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Lakers centers pivotal to the pro game's evolution

Nov. 11, 1996
Nov. 11, 1996

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Nov. 11, 1996

NBA Preview 1996-97

Lakers centers pivotal to the pro game's evolution

From George Mikan to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers centers have pushed the NBA game forward.

A half-century of centers assembled under one basket, elbows
instinctively deployed, shoulders square to the hoop, eyes on
the ball. It's a posed shot, except that they can't help leaning
into each other. Almost everything has changed in 50 years--as
you move forward in Lakers history, each center has more and
more "people," and his "people" have thinner and thinner cell
phones--except the battle for position. The photographer poses
them for this intergenerational portrait, and the three centers,
representing a sustained arc of achievement, quietly jockey
under the lights, pressing, pushing. They can't help it.

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 1996 issue Original Layout

George Mikan to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal (Wilt
Chamberlain, the other superlative center in Lakers history, who
played for Los Angeles from 1968 to '73, declined the
photographer's invitation) define a spectacular evolution, not
only of eyewear but also of big men playing on a glamour
franchise. Few teams have a tradition this rich, and none have a
tradition this long, beginning with one of the pro game's
pioneers, carrying through basketball's most complete center and
culminating (for the moment) in a one-man multimedia empire.
Knees slightly bent, long arms outstretched, they back the rest
of history right out of the paint.

Mikan, whose career went from the 1946-47 season (which he spent
with the Chicago American Gears) to the 1955-56 season, was the
dominant center of his time, before the National Basketball
Association was very national and before the Lakers were even in
Los Angeles. (You understand, don't you, that the Lakers were
named when the franchise was based in Minneapolis, or else
today's dancers would be called the Reservoir Girls.) The game
then was basically a cult activity. Yet there is no denying
Mikan's excellence. His teams won five championships, and his
play under the basket was so overwhelming that in 1951 the lane
had to be widened from six feet to 12 feet to move him farther
out, to give others a chance.

The game was very quaint in those days. Mikan averaged $12,000 a
year in salary, played in front of a few thousand in towns like
Sheboygan and Fort Wayne, and studied in the off-season at
DePaul for a law degree. Did we say quaint? Mikan never had a
shoe contract, did not star in a movie and has no "people"
except for one business associate. He has lived just long enough
to see his wire rims come back in style.

On this day he is flabbergasted at his legacy, delighted to be
considered some kind of patriarch of pivotry. But even at 72
years old, he feels much more fraternal than paternal in the
presence of Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. Pushing and shoving, he
can't quite get the grin off his face. He's the source, the
wellspring, of this Lakers genealogy, yet he's acting like the
kid. Perhaps it helps that he still has his hair. Oh, that's the
other thing you notice as you study Lakers evolution: The
centers, as you move toward the present, actually have less and
less on top, going from Mikan's full head, to Abdul-Jabbar's
transitional pate (it was sort of patchy there for a while), to
O'Neal's preemptive strike, at age 24, against male-pattern
baldness.

Mikan remains a fan after all this time and does not lapse into
the grouchiness that so often marks old-timers' comments about
modern players. He would not change the game as it is today,
except maybe to extend the shot clock from 24 to 30 seconds, "to
reward teamwork, to get coaching back into the sport," he says.
And while he believes that he and his peers could survive in
today's superfast NBA--"We'd have our players, Vern Mikkelsen,
Slater Martin, they could still play"--he's not blind to the
physical changes. "Slater Martin was 5'10"," he says. "Now you
have guards playing at 6'9". They run like deer, great
shooters." He does lament the passing of that old-time passing.
"We played more team ball than they do today," he says. "Hit the
open man. Today the Chicago Bulls call it the triangle offense,
but that's how we played: The first cutter would be the guy who
scored. Nobody stood around; there were lots of picks, lots of
passing. Going upcourt, the ball wouldn't hit the floor."

Mikan's vantage point is unique. The history of the NBA is
compressed within his lifetime; he has seen the game discover
the wheel and land on the moon. Epochs in physical
development--Slater Martin to Magic Johnson--have passed on his
watch. Yet it's Abdul-Jabbar who bridges the old and the new,
who was grounded in Mikan's tradition of quiet workmanship and
still enjoyed a good portion of the flamboyant celebrity in
which O'Neal basks. Born in 1947, the year Mikan played his
first pro season, and retired in '89, only a few months before
O'Neal burst onto the basketball scene at LSU, he throve in both
worlds. Even after seven years of retirement, he is hard-pressed
to say which he preferred.

By his nature, which is thoughtful, Abdul-Jabbar tends to side
with history. He is now a published historian, and his
observations are laced with a perspective that Mikan and O'Neal
lack. Though he became, after joining the Lakers in 1975 and
winning five NBA championships, one of the country's most famous
people, he remembers a simpler time.

"I was unusual in that I got to see a lot of those old NBA guys
play," says Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up in New York, achieved his
first basketball fame at Power Memorial High School and caught
games as a kid at Madison Square Garden. "Bob Pettit, Cliff
Hagan--they'd come to the Garden, and my high school coach would
get us tickets. And of course I knew who George Mikan was. In
the sixth grade I was taught the Mikan hook-shot drill, right
hand, left hand."

