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Shaquille O’Neal’s deep appreciation for basketball history and the pioneers who paved his way was never more apparent than following George Mikan’s death in 2005.

Mikan, the NBA’s first transcendent superstar, had fallen upon hard financial times during the later years of his life because of deteriorating health, soaring medical bills and a paltry basketball pension. When Shaq heard that Mikan’s relatives might have problems paying for his funeral, he told them not to worry. The Hall of Fame center whose favorite superhero is Superman swooped in to save the day and took care of all the expenses.

“Without number 99 (Mikan), there is no me,’’ O’Neal explained.

Heck, without Mikan, there might be no NBA.

Before a generation of Michael Jordan lovers wanted to be like Mike, professional basketball needed to be like Mikan in order to survive. The bespectacled, 6-foot-10 center literally carried the NBA on his broad shoulders during its formative years in the late 1940s and early 1950s — an era when the league lagged way behind baseball, football and boxing in popularity.

George Mikan, a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary team, was the league's biggest star in the 1940s and ’50s.

George Mikan, a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary team, was the league's biggest star in the 1940s and ’50s.

“Mikan gave us a main attraction; a name to put on the arena marquee,’’ said Boston Celtics Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy. “He was the guy people wanted to see. He made the league credible and popular. He helped us survive and helped open the door for all who followed, especially the big guys like Russ (Bill Russell), Wilt (Chamberlain) and, later on, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Shaq.”

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Mikan was such an unstoppable force that the NBA had to change numerous rules to reduce his influence. These included the addition of goaltending to prevent Mikan from snatching or swatting balls that were descending toward the cylinder; widening the lane from six to 12 feet to prevent him from camping too close to the basket; and a 24-second shot clock to stop teams from playing stall ball after taking the lead.

His impact on the game continued to be felt long after a playing career that saw “Mr. Basketball” average 23.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles. As co-founder and first president of the ABA, Mikan played a role in introducing the league’s distinctive red, white and blue basketball and the three-point shot, which was adopted by the NBA after the two leagues merged. He also became a driving force behind the NBA’s return to Minnesota, with the Timberwolves tipping off there as an expansion team in 1989. Twelve years later, the team paid homage by erecting a life-sized statue of Mikan flicking his patented hook shot in the lobby of its Target Center arena.

In 1959, Mikan became the first NBA player inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He is one of just four players (Russell, Cousy and Bob Pettit are the others) to be named to the NBA’s 25th, 35th, 50th and 75th all-time anniversary teams. The most recent all-time team was announced earlier this season and honored during the NBA All-Star Game.

The 75th team contributed to an uptick in the value of Mikan collectibles, especially his 1948 Bowman rookie card, which is a close-up of the glasses-wearing center awkwardly dribbling a basketball.

1948 Bowman George Mikan rookie card.

1948 Bowman George Mikan rookie card.

“His selection to the 75th team has resulted in a bump in his stuff,’’ said Ezra Levine, the CEO of Collectible, the fractional memorabilia investment platform. “But, in reality, this is just a continuation of a trend because his memorabilia has really taken off in the past 10 years.”

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Particularly his iconic rookie card. A PSA 9 version recently sold for a record $800,000 on eBay, doubling the previous records for his 1948 card. A PSA 10 version sold for just over $400,000 a few years ago and a PSA 9 brought $426,000 at auction last summer. It could have been had for about a tenth of that a decade earlier. And if that pristine PSA 10 were to go on the market again, CardLadder.com predicts it would fetch at least $3.2 million.

“The more people learn about him, the more sought-after and valuable his collectibles have become,’’ Levine said. “People have discovered that he really was one of those rare guys who changed the game in dramatic ways. And that Bowman rookie is a really cool card to have. It’s different and quirky.”

Being named to an all-time team like the NBA’s 75th is somewhat similar to earning induction into a hall of fame. It’s further validation of one’s legacy, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a dramatic increase in the value of one’s cards and memorabilia.

“It definitely can shed light on names you may not have heard about or hadn’t heard about in a long time,’’ said Dave Amerman, the consignment director for Goldin Auctions. “I’m thinking of guys on that 75th team like an Elvin Hayes or a George Gervin or a Hal Greer or a Tiny Archibald. They might see a slight increase, but the biggest increases are going to occur with the legendary figures. And that stuff has really been taking off since the start of the pandemic.”

