Pioneer NBA Big Man George Mikan Dies at 80

George Mikan

hide captionGeorge Mikan, with the then-Milwaukee Lakers, in a 1952 photo

Bettmann/Corbis

The first dominant big man of professional basketball has died. Basketball Hall of Famer George Mikan, who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships, was 80. Melissa Block talks to Tom Heinsohn, currently a commentator for Boston Celtics broadcasts and a former NBA All-Star player and coach.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The greatest player in the first half century of basketball has died. George Mikan won that title from the Associated Press. In nine pro seasons, he led his teams to seven titles. He helped establish the NBA's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers in the early 1950s. To some, Mikan was the team, as he told Bob Edwards on NPR's "Morning Edition" in 1996.

(Soundbite of "Morning Edition")

Mr. GEORGE MIKAN: I went to New York one year, and up on the marquee, it said `George Mikan vs. the Knickerbockers.' Then I had to go to the locker room, and the guys were on my back. I was getting dressed, and no one was dressing, so I say, `What's going on, fellas?' and they said, `Well, you're advertised, you're the star and everything else. Go out and play them.'

BLOCK: At 6'10", George Mikan was basketball's first dominant big man. Another big man, Hall-of-Famer Tom Heinsohn, joined the NBA the year that Mikan retired. And he says George Mikan was a towering figure when basketball was not a game of giants.

Mr. TOM HEINSOHN: Big guys weren't really that athletic. And not that George was the greatest athlete, but he knew how to control his body, and he knew how to use his body to best advantage. The way the game was played then, you could post up very close to the basket, and they took good advantage of that by him and his wide body being able to position himself so nobody could interrupt the pass getting to him close to the basket.

BLOCK: I've read that when he was playing in college at DePaul, the NCAA had to change the rules. He was so good at guarding the basket, they had to adopt the goaltending rule.

Mr. HEINSOHN: Yes, and I don't know if he was the guy that was the forerunner of blocking shots, but he was an offensive powerhouse. And he had a little hook shot that he mastered, and there have been precious few exponents of that shot, but he was the first guy that really utilized keeping his body between the defender and the ball and then scoring with this hook shot, mainly by bouncing it off the backboard, through the net.

BLOCK: For all of his size, 6'10", 245 pounds, was he graceful on the court?

Mr. HEINSOHN: He wasn't what you would think of now as athletic, and George was very athletic for his time in the game. I would say right now, George Mikan would be compared to a guy 7'7" in this era of basketball. He had that type of quickness and that type of speed that you might expect from that size of player in the current era.

BLOCK: And an aggressive player. He racked up a lot of personal fouls. He, himself, had 10 broken bones, I think, in the course of his career.

Mr. HEINSOHN: Yeah, he was the original wide body, and George had sharp elbows. And whenever he turned to take his shot, he would make sure that that was sticking out there so nobody could really get out and bother the ball. And people went after him, and he went after people. He established a physical presence, and there was more of an idea of physical intimidation in that era of the game than there is now in which anybody who raises a fist, they get thrown out of the game, and it costs them $10,000. George Mikan was not, you know, adverse to getting involved in altercations with other players, and he was a tough guy.

BLOCK: He started out, though, I think, as a theology student. It sounds like a funny combination of characteristics here.

Mr. HEINSOHN: You know, when you play the game of basketball, you must achieve a certain emotional level to play. You got to be hepped up, and your adrenalin starts pumping, and all of a sudden, theology goes out the window. And it becomes more pragmatic about how you're going to survive, and George was a great survivor.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Heinsohn, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. HEINSOHN: You got it.

BLOCK: Tom Heinsohn, formerly of the Boston Celtics, now a commentator for Celtics broadcasts on Fox Sports Net New England, talking about fellow NBA star George Mikan. Mikan died last night. He was 80 years old.

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