mr basketball

Reviewed by Richard Kortum, East Tennessee State University

DECEMBER 10, 2008       archive

Any American boy can be a basketball star if he grows up, up, up. — Bill Vaughn

You donít have to be a basketball fanatic. Itís perfectly obvious even to the most casual observer. And you neednít take out a yardstick or tape measure, either. Since the wonder years of the inventive Dr. Naismith, players flying up and down the hardwoods, and up, up, up and over the rims, have grown taller by the decade. No question about it: height matters; height helps. Still, despite the widely shared sentiment expressed by Vaughnís humorous quip, size isnít everything. Just ask Mugsy Bogues or Spud Webb, knee-high munchkins to the NBAís imported Chinese skyscraper, Yao Ming. Even so, the likes of these two Mighty Mites is a rarity these days. Small fries are the curiosity now. An NBA sideshow. In this there is no small irony.

Shaq calls him "the Big Original." I like to call Mikan "the Original Big."

To be sure, unnatural height is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for virtuosity on a basketball court. Not all beanpoles are going to fetch gold from above the clouds. Watch any gangly adolescent painfully struggling to keep his wobbly legs from buckling following a sudden growth spurt. Witness George Mikan. In the winter of 1938-39, playing in a Chicago youth league game, the future Hall of Famer suffered a fractured leg. He was 14 years old and a lofty five feet, eleven inches tall. When he got off crutches six months later he was six feet, five. Before he completed high school, he had shot up to a freakish six-ten.

You can bet your bottom dollar somebodyís going to take notice. Undefended, this kid could stuff a basketball without hardly leaving the floor. But, he sure couldnít dance. Skip rope? I donít think so. Remember the scene where Bambi first tries to stand on all fours? Mikanís long shanks might not have been as prone to tangles as all that; but, if this awkward, self-conscious young giant were going to even dream of competing in college hoops, even way back in 1941, heíd have to learn. It would take him long hours, long days, long weeks, months, and years to coordinate the movements of those arms and legs that seemed to belong to different continents. But with the help of a dedicated coach, a true believer in the almost-supernatural potential of his daunting ďprojectĒ, coordinate them he did. Yes, and then some. Okay, so Mikan would never bounce a basketball like Cousy; but when he was in a fit and proper mood this Midwestern grandson of Croat immigrants might block 20 shots, collect 36 rebounds, or drop 61 points on an NBA opponent.[1] His patented hook, launched by either hand, is the model for countless big men today. Think of Wilt the Stilt, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They wonít hesitate to tell you.

Mikan ruled. In his heyday, at DePaul and later in Chicago, then Minneapolis, home and away, Mikan exercised absolute dominion over the post. The paint was his. Ever after, things could never be the same. The hallowed rules would have to be changed. Nobody but hometown diehards loves Goliath. Other than by dunking, how can anybody put the ball in the pail when a stratospheric Superman can simply reach up and snatch it out of the air right above the ring just about anytime he pleases? Goaltending was outlawed; the lane was widened from six feet to twelve. The league called these "Mikan Rules." In this lies delicious irony, too. As first Commissioner of the short-lived ABA, wanting to make the game more exciting, and to further open up the middle, Mikan himself introduced the three-point shot. Itís a pity that he proved to be less of a coach and less an administrator than he was a player. But, really, could it have been otherwise?

Schumacher gives us a lesson in history. Not a new or novel one, nor particularly well told; but a lesson that is nonetheless ripe and resonant for our times. To us old hands it might serve as important reminder. To young players around the country – nay, world – and here I especially single out our high-flying young NBA multimillionaires, for whom Michael Jordan has nearly been relegated to the shelves of ancient history – it should be made to serve as a first prerequisite for hoops catechism. How much do you think these pampered celebrities really know about those who paved their way? Precious little, Iíd have to say, judging by the discreditable ways many of them talk their talk and walk their walk. How, then, can they even begin to appreciate the depth of their debt? The bliss of such ignorance, doubt it not, comes at a cost.

