Former Minneapolis Laker George Mikan was
TODAY, A BASKETBALL SUPERSTAR on the verge of retirement can look forward to high-paying product endorsements, seven-figure book contracts, and TV and movie appearances. But in 1956, when professional basketball attracted only a small audience and few players were widely known, the prospects were not as hopeful. ¶ That year, George Mikan, the star center for the Minneapolis Lakers and one of the greatest players ever to wear a basketball jersey, retired from the sport and began a search for his place in the world outside of basketball. Political strategizers convinced him to launch a campaign for Congress, during which he learned the hard lesson that success in sports is no guarantee of the same in politics. ¶ As a player, Mikan had dominated basketball. Humble and a bit shy off-court, the bespectacled Mikan fouled, banged, and crashed his nearly seven-foot frame into position as lead scorer for the National Basketball Association and its predecessor leagues for six straight years. During a nine-year professional career, he led his teams to seven league championships. The NBA had to rewrite its rulebook to handle Mikan’s height and agility, devising regulations that made it harder for him to block shots and rule the center lanes.
No other player of the time approached Mikan in overwhelming opponents. (A famous marquee sign about an upcoming game in 1949 at Madison Square Garden read, “GEO. MIKAN VS. KNICKS.”) A national poll of sportswriters named him the best player of the first half of the 20th century.
During his final years as a player, Mikan attended law school and joined the Minnesota bar. He found that height, strength, and physical aggressiveness were not advantages to an attorney. His part-time practice with Ryan, Kain, and Mikan had kept him busy enough during the off-season, but after retirement (and a brief, disastrous stint as the Lakers’ coach), he had to rely on his legal career to support his large family.
The ambitious attorney specializing in corporate and real-estate law saw an opportunity to elevate his profile in the spring of 1956 when Republican Party organizers approached him with an unexpected proposition. For years they had tried to oust the incumbent congressman in Minnesota’s Third District, which stretched from the Twin Cities’ affluent western suburbs to the working-class neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. The man to beat was a diminutive 68-year-old DFLer, champion of labor, and eight-year veteran of the House of Representatives named Roy Wier. A native South Dakotan who was rumored to be semi-literate, Wier sprinkled his speeches with mispronounced words, a trait some voters found endearing. “We decided that George Mikan, who lived in upper-class Minnetonka by a lake and who owned a lot of property, should be able to take him easily,” remembered Thomas Roeser, who managed public relations for Republican candidates at the time. Mikan’s positions on the issues seemed unimportant. “Mikan didn’t know much about the issues,” Roeser added. “He stood for…well, he stood for ‘Mr. Basketball,’ George Mikan.”
Already endowed with broad name recognition, Mikan considered the invitation to run. The Republicans “warned me that it would be an uphill battle, since Wier had never won by less than 15 percent in any race,” he observed in his autobiography. “But with me just stepping off the court, and my numerous championships still in people’s minds, they thought I just might be the guy to unseat him.”
Mikan’s promoters hinted at another benefit of running. Regardless of the outcome of the election, legal work might come his way through Republican supporters. “I thought it would set up my law practice just right,” Mikan admitted.
The basketball star was just 31—less than half the age of his DFL opponent—when he announced his candidacy for Congress on June 7, 1956. His first tasks were to organize a campaign committee and to clear the field of six other candidates in the Republican primary.
Mikan adjusted to certain aspects of the political candidate’s life. “There were some things about campaigning that came to me very easily, like public speaking and attending meetings,” he noted. But one reason Mikan had left basketball was to spend more time with his family. Crisscrossing the state to raise funds and support frustrated him. One day, driving alone to the Twin Cities from a political meeting in Braham, Mikan fell asleep and drove his car into a ditch. Uninjured, he resolved never again to travel unaccompanied.
Mikan handily defeated his opponents in the Republican primary election of September 1956. Now he could set his sights on Wier, who proved a slippery and rather mysterious adversary. Mikan drove home his campaign slogan of “Let George do it” by stressing his independence of organized labor and other special interests. He invited Wier to several public debates, but the incumbent repeatedly refused to appear. Mikan tried to make the most of his opponent’s absences. On the speaking platform, he propped up a life-size photo of Wier dressed in a bathing suit, intended to convey the DFLer’s lack of concern about the election’s outcome. Whenever someone asked a question about the congressman, Mikan would point to the effigy and reply, “Talk to Roy.”
Mikan received a substantial boost when the chief Republican flag-bearer, President Dwight Eisenhower, arrived to help his party’s Minnesota candidates. A former general with a military bearing and above-average height, Eisenhower usually loomed over anyone who met him, at least in spirit. He was no match for Mikan’s gigantic stature, however, and the aspiring congressman conspicuously towered above the president during their joint appearances. Nevertheless, Eisenhower’s support lent Mikan credibility.
As election day drew close, Wier finally agreed to a public debate. There, the Republican, who had heard his opponent repeatedly demonized by campaign organizers, received a terrible shock when he met his rival for the first time. “To me, Wier seemed like a nice guy to know, congenial,” Mikan remembered. “I should have known better than to listen to the stories.”
That’s a laudable belief, but it could only weaken a political candidate during the final days of a close election campaign. In October and the early days of November—a season in earlier years when basketball’s first superstar had scored decisive triumphs on the court—Mikan struggled to keep up with a vastly more experienced and better-financed opponent who had saved strength for the end of the campaign. When the ballots were tallied on November 6, 1956, Mikan had captured 117,716 votes, about 8,000 fewer than Wier. “He wanted to win, but he was not that upset that he lost,” recalls Mikan’s son Terry. “And he never had enough interest in politics to try again.”
Mikan returned to his law practice and awaited the influx of work that his party’s organizers had promised. “It was not to happen,” Mikan wrote. “My phone did not ring for six months.” Feeling crushed and betrayed, he was also financially crippled, and had to cash in his life-insurance policies to remain solvent.
Although unused to losing, Mikan would bounce back. He went on to a colorful though checkered career as an attorney, property developer, travel agency operator, owner of sports franchises, and commissioner of the now-defunct American Basketball Association. (Mikan reportedly came up with the idea for the ABA’s trademark red, white, and blue basketball.)
When he died in 2005, people remembered him for his basketball exploits, not for his one unsuccessful shot at politics. “I’m lucky,” Mikan said near the end of his life. “I still get invited to places, and I’ll be introduced to the crowd and there’ll be a big ovation. It reminds me of how it was.” Perhaps it also made him think about how it could have been, with just a few thousand more votes.
Jack El-Hai is the author of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.