The Minneapolis Lakers were the first professional sports team to surface in Minnesota after World War II. They had played four games in an inaugural 1947-48 season, and then were able to sign George Mikan, after his team (the Chicago Gears) and the fledgling league (Professional Basketball League of America) that had been built around him folded quickly.
Mikan and the Lakers won the National Basketball League title that season, and in between the first two rounds of the playoffs and the finals against the Rochester (N.Y.) Royals, the Lakers also won the last Chicago World Pro Tournament (1939-48) ever.
Mikan scored 40 points in a championship game victory over the New York Rens, the original all-black pro team of excellence.
The NBA doesn’t put either of those titles on the Minneapolis Lakers’ résumé. The NBA traces its roots to the Basketball Association of America in 1946-47. The Lakers and Mikan joined that league in 1948-49 and then won five titles in six seasons.
The only miss between 1949 and ’54 was ’51, when Mikan tried to play with a broken ankle. The Lakers were eliminated in the semifinals by Rochester.
Mikan shocked the Lakers when he retired at age 30 before the start of the 1954-55 season. He tried a comeback in 1956 but was hobbled. The legacy of the 6-foot-10 Mikan was secure with all those titles, plus being voted in a national poll as Mr. Basketball of the first half of the 20th Century.
Bud Grant was a teammate of Mikan, and the former Vikings coach’s admiration knows no bounds. “He played at one speed — top,” Grant said. “And then when things got tough, he turned it up.”
Mikan died at age 80 on June 2, 2005, in Scottsdale, Ariz.