The Man Who Changed Pro Basketball

How many athletes would come to mind if you were asked about an athlete who, while playing, was such a dominating force that some rules of the game were changed to adjust to his style of play? What if the athlete in question was also a league commissioner: then who comes to mind? Only one— George Lawrence Mikan Jr.

As a player he was nicknamed Mr. Basketball and played on seven professional championship teams. Most notably was his play for the Minneapolis Lakers in the late 1940’s through the mid 1950’s. Oddly, basketball in the 1940’s was not considered a big man’s game. In fact, it was the general consensus that at the time basketball was considered best suited for the small quicker athletes that could glide up and down the court. Consequently everyone was surprised when George Mikan one of the bigger players was able to dominate the league for so long. In 1950 The Associated Press voted Mikan the greatest player of the first half of the century.

In a time with no Internet or Sports Center, people who followed basketball knew and loved to watch Mikan play live. Let’s face it, without the media coverage athletes get now, if you didn’t see a player live back then, it was hard to determine how good or bad he was. But George Mikan was different. He was considered by most people to be the first big man of basketball. So dominant was his play that it resulted in rule changes in professional basketball. The combination of two rule changes, the three second rule and the widening of the lane from six to twelve feet effectively limited Mikan from dominating under the basket. Another rule put into play to adjust to Mikan was the 24-second clock. Once Again, because of George Mikan’s dominance teams started to slow down the pace of the game in the hopes of limiting his control by keeping the ball away from him.  The league decided that  putting in the 24-second clock would speed it up. And also the goal tending rule, which prohibits a player from blocking a shot on it’s downward movement from the basket was also implemented because of Mikan’s ability to swat shots away. All of these rules were established to offset Mikan’s complete dominance of the game. In his career he averaged 23.1 points per game which in today’s standards does not seem like a lot. In 1950 most teams averaged in the low 80’s offensively per game. Comparatively last year Golden State averaged 116.5 points per game.

When the American Basketball Association came into existence, Mikan became the first commissioner of the league. At that point, he was a well established lawyer and looked at the new league as a challenge. The three-point shot was not started by the new ABA but this is where it became popular. Originally the three-point shot was actually tested in 1945 in a game between Fordham and Columbia. In 1961 in a league called the ABL—The American Basketball League, Abe Saperstein introduced the three-point shot. But when George Mikan introduced it as part of the ABA it became wildly popular and a huge, significant part of the game. Mikan stated that he wanted the smaller players to have a better chance to score and open up the offense. This was during the 1967-68 season. The three-point shot became hugely popular in the ABA and was one of the main reasons for the league’s success. The popularity of the three-point shot was so big that when the ABA merged with the NBA the league considered keeping the rule as part of the merged league; eventually it was introduced after testing it in 1979–80 pre-season.

When Mikan brought this rule into the new league he could never have envisioned how it would affect today’s game. And in an the ironic twist, although Mikan helped pave the way for making basketball a big man’s game, his three-point shot has done the opposite allowing smaller shooting players to assume an outsized impact on the game. 

And how about having a basketball drill named after you? The “Mikan Drill” has been one of the most popular drills for years as players put in lay-ups going from one side to the other continuously without letting the ball touch the ground. 

George Lawrence Mikan Jr. was a player and a man who changed the way professional basketball is played not once but twice. His influence and legacy are still felt in the basketball world today.