Pro basketball's first great big man

He revolutionized sport, led Minneapolis Lakers to 5 NBA championships

George Mikan : 1924 - 2005

June 03, 2005|By Bill Jauss | Bill Jauss,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

It's no stretch to say George Mikan revolutionized the game of basketball as its first truly effective big man.

"He was everything," recalled Johnny Bach, a Chicago Bulls assistant coach who played against Mikan in the early 1950s. "He changed the power in basketball."

Mikan, whom DePaul coach Ray Meyer transformed from an awkward, bespectacled 6-foot-10 kid into a college All-American, died late Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 80 and had been in failing health in recent years with diabetes and kidney disease.

"George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA's first true superstar," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "A fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off the court. We may never see one man impact the game as he did, and represent it with such warmth and grace."

Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers won five NBA titles in the first six years of the club's history.

A rough player, Mikan led the league in personal fouls three times and had 10 broken bones during his playing career. He averaged 23.1 points a game in seven seasons with Minneapolis before retiring because of injuries in 1956. Mikan was the league's Most Valuable Player in the 1948-49 season, when he averaged 28.3 points in leading the Lakers to the NBA title.

"He obviously was the first of the real high-profile players," Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy said. "He literally carried the league."

Mikan coached the Lakers for part of the 1957-58 season, and was commissioner of the American Basketball Association in 1967.

Meyer called Mikan "the greatest player, the hardest worker and the fiercest competitor" he coached in his 42 years at DePaul.

To improve Mikan's coordination, footwork and stamina, Meyer had him skip rope, jump over benches, shadow box and hit a speed bag.

In 1951, a nationwide media panel voted Mikan the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century. In 1996, he was voted among the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

Mikan was such a force that he was responsible for two rules changes. Goaltending - interfering with a shot on its downward flight - was outlawed during his college career. After Mikan joined the Lakers, the NBA widened its free-throw lane from six to 12 feet. Slowdown tactics used against him eventually led to the 24-second shot clock.

Mikan is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia; sons Larry, Terry, Patrick and Michael; daughters Trisha and Maureen, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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