ICONIC NBA COLLECTIBLES

Few athletes’ collectibles have soared the way Kobe Bryant’s have. The late legend set a basketball record for game-worn sales when a photo-matched jersey from his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers attracted 50 bids and sold for $3,690,000.

Kobe Bryant jersey photo-matched to his rookie season.

Kobe Bryant jersey photo-matched to his rookie season.

“That one’s going to be hard to beat,’’ said Amerman, who oversaw that sale from start to finish. “It was kind of a perfect storm. There was a tremendous outpouring of love for Kobe following his tragic death, and the auction was being held around the time he was being inducted posthumously into the basketball hall of fame. Plus, it’s the earliest photo-matched jersey of his we’ve ever seen and the sports collectable market was really booming.

“And to think, this was an item the guy was having trouble selling for even six figures a year or two earlier.”

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Wilt Chamberlain continues to be the gold standard among NBA big men, according to Levine. Collectible investors recently rejected a $2 million offer for the Philadelphia Warriors uniform the “Big Dipper” wore in 1959-60 when he averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds while winning the NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year awards.

A game-worn Wilt Chamberlin uniform available to investors at Collectable.

A game-worn uniform from Wilt Chamberlain's rookie season in 1959-60. 

“Wilt certainly put up iconic numbers, like his 100 points in a single game, but there’s a mystique about him, too, that goes beyond the numbers, and that definitely drives up the value of his stuff,’’ Levine said. “It’s similar in some ways to what we see with Mickey Mantle, who was this poor kid with great ability and great looks who goes from the poverty of Commerce, Okla. to play centerfield for the Yankees, perhaps the most storied franchise in sports.

“There’s something legendary and charismatic about Wilt that has made his cards and artifacts even more desirable than Russell’s or Kareem’s, though Russell’s stuff has taken a leap lately.”

Indeed, it has. At Hunt’s Auctions in December, 429 lots of Russell memorabilia netted $7.4 million, with a jersey from the Celtics legend garnering $1.1 million and his 1956 Olympic gold medal going for $557,500.

Bill Russell jersey from the Bill Russell Collection.

Bill Russell jersey from the Bill Russell Collection.

JORDAN VS. LEBRON

The heated GOAT debate over whether Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest of all time continues to be waged, with many believing that His Airness is still the champ on the court and in the collectible industry. This despite the fact that LeBron is the acknowledged king of basketball card sales, with his 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch Autograph the top of the heap at $5.2 million.

The LeBron James rookie card set the record for the highest selling sports card ever through a sell through PWCC Marketplace.

LeBron James rookie auto patch card that sold for $5.2 million. 

“That was a 1-of-1, and if there had been a similar card from Jordan’s rookie year, I think it would be a helluva lot more valuable, given his current hold on the hobby,’’ Levine said. “The bottom line is you can’t go wrong collecting either player, but I think when you look at Jordan’s items overall, he’s still the champ.”

That, though, could change down the road.

“The debate may not be over because LeBron’s still playing and playing at a very high level,” Amerman said. “He has a chance to break Kareem’s all-time scoring record next year, so that is sure to up the ante on his things.”

INTERNATIONAL MARKET

Levine and Amerman believe iconic basketball collectibles will continue to grow by leaps and rebounds, fueled in large part by the sport’s global appeal. The success of international players such as China’s Yao Ming, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, Slovenia’s Luka Doncic and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have enabled the NBA to flourish worldwide. And the $4.6 million paid for Doncic’s 2018-19 National Treasures Rookie Logoman Autograph card says a lot about the NBA’s strength in the international collectibles marketplace.

Luka Doncic rookie card that sold for $4.6 million.

Luka Doncic rookie card that sold for $4.6 million.

“I think it’s similar to the recent growth we’ve witnessed in the market for soccer, Formula 1 and MMA collectibles,’’ Amerman said. “The international market is going to continue to be robust for those entities, as well as basketball, which has huge growth potential.”

Somewhere, George Mikan must be shaking his head and smiling. Back in the late 1940s, early ’50s, he and his fellow hoopsters never could have imagined the game’s popularity soaring to such stratospheric heights. They were just hoping professional basketball would survive.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author and nationally honored journalist. You can purchase his books at amazon.com.

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