It is difficult, maybe impossible, to think of what it was like to play in the NBA over six decades ago, when Vern Mikkelsen made his debut. So don't think of it in years. Instead, try it in feet and inches. When Mikkelsen took over the forward spot for the Minneapolis Lakers and became a 10-year mainstay with the team, the man he replaced, Don "Swede" Carlson, was 5-foot-11.
That's how long ago it was.
It was the autumn of 1949 and Mikkelsen, a husky, 6-foot-7, 235-pounder, would join the most dominant team, at any level, since the game was invented nearly 60 years before. Mikkelsen would play "right forward" -- the terms "strong forward" and "power forward" not yet being part of the vernacular -- and would fill that role through the end of George Mikan's reign, to the Bill Russell era, through 1959, when the gravity-defying Elgin Baylor changed the way the game looked. So Mikkelsen -- a man who grew up in the rutabaga capital of the world, tiny Askov, Minn. -- played before, during and after the revolution that took place in 1950s.
The revolution wasn't televised. But video evidence or not, the Lakers won and won often. Mikkelsen was part of the first great front line -- and the first modern one. Playing in a wrap-it-tight-and-carry-on era, Mikkelsen was an iron man, missing just one game in his last eight seasons and only five of 704 in his entire career.
"Vern Mikkelsen was a complete basketball player," said Earl Lloyd, the NBA's first black player and a forward for Washington and Syracuse who frequently battled against Mikkelsen. "He rebounded, hustled up and down the floor. His shot selection was fantastic."
Every team longs for the planetary alignment that yields a versatile small forward, a bruising rebounder and a block of granite in the middle. A glance at the annual standings reveals that few teams get their wish. But the Lakers had it in 1949 and their stalwart front line made them nearly invincible.
When he was 6 months old, Vern Mikkelsen's parents moved him and his two older sisters from California to Askov, a predominantly Danish community some 60 miles south of Duluth, Minn. His father, Michael, was a Lutheran pastor, and life in an austere environment taught Vern the importance of hard work.
"I hadn't seen the game or watched or ever had a hoop in the backyard. I didn't play any basketball until I was in the seventh grade," Mikkelsen recalled. "In a small school we all got to play."
In time, a fortuitous flat tire would change his fortunes. Joe Hutton was the coach for Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Al Holst was a recruiter for Hutton and he drove around during the summer looking for players. While driving through Askov he got a flat and stopped to get it fixed.
"It's a small town, there's only one gas station there," Mikkelsen said. "So he got talking with the guy fixing the tire and he told Holst, 'We have a kid going to school here that you should talk to.'"
Holst was excited.
"People don't know it," said Mikkelsen, "but at that time the biggest thing Askov had as a cash crop was the rutabaga; for years it was called the rutabaga capital of the world, but people don't know that. At the time I was out on a Saturday morning working for farmers pulling rutabagas. So a 1935 Buick pulls up toward me and I figured somebody wanted to talk to me. It didn't take him too long to get the story straight. But that's when I told him it may not work because Hamline was a Methodist institution and I'd grown up Lutheran and my dad didn't have much money. We ate well, because all the members of the congregation would bring food to our house and coal to the furnace. So I didn't really think this would fly. But Holst thought the school would pay my way. I said I would have to talk to my parents and he asked how he could meet them. I said 'My mom serves a nice dinner at suppertime.' So Holst was there and he and my dad went at for it about two hours and everything went fine."
Mikkelsen enrolled at Hamline at 16 and, after playing center and seeing his numbers rise four straight years and being selected All-American, graduated by the time was 20. He had sprung to 6-foot-7 by the end of college.
He was the territorial draft pick of the Lakers. "I knew about the Lakers from two years earlier," Mikkelsen explained. It was hard not to know: Minneapolis had Jim Pollard and then Mikan, who had played on three championship teams, dating back to the Chicago Gears of the NBL in 1947. "I joined a team of superstars," Mikkelsen continued.
Also joining the Lakers in 1949 were Slater Martin from Texas and Bobby Harrison from Michigan. Martin, just 5-foot-11, was known as one of the best defensive guards in the circuit. Harrison would press opposing guards and distribute the ball.
"It was a serious team and a good atmosphere," Mikkelsen recalled. Plus he was earning $6,000, above-average pay for that time. "George and I became good friends."
But it was also a challenge.
"I was a center in college," Mikkelsen said, recalling that he played almost exclusively with his back to the basket. "At Hamline, they just wanted me to rebound. 'Don't dribble and don't shoot,' they said. I had to learn a whole new concept and you don't just turn around and face the basket and know what you are doing. When I came to the Lakers I was kind of not in a good place to begin. They had decided that I should be in a double pivot [with George Mikan] and I didn't like it. After two weeks, George said to me, 'This isn't going to work.' The lanes were narrow and that was his office. Coach [John] Kundla decided that George was right."
