Whether in an individual player or as a collective whole, true excellence is the ability to make something more than the sum of its parts. The frontcourt trio of George Mikan, Jim Pollard, and Vern Mikkelsen personified this ethic. These three men (along with point guard Slater Martin) were the heart and soul of the Minneapolis Lakers – a franchise that captured six titles in the span of seven years from 1948 to 1954. Their era of domination ended 60 years ago and now with Vern Mikkelsen’s passing today, they’ve all departed this earth for greener pastures.
That Lakers frontcourt was a sum greater than its parts. Hard to believe considering the parts. The spectacled George Mikan was easily the most dominating player of the period. But no man succeeds alone. Alongside the big center was the quick forward Jim Pollard. On the other side was the large forward Vern Mikkelsen. Their coach, John Kundla, played these three men in such a way as to redefine the frontcourt: big George cemented the power of the low post center, Pollard’s quicksilver ways molded the small forward spot, while Mikkelsen’s defense and lunch pail board work built the power forward position.
Mikkelsen endured perhaps the hardest adjustment to these positions, but also complained the least. To begin with, Vern would never be described as “naturally gifted” at basketball. Even as a high school and college player, the 6’7” Mikkelsen relied more on hustle than “pure” talent. Nonetheless, hustle is a talent and he worked his way into an accomplished center. When Vern was drafted by the Lakers in 1949, Coach Kundla experimented with a double-center formation.
It was a complete disaster.
Mikan would get into Vern’s way, Vern would get into Mikan’s way. Finally, Kundla took Mikkelsen aside and devised a new scheme. Vern would sacrifice any pretense of plays being run for him. The low post would be the sole domain of Mikan. And if Mikan couldn’t get a shot, the usually cutting Jim Pollard was free to take up the slack.
Mikkelsen meanwhile would have his skills diverted to what turned out to be more productive endeavors. If Slater Martin or another Laker guard needed a bone-chilling pick up high, Vern would set it. If the Lakers couldn’t afford to have Mikan pick up fouls on an opposing center, Vern would cover that man on defense. If a shot was missed on offense, Vern would fight tough and nail for the board and the putback. Mikkelsen played these roles perfectly. He would finish his career averaging 9.4 rebounds per game, including four seasons of 10+ rebounds per game. He also is the NBA’s all-time leader in disqualifications due to foul outs. Mikkelsen had six fouls to burn and he wasn’t afraid to use them.
And here’s where Vern decided to exceed expectations. Here’s where he assumed the mantle of excellence.
He didn’t simply accept the role given to him by Kundla. Setting picks, crashing the boards, fouling hard, and playing defense was great, but this also meant opposing teams initially disrespected Mikkelsen’s offensive game. They could sag off Vern and collapse on Mikan or stick to Pollard like glue. Mikkelsen eventually prevented such tactics by developing an overhand set-shot that kept defenses honest. That little wrinkle proved of seismic importance to keeping the Lakers atop the NBA in the early 1950s.
But good times last for only so long.
The Lakers won their last Minneapolis title in 1954. When Mikan retired following that season, Mikkelsen enjoyed a career-year with 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. He was named to his fourth and final All-NBA 2nd Team. He was also selected to his fourth of six All-Star Games. By 1959, Pollard had also retired and Martin had been traded to the Hawks. This left Mikkelsen as the only holdover from the glory years.
But the bad times last for only so long.
That season, Mikkelsen passed the torch of Laker greatness on to a young forward, Elgin Baylor, who’d rebuild the Lakers’ greatness in southern California. But before relocating to Los Angeles, the Lakers gave Minnesota a parting NBA Finals appearance. Meeting the Boston Celtics for the time in the Finals, Mikkelsen had one of his finest playoff series ever averaging 21 points. Baylor provided 23 points a contest, but the deeper Celtics swept the Lakers.
Despite the great series, and only 30 years old, Mikkelsen thereafter retired from the NBA. During his 10-year career he ranked sixth in points scored and fourth in rebounds corralled amongst all players. 36 years later, he’d be inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame joining his frontline mates George Mikan and Jim Pollard. Whether they’re the greatest or most accomplished frontcourt triumvirate in NBA history is open to interpretation. What’s without a doubt is that they melded their talents perfectly and created a product far exceeding any anticipated arithmetic.
That shouldn’t be a surprise especially considering Mikkelsen’s presence. He was the eternal overachiever. He squeezed every last ounce of talent out of his body and left it on the court. He selflessly sacrificed individual stature for the greater cohesion of the team without a complaint. That sacrifice was more than repaid with four NBA titles, six All-Star Games, and four All-NBA 2nd Teams. Every power forward who has adroitly annoyed opponents owes Mikkelsen a debt. From Maurice Lucas to Bobby Jones to Dennis Rodman, Vern Mikkelsen was the prototype for their excellent agitating defense.