George Mikan - One of Basketball's Greatest


Who first comes to mind when you think of the Lakers? Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, or Kobe Bryant? How about George Mikan? Few people remember or even know this name. He is listed among the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players and became a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959. George is considered the pioneer not only for the center position but also in an emerging basketball league.

A group of U.S. and Canadian ice hockey arena owners came together in 1946 to discuss the possibility of creating a basketball league. They wanted a league that could play in the arenas when there were no hockey games. That year they organized the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Other basketball leagues had been created previously, but this was the first that would attempt to form franchises in major cities with large pre-existing arenas. The league started with eleven teams and the first game ever played occurred in Toronto, Canada with the Toronto Huskies playing against the New York Knicks. Within three years, the BAA was growing and merged with the National Basketball League (NBL) to create the National Basketball Association (NBA) on August 3, 1949. This new league initially received a lot of attention and success due, in large part, to super-star George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers.

George was born in Joliet, Illinois on June 18, 1924 to Joe and Minnie Mikan. His grandparents were Croatian and Lithuanian immigrants. His grandfather, George Mikan had lived in the small village of Vivodina in Croatia until 1891 when he migrated to Braddock, Pennsylvania. His initial plan was to pay a short visit to America, then return back to Croatia. But he ended up staying in America and was married in 1906. His wife gave birth to Joe, George's father, in October 1907. The family settled in Illinois, opening their own Geo. Mikan Restaurant. In addition to the restaurant, George’s family opened the Mikan Skating Rink. Young George Mikan grew up working alongside his two brothers, Joe and Ed, and his grandparents to run their family businesses.

While young, George was a giant among the other children. By the time he was eight years old, he stood five feet, nine inches tall. By age eleven he was six feet tall. George played basketball during his youth, but appeared to have no real future in athletics. He was awkward and uncoordinated. His height made him self-conscious of himself and shy around others. One day, George was playing in a pickup basketball game when he shattered his knee. The injury was so severe that he had to lie in a bed for over a year and a half as it did not heal correctly. While bedridden, he grew. When he finally was able to get out of bed he was 6’7” tall.

1. Setbacks:

When George was eleven years old, he had an unforeseen setback in his life. He was playing basketball when he shattered his knee. He spent 18 months in a bed recovering, but after his recovery he had grown seven inches taller. After he retired from the NBA, he campaigned to join the U.S. Congress, but lost. He entered into business law, but was forced to take out and use his life insurance when he could not find any work. You may experience unexpected setbacks like George. You may experience job transfers, layoffs, or failures. Although, such experiences are not enjoyable to endure, they can often lead to greater opportunities. How do you respond? Do you succumb to the challenges or do you push through looking forward to the next success? George’s great height led to a career in the NBA. His business failures led to his successful re-entry into business law and he became the commissioner of the American Basketball Association (ABA).

2. First Impressions:

The first impression you make on other people is a long-lasting statement about who you are. It speaks volumes. While initial assumptions about people are exaggerated and inaccurate they have a profound effect in business. What kind of lasting impression do you leave with people whom you meet? Do you ever find yourself making assumptions about people you meet? Take the time to familiarize yourself with people to know about a person rather than assuming who they are. When George entered college at DePaul University, head coach Keogan immediately assumed George could never be a good basketball player due to his slow speed and clumsiness. A new coach, Ray Meyer, was hired and when he gave George a chance he flourished into star.

3. Capitalize on opportunity:

George was a player who seized opportunity. In the 1940’s and 1950’s basketball leagues had no rules to prevent goaltending and stalling as well as positioning himself nearly right under the basket with six foot wide lanes. The more George capitalized on aspects of the game that were in his favor, the more dominant he became. He could not be stopped. Do you look for and capitalize on opportunities that you come across? When an opportunity comes it may not come again. Seize chances to improve in your work and progress towards greater success.

4. Who are you?:

What kind of a person are you in various circumstances? Are you different person when you do business than when you are at home? How do you treat other people? George made himself a friendly and accessible person. He was media and fan friendly as he traveled the country promoting upcoming games and doing interviews. He learned how to act from Babe Ruth and applied that to his life as a successful adult when he willingly signed autographs for fans. Are there any examples of when you thought to yourself: I want to be like them? Remembering who you are will be of great benefit to you.

5. Potential for Success:

You have the potential to accomplish great things in the business world. You may not find the success you desire in your early job positions, but keep pursuing it. It often takes time to find exactly what you are good at and where you flourish. Continue moving forward with a positive attitude and do not give up. As mentioned before, George lost in his attempt to become a Congressman. Within one year of retiring from basketball for the second time, George became head coach of the Lakers. His head coaching campaign lasted 39 games before his submitted his resignation. He struggled in business law, but after multiple failures he found success in another region of business law. He became the commissioner of the ABA and was instrumental in the creation of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise. It took him time to find a comfortable role outside of his NBA playing career where he could be successful.

6. Innovation:

People with innovative minds have become many of the most successful people in history. You come into business with your unique mind and can bring new ideas with you. Learn to think “outside of the box” and be creative. Sometimes one new idea is all it takes to be launched forward in business. Some of your ideas may work while others may not. You will never know if you do not experiment to find out. George tapped into innovation as ABA commissioner. He was tasked with the responsibility of finding new ways for the ABA to compete with its rival NBA league. His efforts resulted in a patriotic basketball, a three-point line, and highlighting slam dunks.

7. Pioneers:

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “pioneer” is defined as: ‘a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods’ and the Oxford dictionary defines a pioneer as: ‘a person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity.’ There are many different types of pioneers, including in business. George was a basketball pioneer. He redefined what it meant to play the center position. His dominance led to rule changes. He was one of the earliest super-stars of the NBA and brought the league out from obscurity. Learn from the “pioneers” who have come before you. Look at them and the legacy they left behind them. What lessons can you learn from them? Follow their examples of accomplishment and success by following the road they paved to open the door of your success. Become a pioneer yourself business.