Jim Pollard—In Mikan’s Shadow, 1951

[In 1948, pro basketball declared a ceasefire. It came during a joint session of the rival National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to address, among other things, rookie salaries. They were out of control. 

“When a college star is graduated, we are bidding against one another until we have pledged more money than either of our leagues can take in,” declared Maurice Podoloff, the BAA’s roly-poly, 5-foot-3 commissioner. “This will bankrupt all of us.”

To drive home his point, Podoloff uttered the words “Jim” and “Pollard,” otherwise known around the room as the 6-foot-5 Stanford star. “Every team in either league has made a ridiculous offer to Jim Pollard,” Podoloff continue, “yet he continues to hold us off, and then we go into another round of bidding. And still nobody has been able to sign him.”

Podoloff looked up and noticed a hand in the air. It belonged to Ben Berger, owner of the Minneapolis Lakers. 

“Yes Mr. Berger.” 

“Mr. President, the Minneapolis Lakers have Mr. Pollard under contract.”

The Lakers’ run of incredible luck was hardly over. In 1950, the Lakers landed the BAA (and soon NBA) rights to the 6-foot-10 George Mikan, then the talk of the pro basketball world. Mikan’s legend, like his size, overshadowed Pollard. This article, from the December 1951 edition of SPORT Magazine, tells Pollard’s star-crossed—or, as he claims, star-enabled—story. It’s written by Joe Hendrickson of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune.]

Pollard reaches, while Mikan looks on.

Someone will hand professional basketball player Jim Pollard a trophy someday. It will be inscribed: “To Jim Pollard, the best second-fiddler in the business.”

Ex-Californian Pollard, who reversed the Greeley theory by going East in quest of success, has been playing second fiddle in the Mikanapolis Hardwood Symphony for four years. In those years, Jim has gone about his chores with considerable style, but it is doubtful that he ever will break the publicity monopoly enjoyed by teammate George Mikan, leading scorer of the famed Minneapolis Lakers and the entire National Basketball Association. 

Three times world professional titleholders and losers only to the champion Rochester Royals in the semifinal playoffs last year, the Minneapolis Lakers have boasted basketball’s top one-two punch in Mikan and his high-jumping playmate who is aptly described as the Kangaroo Kid.

Pollard’s spectacular driving, jumping shots, and baffling ballhandling provide plenty of thrills around the circuit, but it is Mikan who makes off with all the records and awards professional basketball has to offer—and most of the money. 

No close observer of basketball would dare belittle the vast accomplishments of the mighty Mikan. In this age of stress on height, where the master of the pivot shot rules the game, the 6-foot-10 giant has been a fighting leader. The Lakers couldn’t have been so consistently successful without him. But—and this is a fact which is not so readily apparent—the Lakers have needed Pollard, too.  

There is some chance Jim may fall out of Mikan’s shadow this season. A new experiment being tried in the league has transformed the six-foot free throw lane to a 12-foot horseshoe zone in which no offensive player can remain more than three seconds. It could open the scoring path for Pollard and give him more of the recognition he so richly deserves. 

Mikan and the other stratospheric point-getters who have blocked off the area under the basket are now forced to plant themselves outside the 12-foot lane, thus leaving the under-basket area open to the drivers like Pollard. 

Jim never speaks with animosity over his fortunes with the Lakers. Although he has earned only $12,000 a year, about half of Mikan’s total take, and averaged 12 to 15 points a game compared to Mikan’s 25 to 30, Pollard has no regrets. He says it was not a bad break for him that he became Mikan’s teammate. In fact, he calls the union a stroke of good fortune.   

Actually, Pollard has been with the Lakers longer than Mikan. He joined the organization when it first began operations in 1947. Mikan was added to the Minneapolis roster after the Lakers’ season had begun when a rival league in which Mikan was playing folded. Because the franchise from the National Basketball League’s 1946 last-place club, Detroit, had been moved to Minneapolis, the Lakers gained first draft rights to any jobless player in the defunct circuit. They picked Mikan. 

Although the Lakers had planned to build their attack around Pollard’s brilliance in the outer court, they naturally decided to take advantage of Mikan’s height. This meant that Pollard had to change his style of play—no easy job for an athlete who had been accustomed to the limelight since his college days. Pollard was all-conference at Stanford and a West Coast amateur star. 

Jumping Jim

Jumping Jim speaks frankly and honestly of the problems which arose at first. “I had always played on a team which kept the hole open. When Mikan came to the Lakers, the under-basket area was closed up. I had to learn all over again. I had to teach myself how to blend with his style of game. It wasn’t easy. But learning to blend our styles was something that has made our team a winner. The Lakers won three championships because we could do that.”

