On June 1, 2005, Basketball Hall of Famer George Mikan dies at age 80. The first true gate attraction in professional basketball, Mikan drew fans to NBA games at a time when the league’s success was far from assured.
George Lawrence Mikan was born June 18, 1924, in Joliet, Illinois, and was an awkward 6 feet 8 inches tall by the time he graduated high school. ”I became round-shouldered, ungainly and so filled with bitterness that my height nearly wrecked my life,” he once said. ”Later, I found that a tall man didn’t have to accept clumsiness.”
Mikan enrolled at DePaul University, where Coach Ray Meyer worked to turn the ill-at-ease teenager into a star. He encouraged Mikan to run to build his stamina and jump rope to improve his coordination and balance. Under Meyer’s tutelage, Mikan developed into an unstoppable force at DePaul, where he swatted away so many of his opponent’s shots that in 1944 the NCAA passed a rule prohibiting “goaltending.” In 1945, Mikan led DePaul to victory over Bowling Green for the NIT title and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
After graduating from DePaul as a three-time All-American (1944-46), Mikan went on to play for the National Basketball League’s (NBL) Chicago Gears, whom he led to the 1947 NBL Championship. Even as a rookie, the 6’10″ Mikan was the most dominant basketball player in the country. He could sink hook shots with either hand, was a fierce rebounder and set up so close to the basket on offense that he was considered nearly impossible to defend. After the Chicago franchise folded, Mikan joined the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBL, who eventually became part of the Basketball Association of America before joining the NBA when the two leagues merged for the 1949-50 season. To prevent Mikan from commanding every game, the NBA changed its rules, widening the lane to 12 feet from six feet, and instituting the three-second rule, which limits the time to three seconds that a player may set up in the post without the ball.
Even with the new rules, the Lakers with Mikan at center won the league championship in 1948, 1949 and 1950 and from 1952 to 1954. In this era, Mikan was not only the NBA’s best player, he was the reason people attended games. When the Lakers faced the Knicks in New York, the marquee on Madison Square Garden read “George Mikan vs. Knicks.”
In 1950, the Associated Press named Mikan the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century. Nine years later, Mikan was elected as an inaugural member to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Upon Mikan’s death, current and former NBA stars paid tribute to the man who had helped build the now-prospering NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talked of how he had patterned his game after Mikan’s, and Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, a friend, offered to pay for his funeral. When questioned about his generosity, Shaq gave voice to what many in the NBA were feeling: “without him, there’d be no me.”
Also on this day: On June 1, 1925, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig pinch hits for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger. This was the first of 2,130 games Gehrig played consecutively. The streak ended 14 years later when Gehrig benched himself for poor play. He was suffering at the time from a still undiagnosed case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.