The grace and beauty of basketball are often said to lie in its being played in the Zennish moment. But to achieve such refinement of body, mind, and spirit, to create a perfect harmony by subordinating self to other (i.e., to oneís team), requires not only endless hours of arduous practice, it demands years of dedicated study. Basketball is not just a game; itís not merely sport. Basketball, when engaged in at the highest level, is, like dance, a fluid form of human expression. At its finest itís poetry in motion, to risk an overused clichť. More than that, itís a way of life. Character development is at least as important as player development, as this is currently understood in the business. Even non-fans can see whatís happening – and can suffer the consequences – when our high priests of hoops fail to undergo the necessary initiations, refuse to humble themselves and make at the altar the proper offerings of respect. Basketball is not a religion (though arguably it satisfies Ninian Smartís defining "seven dimensions"). Even so, such secular stains can amount to sins of omission, too. Reading this book, studying it, discussing it, perhaps even being examined on it, should be a first stage on the pilgrimís road to penance.

Be that as it may, the author himself, I suspect, is not, or has not long been, a committed fan of high-level hoops. Within these pages thereís a distinct feeling of separation, of distance. It reminds me of my experiences in the U.K. a decade and a-half ago. While playing and coaching for Englandís Oxford Blues during an extended stint as a philosophy postgraduate, I took a kind of perverse pleasure in the ungainly language of beat writers assigned to cover the British Universities Sports Federation (BUSF) national basketball tournament or the annual Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Match for the Fleet Street dailies. (Iíve do doubt that every Brit would find it equally droll to peruse a county cricket match rendered by your typical insular American columnist; I confess that I do.) At many places Schumacherís writing betrays a lack of close familiarity with the game. Sometimes this makes for wry amusement. Other times, itís mildly annoying. I canít imagine him ever having been anything like a gym rat, like me. The smell of rodent is missing. I could be wrong, of course, but Iíd be utterly astonished if heís been inside a sweaty, tense courtside huddle at crunch time where Xs and Os were hastily diagrammed for a last shot.

As a rule, economy is in my book a storytellerís virtue. Schumacherís prose boasts little in the way of ornamentation. I applaud. Less is more. And yet, in too many passages I find something wanting. Something more needs to be said. Something an insider, or an intimate, would know and confide. Something refreshing and original, that helps me to get inside Mikan the person.

But never mind all that. Even an astute, inquisitive outsider can bring a fresh perspective to a familiar, well-traveled landscape. The author has dutifully taken pains to track down and interview a number of players, coaches, officials, family and friends still living, who enjoyed close ties to George Mikan. Thereís a superabundance of information here – but, alas, a corresponding dearth of insight or revelation. As much as one delights in the unprecedented achievements of this fierce competitor who was loathe to leave a game for any reason – and former players such as myself can appreciate these more deeply than anybody else on earth, I warrant – Schumacherís narrative is a bit too one-sided, too flattering, even for a courageous perennial All Star, who we are assured, "had never been a complex individual."

Part of the trouble is that most of those whom the author sought out for anecdote or disclosure were relying on recollections more than half a century old. But itís more than this. Even ancient memories can be dusted off and made to shine as bright as new. Whatís disappointing is that itís far from clear whether Schumacher possessed the wherewithal to pursue the right questions – illuminating questions – queries that could shed important, or entertaining, or maybe even disturbing light on the mighty man himself. Out of deference, perhaps, did he tread with caution? Or did he simply not know what else to ask?

Aside from the final chapter, and the minutiae contained in dozens and dozens of box scores, most readers who come to this book will likely have already heard, in advance of turning the cover, of the incredible feats that make up the highlight reel of George Mikanís basketball career. That Mikan was foremost among the vanguard – those early postwar blue-collar stalwarts who bore real bruises in launching the fledgling National Basketball Association and bravely muscled it into the front of the national consciousness – is not breaking news. That Mikan was, is, and always will remain the sportís first superstar, that he was voted the most outstanding player of the first half of the 20th century, has been trumpeted in successive generations by others. The early triumphs at marbles, the youthful years of piano lessons that helped to create those nimble, soft hands, the part-time bartending at the family tavern during his college days (even while on scholarship) will likely be new information for most readers (as they were for me). I had never heard, for instance, that George Mikan had a brother who also played in the pros. But this legendary superstarís many contributions to the game have been fairly thoroughly documented before. And much about his life, off as well as on the court, has been publicly laid bare to interested audiences by those more in the loop than Schumacher. (For starters, we have two autobiographies: Mr. Basketball: George Mikan's Own Story, 1951; and Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan, the First NBA Superstar, by Mikan and Joseph Oberle, 1997. Schumacher draws heavily on these.) What then is the point of yet another tribute? Who is the intended audience this time around?

