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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Loss of a Big Man

I met George Mikan, quite by accident, many years ago. Specifically, it was June of 1973. I was visiting Minneapolis with Johnny Blood McNally, the Pro Football Hall of Fame halfback about whom I was writing a (still unpublished) book, and we went to a place called Duff's for lunch.
Duff's, which burned down about ten years later, was known as a kind of sports hangout, so it wasn't terribly surprising to see Mikan at a good-sized table near the door. Nor was it surprising that Johnny Blood knew him.
The three of us had lunch together and enjoyed a pleasant conversation. There was little talk about basketball. The main topic was Mikan's weight-losing contest with his daughter. He said up was up to 300 pounds, which surprised me, because he didn't look at all fat. But then I reflected that some extra pounds wouldn't be particularly noticeable on someone who's 6-foot-10 and large-framed.
Most sources list Mikan's playing weight as 245 pounds, but he told us that it had been more like 260 during his final full season and close to 275 when he briefly came out of retirement for the 1955-56 season.
Mikan died the other day at the age of 80. The obituaries all agreed that he was basketball's first "big man," but they didn't make it clear that it was because of his body bulk, not merely his height. At the same time that Mikan was starring at DePaul, the sport's first 7-footer, Bob Kurland, was at Oklahoma A&M.
Most of the obits also said that college basketball adopted its rule against goaltending because of Mikan. Actually, the rule was adopted in 1944 because of Kurland, who was also the first basketball player to dunk the ball regularly.
Kurland actually was more successful than Mikan as an amateur. His college team became the first to win two straight NCAA championships and Kurland was the first basketball player to win two Olympic gold medals, in 1948 and 1952. He could play for two Olympic teams because, after college, he opted for AAU basketball rather than the NBA.
Mikan, meanwhile, was there for the birth of modern professional basketball. He started with the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League, then went to the NBL's Minneapolis Lakers. In 1948, the NBL and Basketball Association of America merged to become the NBA. The Lakers won five of the new league's first six championships. That gave Mikan seven titles in eight years as a professional.
Mikan had a major impact on the development of NBA rules. He was so strong, almost impossible to move, that the NBA doubled the width of the lane from 6 to 12 feet in 1951 in an attempt to decrease his scoring.
Opponents also worked to decrease his scoring by fouling him frequently and violently. As a result, the league in 1953 passed a rule limiting each player to two fouls per quarter, with bonus free throws awarded for any additional fouls.
That helped a bit, but it was a little too late to save Mikan's body from the punishment he'd been taking. In his eight professional seasons, both of his legs and both of his feet had been broken. Only one of his wrists had been fractured, but that had happened twice. He'd lost track of how many times his nose, assorted ribs, and various fingers had been broken. Tired of the constant battering, Mikan announced his retirement after the 1953-54 season, about a month before his 30th birthday.
He tried to come back midway through the 1955-56 season, but the extra 25 to 30 pounds slowed him down and limited his playing time, so he retired for good.
When the American Basketball Association was organized in 1967, Mikan became its first commissioner, mainly because his name gave the new league instant recognition and credibility. Mikan won even more recognition for the ABA by designing its trademark red, white, and blue ball, which quickly became a best-seller.
He also brought recognition and credibility to a group dedicated to bringing pro basketball back to Minneapolis, an effort that succeeded when the Timberwolves entered the NBA in 1989.