Time and again George Mikan gathered the ball in, turned, jerked an elbow to gain some space, and lofted a hook shot. The move had all the grace of Minnie Pearl bounding onto the stage at the Grand Ole Opry—“How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E!”—and the result, inexplicably, was the same.
Mikan killed with it.
On this frigid Saturday night in Chicago Stadium, Mikan needed that move more than ever. The big center had been forced to leave the game early in the first half after an unseen fist had opened a gash under his left eye. He wasn’t the only member of his DePaul University team to take a hit. The game was unusually rough, for DePaul’s opponent, Western Kentucky University, carried an 18-game winning streak into the contest and was determined to keep it going. In a “bruising” second half, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “players on both teams frequently were sprawled all over the place.”
Mikan, returning from the training room with a bandage plastered across his cheek, took charge in the second half. All told, he banged 15 points through the hole and blocked a key shot late in the final period. When the final buzzer sang out, DePaul had scored a 44-40 upset, and dozens of fans raced toward the court to mob the winners.
We know what you’re thinking. This is a memorable moment from the 1945 college basketball season, when Mikan led DePaul to what remains the Chicago school’s only national championship. Even today, DePaul fans like to hark back to that long-ago triumph—and why not? The university’s basketball team endured another disastrous season in 2013, going 2-15 in Big East play.
Except the drama described above isn’t from that famous golden year. DePaul’s b-ball lore might start with its great N.I.T.-winning team, but in fact the Northside school first made a splash on the national sports scene two years earlier. Seventy years ago this month, the cagers from the then-little—and little-known—school under the El tracks made a wholly unexpected run to the Final Four of the 1943 NCAA tournament, then the junior season-ending event in college basketball.
For much of the season, DePaul’s team had been seen as a novelty at best. After all, basketball experts still widely believed that exceptionally tall men were too clumsy to be effective players. And make no mistake: the six-foot-nine-inch Mikan, with his gawky gait and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, was clumsy. He lumbered down the floor with his arms flapping like a prehistoric bird. Opposing players peeled out of the way as if practicing for the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
Then the Joliet tavern owner’s son started doing the impossible: scoring with ease, blocking shots almost at will.
In the years ahead Mikan would become known as “Mr. Basketball” and earn a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, but nothing about the game came naturally to him. Before the season, DePaul’s 28-year-old coach, Ray Meyer, saw him as “raw material with little talent.” He nevertheless believed he could make something out of that lump of clay. He worked with Mikan for hours every day. He made him jump rope and run laps. He convinced a coed to dance with Big George to help him improve his footwork. The first time the music started up, the girl jumped about as if on hot coals, fearful Mikan would crush her feet.
Meyer’s coaching style was, as he put it himself, to “rant and rave and shout and yell at ’em and scream at ’em,” but he realized he needed to take a different tack with the shy, self-conscious Mikan. Out on the practice court, Meyer, a former Notre Dame star, talked through everything they were going to do and why. He tucked a towel under Mikan’s non-shooting arm to help him maintain proper form for the hook shot. He invented “the Mikan Drill,” an endless series of layups using first one hand and then the other, a routine still used today to develop centers.
“I was a slave driver, and he was a willing slave,” Meyer would later say.
Soon, little, blue-collar DePaul University started winning basketball games. And it wasn’t all Mikan all the time. Meyer knew how to spot talent. He had loaded up his team with scrappy, undervalued players, some of whom were seventeen-year-olds waiting to become eligible to join the army. Six-foot guard/forward Dick Triptow would become an All-American, just like Mikan. Jimmy Cominsky kept DePaul in that Western Kentucky game while Mikan was being patched up in the locker room. Forward Melvin Frailey knocked down eight straight points late in the team’s New Year’s Eve game to beat a tough Marquette squad in Milwaukee.
During the second half of the season, with Mikan still developing his skills, the Blue Demons only got better. They destroyed the University of Chicago 67-20. They thumped Bradley Tech 61-42. They breezed past Wesleyan by 17 points, with reserves playing most of the second half. DePaul finished its season with an 18-4 record, with two of their losses coming not to fellow college kids but to the U.S. Army’s Camp Grant team.
DePaul, being a small school with limited resources (Meyer swept the gym himself every day), played almost all of its games close to home. But that was about to change. In March, the NCAA rewarded DePaul with an invitation to be the “representative from District No. 4” for the association’s national postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden. It was rare for a small independent school to gain entry to the tournament, as Meyer noted in his acceptance.
“I know I speak for the team when I say that we consider it an honor to be the first team outside the [Big Ten] conference selected to represent this section in the tournament,” he said in a statement to the press. “I believe, too, the tournament will prove a contribution to civilian morale in war time, and am happy DePaul can take part in it.”
The Blue Demons would go to New York City short-handed: guard Cliff Lind reported for induction into the army—at Camp Grant—the day after DePaul received the NCAA tournament bid. (Reflecting the National Invitation Tournament’s superior reputation at the time, Notre Dame, one of the teams that beat DePaul during the regular season, and Big Ten champions Illinois refused invitations to the NCAA tourney.)
Just eight squads played in the NCAA’s shindig back then, making it a much more exclusive affair than the watered-down, 68-team field that now gums up ESPN’s schedule in March. The Blue Demons opened the tournament on March 24 against Ivy League kings Dartmouth, the NCAA tournament runners-up the previous year. Mikan scored 20 points in a dominating performance as DePaul ran up a 41-28 lead before Meyer pulled all of the starters from the game. The final score was 46-35.
Georgetown University then ended DePaul’s national exposure the next night, besting the Blue Demons 53-49 in front of 14,085 screaming fans. DePaul, which would return all of its top players for the next season, was on its way to becoming the best college basketball team in the country—though it was still far from the best known. The Associated Press game report referred to DePaul’s imposing center as “John Mikan.”