Please donít get me wrong. The towering subject of this book casts a long shadow across our cultural landscape. George Mikan, Mr. Basketball, is fully deserving of rich tribute ĖĖ and further examination. The ends as well as the means of his long life justify serious scrutiny. The sweeping arc of his life ought to be viewed from a multiplicity of perspectives. The investment of interpretation promises handsome payoffs. There is certainly much more of worth, of genuine meaning, I would venture, about this ďgentle giantĒ, and about the formative years of the NBA, that could usefully be explored. The subject is compelling. Unfortunately, Schumacherís execution is lacking. What we want is to gain enough of a grasp, a well-rounded sense, of this extraordinary athlete but off-court reportedly ordinary Midwestern man: of his motivations, the ways he related to success and failure, to fame and to fortune, to others, to competing against his own brother, to politics and religion and art, to the wider world, to himself. What we get, however, is for the most part rather superficial: pages and pages of game reportage, wins and losses, points scored, rebounds, blocks, and steals, with a few scattered anecdotes and routine personal vital statistics thrown in as filler. I wouldnít call it hack journalism, exactly; but it does often come off as contrived – forced at times, and formulaic throughout. The writing as a whole is pedestrian. Hemingway himself could not, I fear, stomach such hackneyed use of the sentential connector Ďandí. In many places the repetitive character of this insipid, run-on sentence structuring intrudes to the point of distraction. Where were the editors, one wonders? These portraits – of Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, the birth of the NBA – are flat and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, they barely rise above caricature.

Itís not until the final chapter, "A Final Campaign," that Schumacher seems to rouse himself and rise to the cause. Fast forward to 1999. (And, yes, pretty much everything following Mikanís ultimate retirement in 1958 following a brief "failed comeback" is either ignored or hastily glossed: the chapter "ABA Commissioner" takes up suddenly in 1966 and lasts all of seven and a half pages). Long after the whistles have blown for the last time, long after the championship banners have been hung from the rafters, long after most of the astounding records have been surpassed, long after the ABA has merged into the NBA, Mikan has retired from the practice of law and real estate. Nearing the end of his life, reluctantly, but with what vigor is left to him, our protagonist, an amputee now confined to a wheelchair, embraces a new cause. The new flag Ďround which Mikan strenuously rallies is noble. Moreover, it is long, long overdue: the lack of pension for the early players ĖĖ for those few still alive, that is.

Schumacher details the shameful situation with a zeal that hardly surfaced in his earlier chapters. Yes, his account is totally one-sided; itís heavy-handed, too. Certainly, a fair and balanced testament would have us hear from both the Commissioner and the Playerís Association, both implicated by Schumacher (parroting the irate name-calling of others) for moral if not legal turpitude. Although one may suspect that Schumacher himself only learned of this sordid affair from the famous television special, the tribute to Mr. Basketball that aired on ESPN in 2005, nevertheless, as I re-read the final ten pages aloud (supplying explanations of people and organizations and background events as called for), my wifeís eyes welled with tears. Sheís no fan. She knows I played once-upon-a-time; she understands that I still love, and will always love, the game. But my wife (sadly) doesnít share my utter enthusiasm. Especially during these months of widespread economic woes, with the fears of ordinary people mounting daily over diminishing job security, increasing health care costs, and disappearing retirement benefits, the final pages of this book are full of poignancy. The narrative finally begins to flow; the writing is more polished. My wife grew indignant, then outraged. Tears flowed down her cheeks. And yet. After all the drama of the dying manís heroic fight, to secure an agreement for a modest pension scheme from the league and from the Playerís Association for the handful of pros who played their hearts out and wore their bodies to a frazzle, and who are now in dire straits – after all this – the author refuses to give us the result! Mercy! What the hell happened? Was that last attempt to bring the parties to the collective bargaining table, that reportedly was "in the works" for 2005, successful? Or not?

