John Mikkelsen was living in California when his mother, Jean, died in 2002. He started commuting with some frequency to spend time with his father, Vern, who lived in Wayzata.
“In 2008, Dad had hip replacement surgery, and then he had a stroke,” John said. “I moved back to spend time with him. It went pretty quick here at the end. Even this month, we were watching games, talking, laughing.”
Vern Mikkelsen, the Hall of Fame basketball player for the Minneapolis Lakers, died at home Thursday night at age 85.
John was with him. Vern’s other son, Tom, lives in the Phoenix area. Tom’s sons, Kyler, 12, and Caden, 10, called from Phoenix and were able to talk with their grandfather in the hours before his death.
“It was beautiful,” John said.
In a far different way, so was the last time Vern was able to sit with his son in the TV room and watch a basketball game in full. It was on Nov. 10, and the Timberwolves were playing a road game against the Lakers.
“That was the night the Wolves scored 47 points in the first quarter,” John said. “It’s kind of amazing that the last game Vern Mikkelsen was able to watch was our home team against the Lakers, the franchise with which he played his whole career.
“And when they mentioned on the Wolves telecast his old buddy, Elgin Baylor, that was perfect.”
Mikkelsen’s last season with the Lakers, 1958-59, was Baylor’s rookie season in Minneapolis. One year later, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, with Baylor as an established star and with Jerry West set to join him.
Arild Verner Agerskov Mikkelsen was raised in Askov, a tiny Minnesota town populated with Danish Lutherans. His father, Michael, was a pastor. He was a recruited as a center to Hamline University, which was the main competitor to the Gophers for Minnesota basketball talent in the 1940s and into the ’50s.
Mikkelsen was a senior and the co-star with junior Hal Haskins on the NAIA national championship team in 1949. There were three major college tournaments — NCAA, NIT and NAIA — in that era, and there wasn’t that much distinction. Hamline was so strong with coach Joe Hutton that the Gophers refused overtures to play the Pipers in games that would have filled Williams Arena to the rafters.
Vern was the territorial choice for the Minneapolis Lakers in the draft. The Lakers had won the championship of the National Basketball League in 1948 and the Basketball Association of America in 1949. The two leagues merged into the NBA for the 1949-50 season, and Mikkelsen was a major part of four titles: 1950, then 1952-54.
John Kundla was the coach. Kundla and Mikkelsen became close friends and were inducted together — in 1995 — into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
A message was left Friday for Kundla, now 97 and living in an assisted-living facility in Minneapolis. He called back and said:
“Vern died … that’s terrible news. He was the gentle giant. Funny, too. He bragged about coming from the Rutabaga Capital of Minnesota. What was the name of that little town?”
Askov. “That’s right, Askov,” Kundla said. “With the Lakers, we had a play called ‘Askov’ that we ran all the time.”
What was that? “Vern was a center when we got him,” Kundla said. “Everyone said, ‘How’s Mikkelsen going to get on the court, when you have the best center ever in George Mikan?’ That’s how Mikkelsen became the first-ever power forward in basketball.
“To play facing the basket, he developed an overhead, two-handed shot. And that was ‘Askov’ … real simple. If they came out to cover Vern, that would usually leave Mikan 1-and-1 and Vern would pass the ball into George. If the defense stayed back, Vern would take the overhead shot.”