Vern Mikkelsen, who died last night, was a part of four NBA championship teams with the Minneapolis Lakers. He was a six-time All-Star during his 10 seasons here (1949-59).
The interesting part is that Mikkelsen made history in the NBA with his height. At 6-8, he was the same height as teammate Jim Pollard and, with George Mikan standing 6-10, they made the Lakers the first team in the league to have three players taller than 6-7. That doesn’t seem tall compared to the modern NBA, but in the 1950s, they were giants.
The Lakers had just come off a championship in 1949 when Mikkelsen became available in the draft because, at that time, the NBA had a territorial draft. Any player within 75 miles of the NBA franchise would have the rights to take the best player in that area if they so desired. Mikkelsen, who starred on a great Hamline team, was an easy choice for the Lakers to make.
Lakers coach John Kundla didn’t think that Mikkelsen playing alongside Mikan and Pollard in the front line would work out because Mikkelsen was not a very good outside shooter. He made his reputation as a pivotman and outstanding center for the Hamline Pipers. But Vern become a good outside shooter and paired very well with his teammates, and helped the Lakers dominate the rebounding department during their title seasons.
Mikkelsen played 10 seasons in the league and was the subject of a trade that I, as general manager of the Lakers at the time, had proposed in 1956. Had the deal gone through, the Lakers would have probably never moved to Los Angeles. I made a trade with the Red Auerbach-coached Celtics with Mikkelsen going to the Celtics for three former Kentucky stars -- Cliff Hagan, Lou Tsioropoulos and Frank Ramsey – who were in the Army. By making that trade, we would have been assured of finishing last and being able to draft Bill Russell, who in several of his books verified the fact that he had been contacted by the Lakers while playing for the University of San Francisco. In fact, behind the scenes, negotiations were being made with Russell while he was playing in college. However, Mikkelsen resisted the deal, and the owners sided with him, the deal was called off.
At that point I resigned my position and later the Lakers were sold and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Had that deal gone through, there’s no doubt that one of the owners, Morris Chalfen, was going to build a new arena to house the new powerhouse Lakers team – led by Bill Russell -- here in Minneapolis. Russell went on to lead the Celtics to nine NBA championships.
Getting back to Mikkelsen, he was a great leader on the court, a great person off the court, and was loved by everybody.
Like Mikan, Kundla and Pollard, Mikkelsen is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. Raised in Askov, he was an outstanding high school player and one of the best players that Joe Hutton, a legendary coach at Hamline, recruited during Hutton’s many years there.
Mikkelsen was a very, very close personal friend. We spent a lot of time together back in those days on the road and at home with the Lakers during the time both of us were associated with the team.
Mikkelsen’s death follows the death last year of Slater Martin, another great Lakers player, a strong defensive guard who had the great Bob Cousy of the Celtics in his pocket every time they played.
Pollard and Mikan also preceded Mikkelsen in death.
There will be a lot of tears at the funeral, at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins, for this great player, who I will always think of as a young man. He had as many great friends as any athlete in the history of Minnesota pro sports.