George Mikan: How I Play the Pivot

[When George Mikan signed with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948, he was greeted by a team loaded with talent and a “firehouse” brand of basketball with no use for an old-fashioned post player like him. However, Lakers coach John Kundla soon came to his senses. “We started the season saying the game of basketball was outdated if the offense depended on a tall pivot man,” he said. “But now that we’ve got the best in the business, it isn’t so old-fashioned anymore.”

What follows is Mikan’s own explanation of life in the 1950s NBA as “a tall pivot man” and how he took that old-fashioned position and breathed some life and NBA titles into it. Mikan’s article appeared in the March 1952 issue of Sport Magazine.]

If you are a big, tall fellow who plays the pivot in basketball, your job is to score. Certainly that’s my job—or, at least, the biggest part of it. Like every pivot man, I am so constantly near the basket that when I get the ball, I have to be able to put it through the hoop. I know no one else on my team is going to be getting closer shots at the basket. Once in a while, they may break in for a layup but I’m always somewhere near the backboard. It’s important to remember that a pivotman can take just about every shot in the book with a reasonable chance of hitting. But the players on the outside have just so many shots. In the pivot, I can take any shot that my teammates on the outside can take—and more besides. 

There’s the routine over-the-head, two-hand set or the one-hand push—both taken while you’re facing the basket. My height permits me to get off good jump shots, too—shots that won’t be blocked. While these are shots that almost any man on the floor can take, I still have a variety of shots unique to the pivot post. The old fallaway—a pretty-looking shot—is tough to score with, but it’s important to have in your repertoire. When I’m being guarded closely, fading away from the basket gives me the room to arc the ball over my shoulder, over the outstretched hands of my defender and into the basket—I hope. 

Then there is the standard hook shot, which a pivot man must be able to make regularly if he expects to get anywhere. It forces the defender to respect your offensive strength, and it sets up your best and most-important shot—the layup. When your opponent starts watching for your hook shot, you can fake with a pivot and then drive around him for a layup. The fake-and-layup routine is the pivot man’s most effective weapon. Naturally it’s the easiest shot to make and it puts you in position to rebound if the shot misses. Tap-ins, by the way, produce a lot of points if you develop the timing and soft hands necessary to tap the ball through the hoop. 

With all this talk about scoring, it should not be forgotten that the pivot man has other jobs. He has to be able to execute passing assignments and he has to be in position to get the ball off the boards. In most games, when the pivot is having good success with his shots, the opposition tends to ignore his teammates and put a closer guard on him. That’s when I concentrate on handing off or passing to players breaking around me. When I pass off, I try to hide the ball with my body so my opponent can’t block the pass. The pass itself has to be clean and direct because of the speed of the play. 

Passing from the pivot is important if you plan to keep your opponents off balance. We often use a cutter coming in for a pass as a decoy. I fake to him and then take a hook shot. Or we’ll reverse it. I’ll fake the shot and then pass off to the cutter. Good faking is important to the pivot man. It allows him a wide variety of shot possibilities and it bothers the opposition. My best one is a head fake, a darting glance at the basket over either shoulder and a quick look to see if the defender is reacting. If he jumps or moves, I hook the other way or I pass to a teammate cutting in on the other side. Other pivot men may be more successful using their shoulders and arms to fake with, or even their entire bodies, but they will all agree that the important thing in feinting is to get the opponent to commit himself. Once he has, don’t waste time with additional fakes and motions. Make your play quickly. Otherwise, you may have given him enough time to recover. It is also important to remember that too many fakes can trick your teammates into bad moves or fouls. 

The new 12-foot zone has forced me to take most of my hook shots from farther out. But it has opened up the center lane for the players cutting around me. I can also cut more easily toward the basket because of the extra room I have. The only difficulty I’ve found with it is that I have to move out of the 12-foot area within three seconds, and that takes a lot of moving. 

There are loads of good pivot men in the pro ranks. Arnie Risen of the Rochester Royals is one of the best, I think. He is also an excellent defender against the pivot. Ed Sadowski, the old pro, was always a threat. He was tough and tricky. Leroy (Cowboy)Edwards, who plays pro ball in Oshkosh, was also in effective pivot man. I remember a particular game when I was playing against Edwards. The referee kept warning us to keep the center open. When I was on offense, Cowboy would lay all over my back. Finally, on one play, while Edwards was leaning particularly heavily, I quickly stepped out and Cowboy fell flat on his face. Of course, that’s not the way to play the pivot.   

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