Along with Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen was the youthful injection needed to prolong and sustain the Minneapolis Lakers dynasty of the 1940s and 1950s. The Lakers had already won back-to-back titles in 1948 and 1949. In Vern’s rookie year of 1950 they snagged a third. After a one-year interregnum, the Lakers struck back with a second three-peat of titles in 1952, 1953, and 1954.
Vern’s place on these titles teams and his successful career overall, as with most things, wasn’t a certified given. What ultimately made it successful was Mikkelsen’s penchant for overachieving and his unparalleled level of grit, as well as some smart coaching moves by Laker coach John Kundla.
So, about that grit.
Vern Mikkelsen wasn’t a man who played basketball in what can be described as a beautiful fashion, unless you’re Gregg Popovich and you like some nasty. You can believe that Mikkelsen brought the nasty night and day for the Lakers. But Vern’s nasty almost never got a chance to show its bad self.
A standout in college and high school playing center, Mikkelsen’s first few pro games were played in a double-center lineup with George Mikan. After seeing the abysmal results, John Kundla made a fateful decision to shift Vern to forward spot despite Vern’s unfamiliarity with the position. Kundla ordered Vern to just scrap and bruise opposing big men. He was to fight for rebounds, careen on defense, gobble up garbage second-chance points if Mikan or Jim Pollard missed shots, and set bone-chilling picks to free up Martin and sharp-shooting Bob Harrison on offense.
This experiment eventually coalesced into Mikkelsen instigating the power forward spot along with Bob Pettit a few seasons later. Pettit would certainly add more offensive finesse to the position, but Vern eventually learned how to deliver a set overhand shot. It went in often enough to keep defenses honest and prevent them from sagging down too much on Mikan.
But that shot was a nice touch. Mikkelsen’s real purpose was all about that rough and tumble play. During his career, Mikkelsen earned four fouls a game which places him in the vanguard for that category. For the 1950s, he racked up more personal fouls than any other player, finishing 359 ahead of second-place Dolph Schayes.
Disruption was basically the name of Vern’s game. The Dennis Rodmans, Charles Oakleys, and other agitators owe Vern a solemn debt for his groundbreaking brawn in the 1950s. It should be noted that Vern did all of this with a gentlemanly air and was a completely affable man off the court. Being nasty didn’t mean he was dirty. He hustled his butt up and down the court on every play.
That kind of tireless motor was respected by his contemporaries. Mikkelsen was honored with six All-Star Games and was on the All-NBA 2nd Team for four straight seasons. It takes a special player to go from star college center to subsumed power forward and somehow raise his level of play.
That’s Vern Mikkelsen, the eternal overachiever.
Years Played: 1949 – 1959
4x Champion (1950, 1952-’54)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1951-’53, 1955)
6x All-Star (1951-’57)
NBA – 699 Games
14.4 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 40.3% FG, 76.6% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1949-50 through 1958-59 seasons)
4th Rebounds*, 18th RPG*
6th Points, 21st PPG
6th FGs Made, 22nd FG%
8th FTs Made, 29th FT%
1st Games Played, 5th Minutes Played**
*Stat not kept until the 1950-51 season
** Stat not kept until the 1951-52 season