, Mikan began his professional basketball career with the Chicago American Gears in the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1947. He helped the Gears win two championships before the NBL folded. Mikan signed with the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA) for $12,500. The new league would counter his easy shots by widening the free throw line from six feet to 12. In a game against the Ft. Wayne Pistons, to keep Mikan from scoring, the opposing team just held on to the ball. This resulted in the lowest scoring game in NBA history, 19-18, in the Pistons' favor. A few years later, the NBA would establish a 24-second shot clock so no team could do that again.
Unlike most centers at that time, Mikan was a force to be reckoned with on the court. Though not the best runner, he could move up and down the court. His opponents who were trying to score or keep him from scoring ended up with bruises; Mikan used his body both to defend and to score. Throughout his playing career, Mikan would break ten bones, including both legs, fingers, and his nose.
With Mikan on the team, the Minneapolis Lakers won the championship five times in eight years. The Minneapolis team began a streak that has continued into the 21st century, as the Lakers moved to Los Angeles some time later. The success of the team was placed squarely on Mikan's shoulders. The NBA would send him to whatever city the team would play a day before the game just to drum up publicity for the fledgling league. When playing against the New York Knicks, the marquee read "Geo. Mikan vs New York Knicks."
After playing for nine years, the physical play had taken a toll on his body, and the constant traveling had made Mikan a stranger to his growing family. He retired from playing basketball. However, after receiving so much fan mail urging him to return, he came back for one season. The time away had changed him, and he could not return to his previous playing form, so he retired again. This time, he opened a law practice in Minneapolis.
Mikan would return to basketball again, but as coach of the Lakers. With a record of 9-30, he resigned as coach before completing one season. In the late 1960s, Mikan accepted the position of commissioner in the new American Basketball Association (ABA). During his tenure, he allowed the use of a red, white, and blue ball.
After Mikan stepped down as ABA commissioner, he became involved in several ventures. In addition to his law firm, he became part-owner in the Chicago Cheetahs, a roller hockey team. He also started Major Leagues Sports Franchises, Inc., and was head of Apollo/Revcon, a company that sold recreational vehicles. Mikan also helped bring another NBA franchise team to the state of Minnesota. However, he was disappointed when the owners failed to give him a job in the front office. He also petitioned the NBA to give a better pension to those who played in the NBA before 1965, but his petition was tossed out.
Mikan's health had begun to fail. He suffered from diabetes and kidney ailments. To help pay for his rising medical costs, he sold most of his memorablilia. He had one leg amputated but that did not stop him from attending a ceremony in Los Angeles when the Lakers paid tribute to his team. When the Minnesota Timberwolves paid honor to his team, he attended as well. He was named the best basketball player in the first half of the 20th century. He was also named one of the top 50 greatest basketball players in history. On June 1, 2005, he died of kidney failure in a Scottsdale, Arizona, rehabilitation center. He was 80. Close friend Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal offered to help the family with burial costs. Mikan is survived by his wife, Patricia; his sons Larry, Terry, Patrick, and Michael; his daughters, Trisha and Maureen; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sources: Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2005, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 5; Los Angeles Times, June 3, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, June 3, 2005, p. A25; SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/magazine/06/02/mikan.11.6.89/index.html, http://sportsillustrated. cnn.com/2005/magazine/06/02/mikan.9.22.94/index.html, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/jack_mccallum/06/02/mikan/index.htm l, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/basketball/nba/06/02/george.mikan.ap/index. html (June 3, 2005); Washington Post, June 3, 2005, p. B6.
— Ashyia N. Henderson