So Mikkelsen worked on an overhead shot that he was able to get off against smaller defenders. "I played smaller guys Swede Carlson's size all the way through. By the end I was playing a guy by the name of Bob Pettit. That's how the power forward came into play. I scored when Pollard and Mikan weren't having a good time," he said.
Which wasn't too often. Mikan won each scoring title from 1947 to 1952, his first six years as a pro. In contrast to Mikan's rough, hulking presence in the lane, Pollard was reed thin at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds and could jump out of the gym.
"[Pollard] was an excellent athlete and sometimes thought the game was too easy. He was that much better than some of the other players," Mikkelsen recalled. "There's nobody to compare him to now, because now front-line guys go to 6-foot-10 and even up to 7 feet."
Meanwhile, coach Kundla had a deft touch with his troops.
"He was very gentlemanly and rarely raised his voice at any of us," Mikkelsen said. "But at halftimes he made his criticisms and he would always start with George. He'd say, 'Now George you shouldn't have passed that ball cross-court because it was something you don't do.'" If Kundla could get tough with the league's biggest and highest-paid star, it made it easier for him to get tough with everyone else.
It all worked. The Lakers won in 1950, and then from 1952 through 1954. "They were just big people," said Earl Lloyd. "The two really huge people were Mikkelsen and Mikan. You think it was an accident that they won all those titles?"
"Looking back on it, many guys writing stories figured it was all George Mikan," Mikkelsen said. "But that wasn't the case. We would all run the court." He was right. Mikkelsen was a six-time All-Star and was selected All-NBA Second Team four times. An All-Star seven times, Slater Martin was All-NBA Second Team five times. Pollard, too, was an All-NBL and All-BAA selection and a four-time NBA All-Star.
What is rarely noticed is that it was the Lakers' defense -- not their scoring -- that was dominant from 1950 to 1954. In those five seasons they never led the circuit in scoring but finished first in points against twice, second twice, and third another time. Come April, it was playoff time. For Minneapolis that meant winning time. Mikkelsen recalled that the winner's share was usually about $1,200, a small sum but far "better than a stick in the eye."
After Mikan retired in 1954 and Syracuse owner Danny Biasone invented the 24-second clock, the Lakers faced a challenge they couldn't solve. The acquisition of Clyde Lovellette and the increased scoring of Mikkelsen, Martin and Whitey Skoog made their offense second in the league, better than the years before. But their defense, allowing 94 points a game, finished next to last. When Russell entered the league in 1957 -- and Kundla traded Clyde Lovellette, the Lakers' leading rebounder and scorer, to Cincinnati after the season -- the team slid to a dismal 19-53 in 1958. It wasn't merely the retirement of Mikan that ended the Lakers' reign. The pace and the face of the game had changed. Minneapolis hadn't kept up.
Mikkelsen was growing tired of the grind, too. "I was single my first five years on the team," he said. "I still liked the game. But the travel was just terrible once I got married in 1955 and we had a son. I also had started an insurance business in Minneapolis. It wasn't the same.
"I liked my last year was because we had a new guy named Elgin Baylor. Now we had a superstar. He could do things inside and he had the one-handed jump shot." Mikkelsen had one last highlight, scoring a career-high 43 points against Cincinnati in a February contest. He became just the sixth player in league history to score 10,000 points. In their last season in Minneapolis the Lakers rewarded their fans by winning the Western Division. But Boston swept them in the NBA Finals. Mikkelsen retired.
Now owner Bob Short wanted Mikkelsen to be his player-coach for the Lakers' move out west. "He said, 'Everybody's got a price; what do you want?'" Mikkelsen recalled. "I didn't want to go, so I said $50,000, knowing he couldn't afford that. I was with my wife, Jean, and I said, 'Thanks for the dinner.' He said, 'Don't ever leave without making a counteroffer. I'll tell you what: I'll pay you $25,000 and will give you 25 percent of the team as an owner.'"
But Mikkelsen refused.
Six years later, Jack Kent Cooke bought the team for $5.5 million. "Cooke had them for 10 years and sold them for something like $65 million to Jerry Buss," Mikkelsen said. "I didn't think the Lakers would get to Sioux Falls much less L.A." He went home to Minneapolis and developed his business, spending more time with his wife and two sons.
In 1995 the Hall of Fame called, notifying him that he and Kundla would be inducted in the same year. "It was great to go in with Kundla," Mikkelsen said.
Earl Lloyd inducted Mikkelsen and used a video demonstration to show some highlights of his career and his family members. "I didn't like you guys then," he kidded Mikkelsen. "But I won't hold it against you now."
Basketball historian Ken Shouler has served as managing editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."