Saturday, March 26, 2011

Meyer and Mikan

     When Chicago native Ray Meyer signed on as DePaul University’s basketball coach in 1942, he agreed to a one-year contract for the modest sum of $2,500. He turned down a three-year deal, he later explained, “because I didn’t know if I’d like the job or the profession.” His first agenda item was to turn the gangly, six-foot-10 freshman George Mikan into a basketball player.
     “I knew the value of the big man in basketball,” he wrote. “He gets more points by accident than a little guy [does] on purpose.” Every day after the team’s regular practice, Meyer put Mikan through a grueling regimen of skipping rope, shadow boxing, jumping over chairs, playing catch with medicine balls and tennis balls, and, almost incidentally, dribbling and shooting a basketball. In one drill, Mikan would stand under the basket and make a layup with his right hand, then rebound and make a layup with his left, rebound and layup with his right, etc., etc., etc. Known as the “Mikan Drill,” this routine has been used for virtually all big men ever since; among its adherents are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
     “Mikan was raw material with a little talent,” Meyer wrote. “His greatest asset was the desire to improve, which made him willing to listen and work. You can measure height and even talent, but not heart. Mikan showed me in the beginning he had the heart to be great.”
     Meyer’s patient tutelage transformed the Clark Kent look-alike into a Superman. Mikan learned to execute hook shots deftly with either hand and to rebound and block shots like no one else. In his first season at DePaul, he led the Blue Demons to a 19-5 record and an appearance in the NCAA tournament’s semifinal round (which hadn’t yet been labeled the Final Four).
     In 1943-44, Mikan and DePaul advanced to the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament, which was then equivalent to the NCAA in prestige, before losing to St. John’s to conclude a 22-4 campaign. Mikan was chosen national player of the year. The next year, DePaul won 18 of 20 regular-season games and marched through the NIT with awe-inspiring ease, crushing West Virginia 76-54, Rhode Island 97-53, and Bowling Green 71-54 to win the championship. In the semifinal game, Mikan nearly outscored the other team by himself, settling for a “tie” with 53. He was selected most valuable player of the NIT and repeated as national player of the year.
     Following the title game at Madison Square Garden, the Demons remained in New York for a contest with NCAA champion Oklahoma A&M and its six-foot-11 center Bob Kurland, Mikan’s only rival as the finest player in the country. Although the event was technically an exhibition to benefit the wartime Red Cross, it was hyped as a national championship game. DePaul had beaten the Aggies 48-46 several weeks earlier, and the rematch was expected to be a barn-burner. Unfortunately, it became somewhat anticlimactic when Mikan fouled out with six minutes left in the first half and three other starters soon followed. DePaul lost 52-44.

     After three seasons at DePaul, Mikan had become so outstanding that the rules were amended to diminish his dominance. It had been his custom to station himself under the opposition’s basket and simply swat incoming shots away or even catch them in midair and fling them ahead to teammates for easy fast breaks. Goaltending was outlawed prior to the 1945-46 season, but the change seemed not to bother Mikan, who continued to shine. He scored 555 points in 24 games (the previous year he had tallied 558 points, also in 24 games) and played superb defense. Rebounds were not counted in those days, but Mikan’s excellence in that area is well documented in contemporary accounts.
     DePaul rolled to a 19-5 mark in 1945-46, winning its final six games by an average of 20 points. Despite this, the Demons were snubbed by both the NCAA and NIT. Meyer suspected that his harsh comments about the officiating in the previous spring’s Oklahoma A&M game had gotten him and the Demons blackballed from both tournaments, but he never knew for sure. With no postseason opportunities forthcoming, the Mikan era at DePaul ended with a lopsided 65-40 victory over Beloit College in the regular-season finale on March 9, 1946.
     Meyer began to face life without the man who was later voted the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century. “While he was around,” Meyer wrote, “I was a great coach.” For his part, Mikan said of Meyer, “I’d be nothing without him.” The Demons had won 81 of 98 games in the four years and finished third, second, and first in their three postseason tournaments. Now Mikan was bound for greater glory in the pro ranks, while Meyer was destined for decades of obscurity. The 32-year-old coach would see his age double before he and DePaul returned to national prominence.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009 by Christopher Tabbert.

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