Minneapolis Lakers
Game with 12-Foot Baskets

By Stew Thornley
Author of Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers

Although basketball was flourishing at both the amateur and professional levels in the mid-1950s, there were critics suggesting that the sport had some problems that needed to be addressed.

Some were concerned over the dominance of the big man. In 1951 the National Basketball Association doubled the width of the free-throw lane (where the three-second rule prevented an offensive player from taking a stationary position) to 12 feet. This moved was aimed, in general, at the big man, and, in particular, at Minneapolis Lakers giant George Mikan, who did most of this scoring by setting up his pivot play as close to the basket as possible.

Many still claimed, however, that it was too easy for the big man to score. “Something has to be done to make a basket worth a cheer,” wrote one sports columnist. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was even considering raising the height of the baskets, a move that had been advocated by Phog Allen, the legendary coach at Kansas University, for many years.

The college coaches had scheduled a vote on this question in March 1954. In response, the NBA decided to conduct an experiment and play an official league game with 12-foot-high baskets.

The game was set for Sunday night, March 7 when the Milwaukee Hawks visited Minneapolis to play the Lakers. The 1954 Lakers at this time had their sights set on their sixth league championship in seven years. They had hoped to clinch at least a tie for the Western Division championship while on an eastern road trip.

Losses in Boston and Rochester, New York, however, left the Lakers still needing a win as they returned home to the Minneapolis Auditorium for the game against the Hawks.

Besides the higher baskets, the NBA threw in an additional twist as a possible solution to another problem plaguing the sport. With no limit on team fouls per quarter, and a non-shooting foul being worth only one free throw, it was often considered good strategy to foul a player and take away his opportunity for a field goal. The result of the excessive fouling was a tedious parade to the free-throw line.

The rules for the March 7 game called for no free throws to be shot during the first and third periods. Instead, they would be held “in escrow” and shot at the end of the period. In the first quarter, the free throws were to be totaled and canceled out. (For example, if Minneapolis was entitled to 10 shots and Milwaukee to seven, the Lakers would shoot three.) At the end of the third quarter, all free throws earned would be shot.

In keeping with the spirit of the event, the second half of a preliminary game between municipal teams from Brainerd and Jordan was played in “innings” with each team controlling the ball for two minutes at a time, an idea being promoted by Philadelphia Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb.

After Jordan beat Brainerd, 29-28, the Lakers and Hawks took the floor and began warming up with the 12-foot baskets. While advocates of the higher hoops hoped it would reduce the impact of the big player, Dick Cullum of the Minneapolis Tribune doubted whether that would be the effect. “Seems to me,” he wrote, “the higher basket will hurt the little fellow more than the tall one.” Cullum proved to be prophetic.

While the Lakers had trouble adjusting to the baskets when the game began, the Hawks hit their first three shots and opened up a 6-0 lead. At the end of the first quarter, with Milwaukee ahead by two points, each team had three free throws coming. They cancelled each other out and none were shot.

The Hawks increased their lead to 22-15 midway through the second quarter, before the Lakers finally started to find the range, and Minneapolis trailed by only two at half time.

In the third quarter, it was the Hawks who were to have trouble finding the range as they connected on only three of 15 from the floor. Meanwhile, Mikan, who had missed his first 12 field-goal attempts, dropped a pair of baskets to spark the Lakers comeback.

When the buzzer sounded to end the third period, the Lakers led, 40-34. Milwaukee had a chance to close the gap, though, as the Hawks had ten free throws coming to the Lakers’ five. But the Hawks converted only three of their attempts while the Lakers made all five—four by Mikan and one by Whitey Skoog—to increase their lead to eight.

Minneapolis upped the margin to 53-41 in the fourth quarter and the Hawks spent the rest of the game futilely trying to catch up. Even though the Lakers shot only 28.6 percent from the field in the game, they hung on to win, 65-63.

Vern Mikkelsen seemed to take a liking to the higher baskets as he was game high for the Lakers with 17 points, nearly six points more than his season average. Even so, he called the experiment “a horrible flop.”

“It didn’t help the smaller guy. It helped me—the big, strong rebounder, because it gave me another tenth of a second to get set after a shot.”

Mikkelsen’s comments were typical of the others who took part in the game. “It just makes the big man bigger,” said Mikan.

“It killed tip-ins,” added teammate Clyde Lovellette. Many of the fans concurred, saying they missed the underbasket excitement.

Other reactions:

Minneapolis coach John Kundla: “Nobody could hit the darn thing. The guys who usually couldn’t shoot were the ones who hit the most. And the big guys still got the rebound.”

Mikan: “It threw the whole game out of sync and made it tougher on the smaller man. With the timing of the ball coming down from the 12-foot basket, there were more injuries under the boards.”

Lakers assistant coach Dave MacMillan: “No matter what you do, the big man still has the advantage over the small one.”

Milwaukee guard Bob Harrison: “It’s screwy; it’s terrible. I’ll take the old game.”

Not all were against it, however. John Sammon, one of the officials, said, “I kind of like it. It cleaned up the general floor play and opened it up more.”

“Raise it to 20 feet, and the pros would soon adjust to it,” maintained Hawks coach Red Holzman.

Slater Martin, the Lakers’ five-foot-ten guard, had the last word on the subject: “I advocate a six-foot basket. It would make a Mikan out of me.”

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

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