Somewhere in his collection of souvenirs Vern Mikkelsen has an
ashtray that he lifted from the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan the
night of April 10, 1953, just after his Minneapolis Lakers had
defeated the New York Knicks four games to one to win their second
NBA championship in a row. ''My kids always thought that ashtray was
better than a trophy,'' says Mikkelsen, now 64 and retired from his
Minneapolis insurance business. As Mikkelsen and his teammates
toasted one another that night at the Copa, they couldn't have known
that they were destined to occupy a special place in basketball
history. A year later they would become the first team to win three
consecutive NBA crowns.
Until June 20 the Lakers were still one of only two teams to
accomplish the feat. The other, of course, is the Boston Celtics, who
three-peated in 1961 en route to eight straight crowns -- a mark
that's as safe as any in the NBA record book. Or as Bob Cousy, a
member of five of those eight teams, puts it, ''That's one record the
Celtics will have until they're able to recreate the DNA and have
dinosaurs running around the earth again.''
The first championship in Boston's remarkable string came in 1959
against Minneapolis in Mikkelsen's final season with the Lakers. A
forward-center on that team, Mikkelsen was the only holdover from the
Lakers of the championship years and, at age 31, was no match for
Bill Russell, Boston's young pivotman who was on his way to becoming
the game's premier shot-blocker, rebounder and psyche artist. After
Russell had swatted away several of his shots, Mikkelsen figured the
only way to score against him was ''to get as deep as possible under
the basket and use brute strength to take it up against him.'' It was
no help. The Celtics swept the series, and Mikkelsen understood that
a new era in pro basketball had dawned.
As the years passed, Mikkelsen grew increasingly proud that only
two teams had won three titles in a row. He wasn't at all unhappy
when his old franchise, which had moved to Los Angeles in 1960,
failed to three-peat in 1989. Nor was he displeased when the team
that stopped those Lakers -- the Detroit Pistons -- had its
three-peat hopes dashed by the Chicago Bulls in 1991. ''There's an
exclusivity about this,'' says Mikkelsen, who admits that he was
pulling for the Phoenix Suns to upset the Bulls this season. ''There
aren't too many records left from those days.''
Yeah, and the old Copacabana is gone too.
The NBA was formed in 1946, and the Lakers were the new league's
first dominant team, thanks mainly to George Mikan, the bespectacled
6 ft. 10 in. former All-America from DePaul. Although he excelled in
every phase of the game, Mikan was all but unstoppable when he got
the ball near the basket. His prowess underneath led the league to
widen the lane from six feet to 12 before the 1951-52 season.
Unhampered by the rule change, Big George then led the Lakers to
their three consecutive titles. He retired after the last one in 1954
at age 29.
Those Laker teams were the prototypes for today's teams. A center
in college, the 6 ft. 7 in., 230-pound Mikkelsen joined Minneapolis
in 1949, figuring he would back up Mikan. However, coach John Kundla
moved Mikkelsen to forward. ''I was a power forward before they had a
name for it,'' says Mikkelsen.
The Lakers also had a brilliant small forward in 6 ft. 5 in. Jim
Pollard, an excellent scorer who could rebound and put the ball on
the floor. The point guard was the feisty Slater Martin, and the
shooting-guard spot was manned at one time or another by Bob
Harrison, Pep Saul or Whitey Skoog. In Kundla the Lakers had a coach
who was ahead of his time -- he understood that psychology was as
important as drawing up plays.
''It's very difficult to get together a nucleus of people who know
each other and want to achieve,'' Mikkelsen says. ''And it's not easy
to get everyone to play his role when you have a superstar. That's
where the coach really has to focus on his players and learn how to
keep them happy. A good basketball coach could teach a psychologist
The Lakers, who beat the Knicks in both the 1952 and '53 Finals,
got their three-peat against the Syracuse Nationals, whom they
defeated in seven games. Mikkelsen believes that if Mikan had played
another year, the Lakers would have won four in a row. By then,
however, Mikan had grown weary of the punishment he was taking night
after night. He had broken at least 10 bones during his career and
was scheduled to have his left kneecap removed. Moreover, his skills
were eroding. In the three championship seasons, his scoring average
went from 23.8 points to 20.6 to 18.1. ''He was a marked man no
matter where he went,'' Mikkelsen says. ''Everybody knew he was our
After a year and a half in the Laker front office, Mikan attempted
a comeback at the end of the 1955-56 season, averaging a respectable
10.5 points / and 8.3 rebounds in 37 games for a Minneapolis team
that finished under .500 for the first time in Laker history. Those
who remembered Mikan at his peak found it hard to watch him perform
as just another plodder. After that season he hung up his famed
number 99 jersey for good. At about the same time, Boston was
welcoming a new center who would have an even greater impact on the
In March 1961, with the Celtics closing in on their third
consecutive championship and their fourth in five seasons with
Russell at center, Boston coach Red Auerbach said some things to The
Sporting News that are rather amazing by today's close-to-the-vest
standards. Puffing on his trademark cigar as he sat in his office,
Auerbach didn't mince words when asked if his team was as good as the
Lakers of Mikan, Mikkelsen and Pollard. ''By all means,'' Auerbach
said. ''Now don't take me wrong. I have the utmost respect for those
Lakers. Johnny Kundla had a great club, and he did a beautiful
coaching job. But Boston would have licked those Lakers. For one
thing, we have more depth than they had. We have better shooters.
