The words “It’s too darn crowded in here!” echoed throughout the Minneapolis Athletic Club on November 26th, 1949. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, the Minneapolis Lakers were back in the gym experimenting with different ways to operate under their new double post system, which would take advantage of the teams two centers, George Mikan and newly-drafted Vern Mikkelsen.
While the Lakers already had the most dominant center in the league in George Mikan, they didn’t want to pass up on Mikkelsen, who they saw as one of the best players in the draft. Thus began the journey of coach John Kundla to find a way to incorporate two exceptional centers to play alongside each other. The poor spacing under the basket that resulted from the experimental offense called for a radical change, so Kundla moved Mikkelsen out to face the basket for the first time in his life. What transpired from this move was the creation of a new position, the power forward.
Lakers Coach John Kundla
Little Old Askov
Arild Verner Agerskob Mikkelsen was born in the quiet town of Parlier, California, on October 21st, 1928. His father was a Danish Lutheran pastor who had instilled in his son at a young age the value of faith and family, something Vern still holds close to this day. Financial hardship forced the family to move east to Withee, Wisconsin, where his father, Michael Mikkelsen, accepted a job at Nazareth Lutheran Church. At the age of eight the family moved again, this time to Dagmar, Montana, and then moved one last time to Askov, Minnesota, in the summer of 1939.
When Vern walked into the Askov gym for the first time, he witnessed a basketball game being played. Although he knew nothing of the game, he asked if could join. What followed was not indicative of Mikkelsen's future basketball endeavors: he grabbed the ball, sped down the court, and the players immediately called him for a travel. Despite his rough start, his newfound love of the game helped to ease the pain of constantly moving and leaving his friends. It didn't take long for Mikkelsen, who also ran track and participated in the band, to realize he had considerable talent in his new hobby.
Vern's Other Love
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Off to College!
Once his days at Askov High were over, Vern joined the Hamline University basketball team. His first major test came during a four-team Christmas tournament where his 6’5, 200 pound frame faced his most punishing task yet. At just 17 years old, Vern would have to stand toe to toe with 6’10 George Mikan from DePaul, 6’11 Don Otten from Bowling Green, and 7 foot Bob Kurland from Oklahoma A&M. Although going up against men that had significant height advantages on him, Mikkelsen showed off his tremendous talent for getting up soft shots despite the battles that were being waged underneath the boards. He was given a standing ovation when the crowd found out that the player who was recklessly throwing his body against that of older, stronger, and taller players was only 17 years old.
Hamline was beginning to gain recognition for the extraordinary post player that was developing his skills at the small Minnesota university. Vern had held his own against Mikan and Otten, which gave him tremendous confidence when Hamline played against bigger and more prestigious colleges. Due to his success at the collegiate level, he became the first small-college player to ever take part in the East-West College All-Star Game, held annually at Madison Square Garden in New York. Over 18 thousand spectators came out to watch the game. Even though Mikkelsen's team lost, he topped all scorers with 17 points and kept his team within striking distance. Included on his team were his roommates Slater Martin and Bob Harrison, who would later become his Minneapolis Laker teammates.
By Eoin [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
Going Pro: Minneapolis or Oklahoma?
The impending end of Mikkelsen's collegiate career led to a dilemma. Financial success was not guaranteed in professional basketball in 1949, and he had a deep love and appreciation for music that started in his youth. Vern was an exceptional musician, and legitimate questions arose about whether music or basketball would dominate Mikkelsen’s post-graduation life. Vern and his Hamline teammates beat the semi-professional Phillips 66ers in a pair of charity matches, and the 66ers coach, Cab Renick, was determined to sign Mikkelsen to his globetrotting team (Editor’s Note: TBCB will feature much more on the Bartlesville, Oklahoma Phillips 66ers in an upcoming post – MH). The starting center for the 66ers was a familiar face, the 7 foot Bob Kurkland, whom Vern faced a few years earlier in Chicago. Although Renick did indeed convince Mikkelsen to pursue basketball, it wasn’t in the way he had hoped.
Intrigued by the prospect of staying near home and playing for the Lakers, Vern wanted to give them a try, but there was only one problem. The Lakers already had the best center in the world in George Mikan, and Vern pondered how he would ever see playing time backing up Mikan. According to Dick Cullum, a well-respected writer in Minneapolis, the Lakers were set to draft Vern even above All-American Jim McIntyre. The Lakers needed someone who could let George Mikan catch his breath and also learn from him. Although Mikan had no plans on retiring and ended up playing five more years, the owner of the Lakers, Max Winter, promised Vern that Mikan was set to retire soon and that the center spot would be his.
Much like his introduction to basketball, the introduction of Mikkelsen to the Lakers was an embarrassing one. Max Winter brought Vern and his reverend father down to the locker room to meet the team, and the words emanating from the locker room were grossly profane. Feeling embarrassed, Mikan apologized for his language. Revered Mikkelsen relieved the tension by telling George, “George, boys will be boys”. This exchange set the tone for the friendship between Vern and Mikan that would last until Mikan’s death in 2005 and extend far beyond basketball. Described as a sly and humorous guy, Vern got along with his teammates extremely well.
