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On George Mikan, Basketball's First 'Big Man'


Next, we have the story of an American superstar. Commentator Frank Deford has this appreciation of a big man who dominated basketball half a century ago.


No player can control a game so much as a dominating basketball center. Quarterbacks only play offense, goalies defense; pitchers only play some games. Outstanding big men, though, can rule at both ends of the court most all game long. They can utterly change a game, and they do.

When George Mikan died the other day, he made us remember once again how he, the first great big man in professional basketball, was one of the genuinely seminal figures in sport. In his horn-rimmed glasses with a buckle on his silk shorts, wearing the curious signature MPLS., for Minneapolis, across his broad chest, Mikan seems now like he came from paleolithic times.

But make no mistake, he was truly ruffian. Because number 99 was so big and so good, he forced rule changes in both college and the pros. Indirectly, he was even responsible for the installation of the 24-second clock, which rescued the league from tedium.

Big George's death also reminded us of how really few supreme centers there have been, only five for sure: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain after Mikan, than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and now Shaquille O'Neal. Will there be anyone to succeed O'Neal on this pantheon? Curiously, for all that centers matter, it is not a particularly fashionable position anymore. In an ironic way, we've come full circle.

Before Mikan showed that a big man could be a genuine athlete, not just somebody who was taller than everybody else, centers were routinely referred to as goons. Mikan himself grew up embarrassed about his height, ducking about slump shouldered.

Now while the best big men may hold themselves high, many a shoe-playing center, having to work with their backs to the basket, Mikan's most devastating shot was a hook. Few big men even have the hook shot in their repertoire today. They want to square up and fire away. Like the thin man that is supposed to be fighting to get out of every fat fellow, so does there seem to be a little man inside every big guy on the court.

Tim Duncan, perhaps the soundest player in the game, stands 6'11", a bit taller than Mikan, but he leads his San Antonio Spurs into the championship finals against Detroit as a power forward. Today's players find that a much more glamorous position.

Unlike the last two great big men, the phlegmatic Abdul-Jabbar and the awesome Chamberlain, O'Neal has done his best off court to soften the image of the man in the middle. He employs some droll wit and played a friendly giant in the movies. He also displayed extraordinary generosity by volunteering to pay for Mikan's funeral, an offer that the family accepted. He had met the old man at various honors functions, and Shaq was sensitive enough to understand that he is part of the legacy that George Mikan founded that allow the big man to proudly stand tall.

INSKEEP: Those are the comments of Frank Deford. His newest book is "The Old Ball Game" about baseball and America at the start of the 20th century. We hear him each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.