In time Abdul-Jabbar would get a six-figure contract to wear a
certain kind of shoe, which was very big endorsement money in
the pre-Michael Jordan days. Yet he remembers that when he came
into the NBA in 1969 with the Milwaukee Bucks, Adidas merely
"asked" him to wear its shoe. "Well," he says, "we're talking
about a sport where, in the 1970s, the broadcast of a playoff
game was interrupted to show Old Yeller."

But things change, and they changed most dramatically during his
career. When he left basketball, Abdul-Jabbar was the
highest-salaried team player ever ($3 million a season). Mikan's
wire rims had been replaced by Abdul-Jabbar's goggles, and the
NBA was suddenly prime time. Abdul-Jabbar retired with a fame
that, according to Lorin Pullman, the vice president of Kareem
Productions, makes him a spokesman today for 14 corporations,
allows him to be a guest star on several sitcoms a year and
helped him get his ambitious historical study, Black Profiles in
Courage (written with Alan Steinberg), published last month.

Abdul-Jabbar knows that the purity of the Mikan era's
underexposed game was sacrificed as the NBA grew more popular.
The dunk and the three-point shot, the game's novelty act, woke
fans up. (If he were the rules czar, Abdul-Jabbar would move the
line back from its current 22 feet to the previous distance,
which was 23'9" at the top of the key.) "They tailored the game
for the fan, made it as appetizing and telegenic as possible,"
says Abdul-Jabbar. "It's certainly paid off, but it's weird,
too. I was in Rome recently and saw this dunking contest, and it
was hilarious. They had the leg out, the tongue out--just like
Michael--and then these most amazing looks of surprise when the
ball didn't go in."

The game came to be all about personality--his, Jordan's,
Magic's, Shaq's and so on. Mikan can and could walk the streets
without being accosted by fans. On the other hand, he didn't
retire from the Lakers a multimillionaire.

Of the threesome, O'Neal, a free agent who signed with L.A. on
July 18 for seven years and $120 million, is the only one who
came to the Lakers for a multimillion-dollar annual salary. But
he was already rich and famous--a movie star from Orlando! It is
his presence at this photo shoot that, in all likelihood, has
drawn a crew from Entertainment Tonight. He may or may not
become a title-winning center in the Lakers tradition, and he is
not as complete a player as his forebears, but he is a true
celebrity, famous just for being famous. The three centers trace
the route from anonymity to fame, and just as future generations
of Lakers centers can't have less hair than Shaq, the star of
movies and video games and rap albums, they also can't have more
fame. Or more of an entourage--a committee of five ushers him
from appointment to appointment.

Whatever their generational differences and degrees of fame, the
three Lakers are united on one point: The court should be
returned to its rightful owners--the centers, the men around
whom the game pivots. Basketball has not changed so much that
the big man can't again dominate it. The fact that the Bulls win
without an overpowering center doesn't shake the certainty of
Mikan and Abdul-Jabbar that the position they played remains
indispensable. "You'll always need somebody to rebound," says
Mikan, who then recites the old adage: "You can't win without a
good center, not in this game. And don't tell me there aren't
any. Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson. The Bulls just use their
center in different ways."

Similarly, Abdul-Jabbar thinks today's Bulls are an anomaly, a
winner only because of the brilliance of Jordan. He isn't
concerned that his old position isn't the seminal spot it used
to be. Anyway, how do you account for O'Neal? He doesn't exactly
line up as a point guard.

"The game changes," says Abdul-Jabbar, the historian. "The
Mayans played it in ancient times, a kind of basketball, except
the hoop was vertical instead of horizontal. And they'd cut out
the heart of the captain of the losing team." The man the Lakers
called Cap winces a little at this and then continues. "It's
come a long way. In those days the winners would get all the
stuff, all the other team's women, all the other team's beasts,
everything." Suddenly Abdul-Jabbar hears what he's saying; he
laughs at himself, realizing the game hasn't changed all that
much.

And it hasn't, not really. As the photographer concludes the
session, as ET calls it a wrap, as Abdul-Jabbar's person and
O'Neal's people mingle and actually compare cell phones, Mikan
takes O'Neal by the elbow, draws him aside and gestures quietly,
making a popping motion with his wrist. The old guy's showing
him a move.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER COVER Front and Center Can Shaq hit the championship heights reached by Lakers legends George Mikan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and George Mikan]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Shaq (34) must play fiercely to match Kareem (33) and Mikan, who each won five titles with the Lakers. [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and George Mikan reaching up for basketball]B/W PHOTO: APTo contain Mikan (99), the lane was widened to 12 feet; to harness Chamberlain, it was expanded to 16 feet. [George Mikan in game]COLOR PHOTO: SHEEDY & LONG [See caption above--Wilt Chamberlain in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH As rivals like Olajuwon found out to their sorrow, Abdul-Jabbar's game was a rare blend of force and finesse. [Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in game]COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS A daunting presence down low and surprisingly nimble, O'Neal still must develop the all-around skills of his predecessors. [Shaquille O'Neal in game]