“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 team’s 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.
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 held close for the rest of his life. 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.
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 a 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.
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. 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 Mikan, “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.
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.