How George Mikan Motivated the NBA to Implement a Shot Clock

Between The Last Dance and the lack of live NBA games, fans are spending more time than ever thinking about the good old days. And with no end in sight, this could continue for a long time. As it stands, the Los Angeles Lakers are a favorite team to win the NBA championship if the season resumes. At times, it feels like the Lakers have been at the top of the league forever.

The key to the Lakers’ early dominance

Minnneapolis Lakers teammates congratulate George Milken after a game
Teammates congratulate George Milken after a game | Bill Meurer/NY Daily News via Getty Images

At the time of the NBA/BAA merger, the Minneapolis Lakers had already established their dominance, winning the BAA title in their first season. Over the next five years, they won the NBA title four more times. The key to the team’s repeated success?

The first great center and one of the Lakers’ all-time top players: George Mikan. Most fans today know Mikan as an old-school player, or perhaps a valuable trading card. But his particular style of play went a long way toward making NBA basketball the game it is today.

When Mikan started his career, the foul lane was six feet wide (it used to look like a keyhole, hence “the key”). Once he’d had the chance to play (and dominate) down low, the NBA widened it to 12 feet to prevent Mikan from simply crushing the game from beneath the hoop.

George Mikan’s legacy

It makes sense that doubling the size of a critical area of the court would be enough for Mikan to be permanently associated with an NBA rule change. But the NBA’s best efforts to stop him weren’t enough. Mikan continued to force teams to play at his pace.

He took it to an extreme one night against the Fort Wayne Pistons. Between Mikan’s glacial pace as he held control of the ball and the Pistons’ willingness to slow down the game right along with him, Mikan was held to only 15 points that night. The total for the rest of the Minneapolis Lakers? Three points.

The Pistons eked out a 19-18 victory, which still stands as (by far) the lowest total in NBA/BAA/ABA history. The Lakers scored fewer points that night, but the real losers were fans. It was a masterstroke by the Pistons coaching staff and may have very well transformed the league into a group of players more able to deal with Mikan and the Lakers, but they never got the chance.

How Leo Ferris saved basketball

Prior to the 1954 season, viewership had fallen and only half of the original NBA teams remained. In an effort to revitalize basketball, Leo Ferris brainstormed a way to keep the action moving. Ferris was the GM of the Syracuse Nationals at the time and desperately wanted the NBA to succeed.

In inventing the shot clock, Ferris calculated that 60 shots per game was an ideal number. Simple math held that 24 60-second minutes divided by 60 would be 24. First, the league used 24 seconds as the shot clock time as a test, but it turned out to be the perfect amount. Even other leagues like the NCAA and FIBA eventually lowered their shot clocks.

Shot clocks in today’s NBA

Basketball is more popular than ever. Shot clocks have also found their way into the NFL (play clock), the MLB (pitch clock), and even bowling and water polo.

As Michael Jordan takes over our TVs again, as we watch LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo duel over the MVP trophy, and as we continue to mourn the loss of Kobe Bryant, it’s remarkable that the exciting game we have today almost didn’t come to fruition. If Mikan and the Fort Wayne Pistons hadn’t almost broken basketball that night in Minneapolis, there’s no chance we’d have today’s exciting game.

If Mikan and the Fort Wayne Pistons hadn’t almost broken basketball that night in Minneapolis, there’s no chance we’d have today’s exciting game.