IN KEEPING WITH Thomas Carlyle's theory that history is shaped by great men, George Mikan arrived at the time he was needed most: in the mid-1940s, when pro basketball was barely a novelty act. Mikan anchored the NBA's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers, who won five titles between 1949 and '54. His thick glasses and pleasant off-court disposition suggested an insurance agent, but his 6'10", 245-pound frame made him the archetypal pivot man; the league had to widen the lane from six to 12 feet in 1951 because his short hook shot was unstoppable. As Mikan's health declined (he suffered from diabetes and kidney failure), he protested softly about a pension plan that poorly compensated the NBA's pioneers. But mostly he filled the role, with class and distinction, of genial legend. Recalls Shaquille O'Neal of first meeting Mikan, in 1996, "Our conversation was all about me. We never really got a chance to talk about him." In fact, there has never been enough talk about the game's alpha center. "Without him," adds Shaq, "there would be no me." --Jack McCallum
Photograph by AP
Mikan's lethal hook helped the Lakers defeat Nat Clifton and the Knickerbockers in the 1953 Finals.