Besides, because of the running game we play, they wouldn't be in a
position to wait for George.''
Indeed, while the Lakers were a team that wouldn't take a shot or
begin a play until Mikan had stationed himself close to the basket,
the Celtics employed a withering fast-break attack that was usually
triggered by Russell's blocks, rebounds and outlet passes. When
Russell joined the Celtics, before the start of the '56-57 season,
black players were a distinct minority in the league. Of the top 20
NBA scorers the previous season, Maurice Stokes of the Rochester
Royals was the only black. Russell was to become the game's first
black superstar. Or, as TIME wrote in 1960, ''The man who turned the
Celtics into champions is the lean, agile Negro at center.''
To complement Russell, Boston had board-crashing forwards Tom
Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff, and sweet-shooting guards Cousy, Bill
Sharman and Sam Jones. The Celtics' other weapon was depth. ''When we
played them in 1959, we were pretty even five-on-five,'' says
Mikkelsen. ''But then, just when we were getting dog-tired, I'd look
up, and here would be Frank Ramsey coming off the bench, fresh as a
With Russell the rookie averaging a league-leading 19.6 rebounds
per game, the Celtics won their first championship, beating the St.
Louis Hawks, led by Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, in seven games in the
Finals. The next season the championship series was a rematch, but
without Russell, who had injured his ankle in Game 3, and the Hawks
prevailed in six. Then came the 1958-59 season, the beginning of the
eight-year streak in which the Celtics' final-round victims were the
Lakers (five times), the Hawks (twice) and the San Francisco Warriors
Those Celtic teams were similar to the Lakers of their day in that
they had little turnover in personnel. Besides Russell, seven players
were members of at least five of the eight championship teams. They
had a sense of community, and of pride, that set them apart. They
also had a pair of extraordinary leaders in Russell, the shot-block
artist, and Auerbach, the motivational genius who never let his
players take winning for granted.
''Red, he'd foam at the mouth even when he was playing
racquetball,'' says K.C. Jones, who played on each of the eight
straight championship teams. ''With him and Russell you had that
disdain for losing starting at the top and coming right down through
The Celtics' run was ended in 1967 by Wilt Chamberlain's
Philadelphia 76ers. At 7 ft. 1 in. and 280 pounds, Wilt was the most
imposing physical specimen the game had ever seen. Yet his team
seldom came out ahead against Russell's Celtics -- a touchy subject
with Chamberlain. So it was sweet revenge for Wilt when he led the
76ers to a 4-1 rout of Boston in the Eastern Division finals.
Philadelphia then beat San Francisco to give the NBA a new champion
for the first time since 1958.
With Russell serving as player-coach, the Celtics rebounded to win
back-to- back titles in 1968 and '69, giving them 11 in Russell's 13
years with the team. However, their hopes for another three-peat were
dashed when Russell announced his retirement in July 1969. Without
Russell, Boston was no more successful than the Lakers had been
without Mikan. In 1969-70 the Celtics finished with a losing record
and didn't even make the playoffs.
From 1969 until 1988 the parity in the league was such that no
team won even two titles in a row. In the early 1970s the talent pool
was diluted by the upstart ABA, which agreed to a merger with the NBA
after the '76 season. Then, in the '80s, those old powers, the
Celtics and the Lakers, once again established themselves as the
class of the league, but the two were so evenly matched that neither
could win consecutive titles until the Lakers slipped past the
up-and-coming Pistons for the '88 championship.
| Alas, the Lakers' hopes for a three-peat were dashed by the
Pistons, four games to none, in the 1989 Finals. The reasons for the
loss were as obvious as the mousse in L.A. coach Pat Riley's hair:
hamstring injuries to starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott,
and the ineffectiveness of center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was
playing in the final series of his 20-season pro career.
The Pistons won again in 1990, beating the Portland Trail Blazers
four games to one in the Finals, but they saw their three-peat bid
ended by Chicago in a four-game sweep in the 1991 Eastern Conference
finals. The Bulls then beat the Lakers in five games in the
championship round to begin their run of titles.
Cousy, for one, doesn't like to hear any talk that the Bulls might
be in the same league with his Boston teams. ''There were eight teams
when we started, and during the consecutive run, the league only
added one,'' says Cousy. ''The talent was far more concentrated, and
because you were seeing the same faces all the time, the intensity
was at a higher level. I concede the obvious, that the athlete of
today is bigger, better, stronger and everything else, but in terms
of that particular achievement, I think it's premature to start
making comparisons. Let's wait a few years on that.''
Mikkelsen, the old Laker, doesn't begrudge the Bulls their
success. He is wistful, however, about the fact that he doesn't have
any championship rings. Neither the league nor the team provided
them in his era. ''It would be nice for the grandkids,'' says
Mikkelsen. ''They don't really believe old people like me could ever
have played the game.''
If the kids have any doubt, all they have to do is look at that
ashtray from the Copa.