Biographer Schumacher (Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 2005, etc.) turns his eye to a basketball legend.
Renowned as the Minneapolis Lakers’ All-Star center, George Mikan began life in 1924 as the son of a Joliet, Ill., tavern owner. He studied to become a priest, then switched to law, before his prowess on the hardwood led him to the emerging sport of professional basketball. At DePaul University, he established himself as one of the nation’s best players and led his team to a collegiate championship. His dominance as a center earned him a contract with the Chicago American Gears. Schumacher provides a detailed account of how Mikan altered the way basketball was played by proving that a center could do more than leap for the jump ball to start games. He became a pre-eminent scorer, so unstoppable that several rule changes were made specifically to limit his dominance. Schumacher also shows the evolution of professional basketball, as the sport’s rising popularity convinced owners that it could be a lucrative business. But he doesn’t sentimentalize the past: Mikan staged a holdout when the financially strapped Gears tried to cut his salary, Schumacher notes, and he expected his teammates to defer to him at all times. He went to the Lakers in 1947, and his intensity brought the team multiple titles. Recognized by the NBA in 1996 as one of its 50 greatest players of all time, he tirelessly crusaded to get better pensions for former players. The men who had established the league that allowed players like Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett to earn $100-million contracts, Mikan reminded fans, received a mere $1,700 per month in retirement benefits. He made significant progress for his fellow retired players, but lost a leg and several fingers to diabetes before dying in 2005.
A compelling portrait of a dynamic and influential man, on and off the court.