PHOENIX (AP) – George Mikan, professional basketball’s first dominant big man who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships, died at a Scottsdale rehabilitation center, family members said Thursday. He was 80.

Mikan had suffered from diabetes and kidney failure. One leg was amputated in 2000, and he recently was hospitalized for six weeks for treatment of a diabetes wound in the other leg. For the past five years, he had undergone kidney dialysis three times a week, 41/2 hours per session.

Last Saturday, he was moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center, his son, Terry, said. He died Wednesday night.

“He had a fierce determination to excel, which he exhibited in his athletic career and business career,” Terry Mikan told The Associated Press on Thursday, “and that probably extended his life five years.”

Six-foot-10, nearsighted with thick glasses, Mikan was so effective as a center at DePaul that he forced the NCAA to adopt the goaltending rule. Later, the NBA widened the foul lane to lessen his dominance inside.

“George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA’s first true superstar,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “He had the ability to be a fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off the court. We may never see one man impact the game of basketball as he did, and represent it with such warmth and grace. The NBA family extends its condolences to his entire family.”

Mikan’s Lakers won five league titles in the first six years of the franchise’s history. A rough player, Mikan led the league in personal fouls three times and had 10 broken bones during his playing career. He averaged 23.1 points per game in seven seasons with Minneapolis before retiring because of injuries in 1956. Mikan was the league’s MVP in the 1948-49 season, when he averaged 28.3 points – a phenomenal total in that era – in leading the Lakers to the NBA title.

“He obviously was the first of the real high-profile players,” Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy said when told of Mikan’s death. “He literally carried the league. He gave us recognition and acceptance when we were at the bottom of the totem pole in professional sports. He transcended the game. People came to see him as much as they came to see the game.”

A statue was erected in honor of the NBA Hall of Famer at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

“When I think about George Mikan, I skip all the Wilt Chamberlains and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and I call him the The Original Big Man,”‘ current Minnesota star Kevin Garnett once said. “Without George Mikan, there would be no up-and-unders, no jump hooks, and there would be no label of the big man.”

Long before the term was invented, Mikan was the league’s first superstar. “It was certainly fair to say he was the Michael Jordan of his time, but I take it another step,” Vern Mikkelsen, Mikan’s Hall of Fame teammate, once said. “He was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, all rolled into one in our time.

“Everywhere we went, George was immediately recognized not just because he’s tall but because he was immaculately dressed and he had the glasses on and he had a big smile on his face. He was inundated, absolutely inundated.”

Teams and leagues were often short-lived in pro basketball’s early days. Mikan’s first title came with the National Basketball League, his second with the Basketball Association of America. The rest were with the NBA, formed when the two league’s merged in 1949.

Mikan coached the Lakers for part of the 1957-58 season, and was commissioner of the American Basketball Association in 1967, introducing the 3-point line and the distinctive red, white and blue ball.

“We were trying to get the network television contract, and I thought the typical brown ball was very hard to see in a large auditorium,” Mikan said. “I decided on a ball with different-colored panels of red, white and blue for three reasons. First, it was patriotic; second, the TV viewability was just fantastic; and third, because of the salability of the ball. The young kids really liked it. In fact, we ran product comparison tests and the youngsters invariably chose our ball over the others.”

In recent years, Mikan spoke out against the small pensions given to those who played in the league before 1965. Terry Mikan said most of his father’s awards and memorabilia had been sold. Mikan received a monthly pension check of $1,700, his son said.

“I’ve got one word that describes my dad, and that’s kindness,” Terry Mikan said. “Whenever he would make a toast at a family function, dad would ask us to raise our glass to kindness, and that’s the type of man he was.”

Mikan is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia; sons Larry, Terry, Patrick and Michael; daughters Trisha and Maureen, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Born June 18, 1924 in Joliet, Ill., Mikan didn’t play high school basketball, but when he entered DePaul, first-year coach Ray Meyer worked to transform him, monitoring exercises and drills that led to a devastating hook shot with either hand.

Mikan was the tournament’s MVP when DePaul won the 1945 National Invitation Tournament, scoring 53 points against Rhode Island.

AP-ES-06-02-05 1815EDT


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