Basketball Culture 101: The Ghost That Lingers

[Editor's Note: Bret LaGree has been at the helm of Hoopinion, one of the internet's most consistent sources of brilliant basketball writing, since 2004. For this first installment of Basketball 101, LaGree delves into the history of the NBA through its original star, George Mikan. Many of us younguns only know Mikan as the bespectacled goober who had a hand in the world's most boring drill. Here, LaGree reveals how Mikan's spectral presence still looms over us all, player, owner and fan alike. --Beckley]

Michael Schumacher’s 2007 biography of George Mikan, Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA, attempts both to represent Mikan as the league’s proto-superstar and to imply the degree to which the league has transformed from an unstable, regional, American league into a financially robust, worldwide phenomenon.

It’s easy to forget both how new the NBA is and how different the second half of its existence has been from its first. Easier, perhaps, when one’s conscious memory encompasses only that second half of the league’s existence. Befitting the NBA’s origin as a less popular alternative to college basketball, my earliest conscious memory of watching live basketball dates to Patrick Ewing repeatedly goaltending early in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game.

Though my conscious memory of the NBA consists only of the league after Magic and Bird began to make the league modern (and even then only consists of vague memories of getting to watch Kings games on a UHF channel when visiting my grandparents in Kansas City), spending three formative years in rural, Northeastern Kansas provided me with two important links to the first half of the league’s existence.

First, I collected (and still possess) a set of 1979-80 Topps NBA cards, the last set not to include Magic and Bird. With televised games rare, those cards provided my first exposure to the game’s recent history including but not limited the existence and absorption of the ABA, the adoption of the three-point shot, and how awesome Junior Bridgeman is.

The second brings me back to Mikan. Lew Hitch, a reserve big man on the 1952 and 1953 Minneapolis Lakers, both NBA Championship teams led by Mikan, also lived In Westmoreland, KS (still does as far as I know) and, between the sheer small town of it all and my precocious interest in basketball, I met him. Now, as to what a two-time NBA champion discussed with a pre-schooler, I can’t recall. Presumably he confirmed that he had played for the championship Lakers teams and he was, perhaps, graciously bemused by my serious interest in this fact. For any of this to have any impact on me, it must have been explained to me that the Lakers played in Minneapolis before moving* to Los Angeles, that they won several championships there and, in explaining that, the name “George Mikan” must have come up.

*The advance knowledge of this possibility did nothing to soften the blow of the Kings leaving Kansas City a few years later.

That wasn’t the last time I gave conscious thought to Mikan but once the last opportunity passed to impress a basketball coach by knowing why the Mikan Drill was so named, I can’t say he occupied my mind.

Schumacher’s book provides a welcome corrective for those of us largely ignorant of the least-visible (there’s almost no extant footage of Mikan in action) NBA great. It’s not just Mikan’s on-court greatness (In addition to his individual honors, the collegiate and professional championships his teams won, he inspired both the institution of the modern defensive goaltending rule and the expansion of the lane from six- to 12-feet) but his post-career, off-court struggles that resonate across the 60-plus years of the NBA existence.

The NBA is no longer arena-filler in between hockey games and ice shows in the Northeast nor joint vanity project and promotional vehicle for Midwestern industrialists. Teams don’t rely on balancing their books by scheduling themselves as the undercard on a double-header with the Harlem Globetrotters* serving as the main event, and the best players are paid more intensely, for a longer period of time, and receive better medical treatment than Mikan, who retired (the first time) at 29. But the struggle to achieve a lifetime of success when your greatest skills abandon you at a young age is timeless, perhaps the inherent complication of having great athletic gifts.

*Schumacher is at his least convincing when suggesting that the NBA’s color barrier existed as much for financial as racial reasons, that the league’s owners kept the league all-white until the 1950-51 season because they didn’t wish to anger Abe Saperstein by competing with him for talent and thus risk losing the gate from future Globetrotter exhibitions.

George Mikan wasn’t just the first franchise player in the NBA, he was the first franchise player to retire only to come back, unsuccessfully, one year later, the first franchise player to learn that on-court success did not automatically translate to success in the front office or on the sideline, and the first franchise player to serve as commissioner of a basketball league that no longer exists.

One needn’t be a franchise player to suffer post-playing career financial setbacks but Mikan experienced those, too: a failed law firm and a self-financed, unsuccessful run for Congress foremost among them. Because of those setbacks, because his relatively short and modestly compensated career took place prior to the creation of a pension plan for NBA players in 1964, and because of the effects of diabetes (which would ultimately cost him a leg, a few fingers, and 12 hours a week to dialysis for four-and-a-half years) Mikan, in his 60s, sold off his personal memorabilia collection to cover his medical bills.

In those losses one can measure the scope of the league’s history. From the merger of the NBL and BAA in 1949 for an inaugural season featuring 17 NBA teams to the eight teams left standing for the 1954-55 season, through the expansion of the ‘60s and ‘70s that more than doubled the size of the league, through the merger with the ABA, through Magic and Bird and Jordan (and Stern), through the modern round of expansion teams, the Dream Team, the global broadcasts, and the influx of international stars, the NBA grew sufficiently larger, broader, deeper, and richer to take its existence for granted.

Case in point: through several iterations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players who retired prior to 1965 were required to possess more service time than those who retired in 1965 or later in order to receive reduced (if any) pension benefits. The irony in the lack of benefits for Mikan, the league’s first great draw, is that he was most definitely not forgotten. He was honored, if not continuously, consistently* while also having to advocate for his pension rights and those of his fellow pioneers.

*He was the only NBA player in the inaugural class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968. He was named one the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. A statue of Mikan was unveiled in front of the Target Center in Minneapolis in 2001. The Los Angeles Lakers honored the Hall of Famers who played for the Minneapolis Lakers a year later.

It’s not just those specific remembrances, either. The ghost of Mikan lingers. Even if we don’t immediately recognize it as such. Not just in the brief, spectral video footage of the man in action but in the very design of every court, in the existence of the shot clock, in every shot that falls through the basket unmolested, and in every decision to draft a big man with the first overall pick.

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