Mikan died in his sleep before anything was resolved. Eulogies poured in. The family, fallen from riches to rags by the big manís medical expenses, took Shaquille OíNeal up on his offer to pay for the funeral. (Years before, Mikan had had with heartbreak to sell off his personal store of priceless memorabilia to keep afloat.) This wrenches the gut, to be sure. But to leave the sympathetic reader hanging, to drop the ball like this, is inexplicably poor judgment, it seems to me. If the news about the proposed pensions was bad, then, let us boil even hotter. If it was good, well, then, allow us to sigh with relief and say, ďThank God for that, at least!Ē

Final recommendation? This is no Book of the Month Club book. Not even in paperback. As a former college hoopster and coach whoís been engaged in the game for nearly fifty years, I can read about and discuss game strategy, tactics, offenses and defenses, Xs and Os, drills, player profiles, foul shooting, three-point shooting, game situations and sequences, you name it ad nauseam down to the finest wrinkle and least detail. I still scrutinize, I confess, the box scores of my old alma mater, Duke, for whom I collected a lot of splinters in my behind, even immediately following a televised contest. This book might better hold the attention of guys and gals like me – readers who still bear that dusky odor redolent of rodent. But I suspect that for long stretches most will find this book tedious, and far from riveting. Even so; even so. Beginning with any child – boy or girl – who begins to show signs of taking this game to heart, and proceeding into the ranks of junior high or middle school, and continuing right up through high school, college, and university, I would heartily recommend that this book, despite its several shortcomings, be made required reading. Most of all, Iíd stuff the Christmas stocking (or equivalent) of each and every professional player on earth, from Aardvarkistan to Zzimbabwe, with a hardback copy. Iíd save two for every overpaid neon-lighted megastar in todayís NBA. If I had to put money on it, Iíd bet a tenner that this is precisely the crowd to whom Schumacher directed this book. The somewhat juvenile or sophomoric character of the writing should not be too demanding. Letís hope they can read.

What do they say about those who forget the past? Well, in this world, and in this arena, a repeat of what George Mikan and his rough and tumble mates endured, and ultimately accomplished, is not likely to come to pass. Once was more than enough. This locomotive express is rushing will ye, nill ye headlong into a future of sport-as-glitz, hoops-as-hoopla, the likes of which none can predict. A space shuttle returns and is re-launched. But this trainís not a-cominí back to its inaugural platform. The bell cannot be unrung. Moreís the pity, maybe. As Schumacher recounts, Michael Jordanís 1966 contract earned him more in a single season than Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and The Big "O," Oscar Robertson, earned in their careers combined. There are lots of ways to put those early days into perspective. Schumacher, to his credit supplies more than a few. It would be gratifying to believe that the many lessons that can be gleaned from the life and times of George Mikan & Co. might somehow find their way into the hearts and minds of basketball aficionados everywhere. I guess weíll just have to wait and see. Schumacher could have done much more to help realize this possibility. Even so, let us hope and pray that Santaís little helpers are listening.

By the way: the dozen photos are nice, and of good quality. But, whereís that famous hook shot!

[1] Note that Schumacher reports that Mikan blocked 20 shots in the Minneapolis Lakers victory over the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1953 NBA finals. But blocked shots were not officially recorded in the NBA before the 1973-74 season. According to the NBAís official website, NBA Encyclopedia, Elmore Smith holds the record for most blocked shots in a single game, 17, in a match between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trailblazers, October 28, 1973.

Mr. Basketball: George Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers, and the Birth of the NBA, by Michael Schumacher. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. (Originally published in 2007 by Bloomsbury USA, New York.) ISBN: 978-0-8166-5675-2. $18.95 paperback. 317 pages, 13 halftones.

Copyright © 2008 by Richard Kortum.

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