George Mikan leans his 6'10" frame over a small metal desk, adjusts his thick glasses and combs the sports pages of The Chicago Tribune. "Ah, there it is!" he says triumphantly. "But only for the second time this season."
He points to a four-inch chunk of agate type wedged between PRO FOOTBALL and TRANSACTIONS: the league standings for Roller Hockey International, his newest passion and latest business venture. Listed second in the Central Division, beneath Minnesota—the state Mikan put on the professional sports map more than 40 years ago—is Chicago, the city where his outsized basketball talent first bloomed at DePaul and where, as part-owner and chairman of the board of roller hockey's Chicago Cheetahs, he faces daily public relations challenges.
Even a man whose name once lit up the marquee at Madison Square Garden—TONIGHT: GEO MIKAN VS. KNICKS—can appreciate life's small publicity coups. "You have no idea how important this is," he says, tapping the little rectangle of newsprint. "It's very hard to establish name recognition, but that's what fills up seats. When the Bulls started, they were playing to empty houses."
Mikan would know, being something of an expert on fledgling sports leagues. He was thereat the dawn of the NBA, leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five of the league's first eight titles. During that run a 1950 Associated Press poll voted him the greatest basketball player of the first half of the century. Years later Mikan helped another pro league get on its feet by serving as the American Basketball Association's first commissioner, from 1967 to '69. The man who appointed him to that post, ABA founder Dennis Murphy, also happens to be the creator of Roller Hockey International. This spring, when Murphy was expanding his year-old league from 12 to 24 teams, he asked his towering friend to buy into a team. Mikan, now 70, grabbed Chicago's ownership opportunity like an errant rebound, adding his name to a league whose owners include New York Ranger Mark Messier and Who's the Boss's Tony Danza. "I'm having way too much fun at this," says Mikan, who works 12-hour days selling the Cheetahs from a bare-bones office in Chicago but still maintains a home and a law practice in Minneapolis. "And it's great to be back in Chicago. I get to lunch with Ray Meyer, my old DePaul coach, at least once a week."
He also handles, often with great amusement, a variety of day-to-day vexations: the laundering of the Cheetah mascot's suit, which no dry cleaner will touch; the embarrassment brought on by a halftime entertainer who turned out to be a bad tuba player on skates; and the good intentions of a fan who wanted to give Mikan a live cheetah. His biggest challenge, however, is improving Cheetah attendance, which has averaged 1,939 at the UIC Pavilion this season, second worst in the league. "We have to prove that we're for real, that we're going to be around," says Mikan. "I had to do that with the ABA, too, but I also had to fight the NBA. What's nice about roller hockey is that the NHL hasn't knocked us. It sees us as a continuation of its season." Indeed, several former NHL players and even an active one, Bryan Trottier of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the roller hockey Phantoms, have made a happy segue from blades to wheels.
Since last year's inaugural season, not only has the number of roller hockey teams doubled, but each team's schedule has also expanded from eight games to 22, and attendance figures continue to rise. What's more, the team names, which include the Atlanta Fire Ants, have grown ever more exotic. Why cheetahs in Chicago? "Cheetahs are fast," says Mikan. "They run 70 miles an hour, and our jersey numbers happen to start in the 70's."
So does that mean Chicago will soon feature a player wearing 99, the number Mikan made famous long before Wayne Gretzky ever stickhandled a puck? "Oh, I suppose so," says Mikan with a smile. "But so far we haven't found anybody 6'10"."