The Minneapolis Armory, where the Lakers would often play
By Tim Kiser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5],
Due to his extreme talent, Kundla wanted to start Mikkelsen alongside Mikan, which led to his attempt at installing a double-post offense. However, due to the complaints from Mikan about spacing, Mikkelsen was moved out to the right forward spot, with Jim Pollard playing at left forward. Mikkelsen was unhappy with the decision. He never considered himself a forward, and only joined the Lakers because he thought he would soon become their starting center. Instead, Mikkelsen was the first of an enduring breed: the power forward. Vern was a player who loved to get down in the paint and battle off opponents for a rebound. He was a tough defender who epitomized team play. If he were to miss a shot he would go hard after the offensive rebound and put the ball back up without lowering it to his waist first. In addition to his scoring and defense, he also set tough picks and made great interior passes. Already equipped with a deadly hook shot, Mikkelsen also developed a mid-range set shot in order to be a more complete offensive player and spread the floor for Mikan.
According to coach John Kundla, Mikkelsen would relish the opportunity the guard the opposing team’s best player. John Kundla, who preached defense above all else, told Vern to play without any fear of fouling. A tough competitor, Vern took it to heart. He still holds the NBA record for fouling out of 127 games during his career. With all the tools at their disposal, Vern, Pollard, and Mikan created one of the greatest front lines in NBA history. With the Lakers, Mikkelsen would win NBA Championships in 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954 and he would become a six-time All-Star.
Minnesota Historical Society
Things started to fall apart for the franchise in the late 1950’s, yet Vern described his last year in 1959 as his best ever. Behind the strong play of Mikkelsen and rookie Elgin Baylor, the Lakers bounced back from a 19-53 record the previous season to make the playoffs. However, despite the team's revival, the Lakers were having trouble selling tickets. Unlike today when you know the Lakers will play at the Staples Center, the Minneapolis Lakers played at a few different places around the Twin Cities. During preparation for one home game, the team was gathered in the locker room at the Minneapolis Armory. As they were getting ready to get on the court, Elgin Baylor was still nowhere to be found. While the team was getting increasingly worried something had happened, Baylor burst into the locker room and exclaimed “I thought we were playing at the Auditorium!” If a player doesn’t know where to go, how can the fans?
The situation was exacerbated as owner Bob Short sought new ways to expand his fan base. Now instead of just playing home games in various arenas in Minneapolis and St. Paul, “home” games were also played in Seattle, Buffalo, San Francisco, and every other corner of America. Home court advantage was no longer a thing for the Minneapolis Lakers.
Due to the low attendance, the team started making plans to move west to Los Angeles. Short wanted to get both Vern and Coach Kundla to follow the team, but both refused. Mikkelsen had just had a son and didn’t want to miss out on him growing up due to the intense travel schedule of an NBA player. Short was so desperate to get Vern to travel west, he offered Mikkelsen 25 percent of the Lakers. After a talk with Kundla, they both decided to stay put in Minnesota since neither believed basketball would be able to survive in Los Angeles. Jean, the wife of Vern, would often wonder out loud how much that percentage of the team would be worth now. According to Forbes, the Lakers are currently worth about $900 million, meaning that the Mikkelsen family’s share of the team would be worth about $225 million today.
The Minneapolis Auditorium
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Importance of Family
Following his playing career, Vern became general manager for the Minnesota Muskies of the American Basketball Association alongside coach Jim Pollard and commissioner George Mikan. Once again, the front line was reunited. However, in the middle of the season, the Muskies left for Miami. Once again, Vern refused to move with the team. He took another job with the ABA as the general manager of the Minneapolis Pipers where he also briefly coached for them before the team moved to Pittsburgh. Later, after the Timberwolves joined the NBA, Mikkelsen fought hard to get an arena built, citing his own experiences of having nowhere to play years earlier.
In 1995, both Kundla and Mikkelsen were inducted into the Hall of Fame together. Neither were disappointed with not getting in sooner because they were so elated to go in together. Vern was also happy with getting inducted so late because his sons were then old enough to truly appreciate and enjoy the moment with him. Mikkelsen was also a humble and man, as can be seen in his touching and entertaining Hall of Fame induction speech below (where he actually denies being the first power forward).
As a man that has always stressed the importance of family, Vern feels the sense of an ongoing family from the Minneapolis Lakers and the Los Angeles Lakers. On April 11th, 2002 the Los Angeles Lakers, who have largely ignored their pre-Los Angeles history until the last decade, celebrated their Minneapolis roots by inviting Vern Mikkelsen, George Mikan, Slater Martin, John Kundla, Clyde Lovellette, and Jim Pollard’s widow to Los Angeles to take part in a halftime ceremony to commemorate their five championships. On that night, the Lakers raised two banners to celebrate the players and championships from Minneapolis. A few months later, members of the Minneapolis championship teams received championship rings valued at 10 thousand dollars.
During the ceremony, Vern could not believe it. He did not believe he deserved to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Shaq, Kobe, West, Mikan, Baylor and everyone else. However, as he talked to Kobe and Shaq about their common love of basketball and as he exchanged handshakes with Hollywood celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, the two separated families began to merge. At the moment when he walked onto center court and was being introduced along with his old teammates by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and other Los Angeles greats, the history of the Lakers finally began to connect. As George Mikan said that night at Staples Center, “It’s great that the NBA is finally recognizing us old guys.”
The Staples Center
The blue banner on the left lists the names of Minneapolis greats,
while the blue banner on the right notes Minneapolis Laker championships.
Both were raised on April 11th, 2002.
Egan, John. The Vern Mikkelsen Story. 2006.
Oberle, Joseph. Mikan, George. Unstoppable. The Story of George Mikan. 1997.