Rumors of basketball legend Vern Mikkelsen's demise were greatly exaggerated, but a fitting gift for his 81st birthday.
Vern Mikkelsen has been prominent on the local sports scene for more than six decades, since he was a standout for Hamline's nationally famous basketball teams. He has been a source of confusion on Twin Cities sports pages through the years because of the Danish spelling of his last name.
This continued into the spring of 2005, when I visited Vern at his townhouse for an interview on the death of George Mikan, his superstar teammate with the Minneapolis Lakers.
There were stacks of memorabilia throughout the domicile. Included was a jersey bearing the name "Mikkelson'' on the back.
"There it is -- official confirmation,'' I said. "Vern spells his name with an 'o,' not an 'e.'"
I made sure that's the way it appeared in the next day's column -- only to discover Vern had kept the jersey because it carried the familiar typo (Mikkelson) on its back.
This was a minor irritant compared to the confusion that surrounded Mikkelsen on Wednesday. I was about to take a turn from Kellogg Boulevard into the big parking lot across from Xcel Energy Center, for the purpose of attending the Wild's historic first game with a permanent captain, Mikko Koivu.
Then the cell phone rang, delivering a message from the sports department. "You might want to change your column topic," the caller said. "We've been told that Vern Mikkelsen died."
This was very sad news. Big Mikk was among the best folks I've met in a long run as a Twin Cities columnist. And as a Basketball Hall of Famer, his passing deserved a mention in drive-time newscasts.
I called KSTP AM-1500, a radio station that employs me, and provided the information that Mr. Mikkelsen had passed from this veil of tears.
"You did?" Vern said a couple of hours later. "You decided I had died. Let me check. I think I'm still here."
Mikkelsen paused, then said: "Thank goodness. It's me."
To which I replied: "I've covered a lot of great comebacks in sports, Vern, but this is now at the top of the list."
And what made this comeback even more spectacular was Wednesday being Vern's 81st birthday.
The smiles provided by his Great Escape and another birthday did not make this a complete day of mirth for Mikkelsen. On Monday, he had lost another teammate from both Hamline and the Lakers: Joey Hutton Jr.
Joey's father, Joe Sr., was the legendary coach at Hamline. He produced three titles (1942, 1949 and 1951) in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament. It was an era when a top Minnesota prep player was as likely to land with the Pipers as with the Gophers.
"Hamline had its annual reunion for the players from the great Hutton teams last Saturday," Mikkelsen said. "The guy who was in the best shape by far was Joey. If you would have asked any of us, we would've said Joey was going to outlast all of us."
On Monday, Joe Jr. suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 81. He ran the show from the backcourt on the '49 Hamline champions that featured Bob Leviska, Bob Lundsten, Mikkelsen and the great Sleepy Hal Haskins.
"Joey was a heck of a player; he did everything the way his Dad told him he wanted it done," Mikkelsen said. "And when we won the NBA title with the Lakers in 1952, three of the 10 guys were from Hamline: Howie Schultz, Joey and me. We were awfully proud of that."
As for Big Mikk's health, he had a flirtation with death a couple of years ago that was much more serious than what took place Wednesday. He had a severe stroke on top of several other health issues.
"The guys at the hospital thought I was in such bad shape that they wanted to forget about it," Vern said. "They wanted to turn off the machines. My son John wouldn't go along with that. He was going to stick with me longer.
"I started to come around. I finally made it home. I'm feeling pretty good lately. I'm making progress."
Mikkelsen's voice was strong early in this phone conversation. He had a bit of trouble with his sentences later, but all in all, Vern was doing dang fine on his 81st birthday.
"I have to say, I've never been happier to talk to you," Big Mikk said. "It has to be more fun for me than what you were planning to write."
Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org