One of the few who had a first-hand view of just how important Mikan was to the basketball and sports community at mid-20th century was Ephrata High School grad and NBA alum Stanley Whitey Von Nieda.
Von Nieda, 82, and still a weekly columnist for The Ephrata Review with the Bar Exam, took a few minutes this week to reflect back on the life of Mikan, who passed away June 1 at the age of 80.
Competing against Mikan for the length of his career from 1947-50, Von Nieda was asked to reflect back and share his thoughts on the passing of the man who was the first true superstar of the NBA.
I was really upset, Von Nieda said Tuesday. And when I say upset-I sort of knew it was coming.
Von Nieda explained that he went out to the Annual Retired Players Association gathering this past December and inquired about Mikan.
They told me he was in bad shape, he said, stating that his fellow player needed kidney dialysis, suffered from diabetes and had to have his leg amputated.
He said he was also bothered about another detail in the article about his death.
It said he died in poverty, Von Nieda said. He was an attorney (later in life). He must have had medical bills (out of this world).
(In our time) he was the highest paid player in the league, he continued.
Mikan was indeed the games first dominant big man and led the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships during his career which was cut short because of injuries in 1956. Known for his thick glasses he played with, Mikan so dominated the game that the NCAA adopted rule changes when he played for DePaul. He was the NBAs MVP in 1948-49.
Von Nieda reflected on the legend he was able to watch in his prime.
He was a helluva competitor, Von Nieda recalled. He didnt want to get beat at anything. One time (Whitey was a 6-1 guard) I took a hook shot over him and it went in! He cussed me out. (But) he was a great competitor and a nice guy.
Von Nieda said he did get the chance to socialize a few times with Mikan and enjoy a few beers together in Minneapolis, but it is what happened on the court which serves as the greatest memories. And he recalls the games with the big man, scores and all.
At the top of that list would have to be the game that was billed as The Battle of the Giants. Von Niedas team, which had a 7-footer of their own in Don Otten, was about to come up against Mikans team. The battle turned out to be a big and very memorable game for Von Nieda whose team emerged with a 45-36 win.
I was the only one in double figures, Von Nieda said, stating that he had 16 while Mikan and Otten were both held to nine.
It brought back a lot of memories.
Even at about $21,000 a year, Mikans salary was big money among the small fraternity of men who played in those early days of the NBA. Financial issues and those pioneers had been making news often in recent years, as Mikan was just one of several who were looking for better benefits for players who played before 1965. Von Neida, who played for the Tri-City Blackhawks from 1947-49 and Baltimore in 1949-50 is not eligible to receive the NBA pension because he played less than five years. Whitey said that Mikan would have been eligible to receive $200 a month for every year he played, so he estimated he was getting about $1,600 a month. A far cry from those who played after 1965, who Von Nieda says receive $600 a month for every year they played.
In my opinion, why not take care of these guys? Von Nieda said. We are the guys who set the table. Back then, they didnt know if they (the NBA) would make it. It is kind of like the WNBA is now.
We did lots of things to enhance our position such as speaking engagements and breakfast meetings, etc.
Von Nieda was asked if he feels the NBA pioneers ever will get additional dollars.
Yes, I think it will happen-I hope so, he said, stating that he does have some other benefits through the NBA such as lifetime membership in the Retired Players Association, along with some hospital benefits.
Whitey, who is almost two years older to the day than Mikan (he said Mikan would have been 81 on June 18 and Von Nieda will be 83 on June 19), was asked if he may be the oldest member of that original NBA fraternity.
I met one out in Vegas, there were four of us, Von Nieda said, stating that he believes one may have been a few months older.
And also as for age, Whitey quickly pointed out that he is the only one still alive from the photo used on the sports section front page-including Jim Pollard, who was on the all-Rookie team with Von Nieda,
Im sorry to see him pass, Von Neida concluded regarding the loss of his friend Mikan.
He was a real gentleman and a good guy to know.