Pollard is quick to point out the winning spirit on the team, best exemplified by the reaction of the 1947-48 Lakers after Mikan came along. 

“He came in with a reputation,” Jim says. “We threw him the ball with a feeling, ‘Show us what you can do!’ We lost four of our first six games after Mikan joined us. It took us 10 games to get together. It is to the Lakers’ credit—every last one of the fellows—that we did learn how to work as a unit. Don’t forget, George had to make adjustments, too.”

Any talk of a feud between Mikan and Pollard is immediately squashed by Jim, who says, “Sure we’ve been angry with each other during a game, but never off the floor. We always get together and talk over our errors. There are times when we have sat up until three and four in the morning going over things, ironing out our play. 

“Mikan’s presence on the same team has really taken the heat off me. I couldn’t stand the pressure of being the key man for 70 games in one season. Neither could he. It has been to the advantage of both of us that we wound up together. Playing with Mikan means you are on a winning team. A winner makes more money and enjoys his work more. 

“And,” Jim added with a smile, “when you take a shot, it is always nice to know you have a fellow like Mikan under the basket following up. It takes some of the responsibility off you if you miss.”

It is no secret in the league that Pollard’s play fell off somewhat last year, enough to deprive him of a place on the all-star team. The reason probably stems from a jolting midseason collision with Ralph Beard of Indianapolis, which severely dented Pollard’s cheekbone. The Kangaroo had difficulty regaining his previous pace after that, and his scoring dropped from a 14.7 game average to 11.6. 

While Pollard is extremely popular with a majority of Laker fans, especially the younger set, there are Minneapolis followers who believe his play in 1950 prevented the Lakers from winning their fourth straight world title. It is said when Pollard is “up,” the Lakers are “up.” When Pollard is “down,” the Lakers go the same way. 

Jim was born in Oakland, California, 28 years ago, the son of the Gus Pollards. Papa Pollard came from New York, and his wife was born in Kansas. There are four children in the family, but Jim is the only athlete. He took to baseball at first and preferred that sport until he first went out for basketball at Lafayette grade school in Oakland. 

Pollard didn’t shoot up in height until he reached the eighth grade. As a sophomore, he was 6-foot-3. Two years later, he was two inches taller and led Oakland Tech to its third-straight city championship. 

After graduating from high school, Pollard made his debut in fast amateur basketball in the California area. He played forward for the Golden State Creamery outfit. The team finished third in the 1940 National AAU tournament at Denver, and Pollard was a key man in its attack. 

In January 1941, Jim enrolled at Stanford University—with the beaming approval of Everett Dean, Stanford’s basketball coach. Dean had seen Pollard jump and touch an object 12 feet off the ground. No wonder he was excited about the new prospect!

As a youngster, Pollard had gone to Stanford games to see Hank Luisetti, then the greatest of college player, perform his dribbling and shooting feats. To this day, Luisetti is Jim’s basketball hero, and he credits Hank with helping him develop many of his present skills. 

“Luisetti showed me one very important trick,” declared Jim. “He always tried to make the offensive man pass to the man he wanted him to pass to. This was done by overshifting on the defense, purposely leaving an opening the passer would use.”

In his sophomore year, Pollard became a regular forward as Stanford won the NCAA championship. He was named to the Pacific Coast all-conference team and averaged 11 points per game for the season. 

In 1942, Pollard entered the Coast Guard and played with the Alameda team. His most-notable contribution that year came when he popped in three successful shots in 55 seconds as Alameda lost an overtime battle in the Denver AAU tournament. Pollard continued to play with service teams until October 1945, when he became a civilian again. 

Arilee Pollard tends to her husband after his cheekbone-shattering collision with Indianapolis’ Ralph Beard.

Meanwhile, an important event in his career had taken place. A young lady with the musical name of Arilee, who today can be heard in the Minneapolis Auditorium bleachers cheering for Pollard and the Lakers, became Mrs. Pollard. It was a June wedding in 1944. 

“She really knows her basketball,” says Jim. “Arilee feels at home with the Minneapolis Scandinavians. She is a Norwegian, you know. She doesn’t yell at the opposition. She just roots for us and for me. She’ll call the referee’s attention to things, though. I can even hear her when I’m playing.”

Pollard admits his wife gives him frequent pep talks. “She takes the defeats worse than I do,” he says. 

Jumping Jim made his post-war debut with the San Diego Dons, a crack amateur team, and quickly became the team’s high scorer and most valuable player. In the AAU play at Denver, he had one of the hottest games of his entire career from a shooting standpoint. Against Salt Lake City, he scored 10 baskets in his first 10 tries and ended up with 13 out of 18 for the game. 

He played with the Oakland Bittners in 1946 and was a standout again. In fact, he led the National Industrial League in scoring with a 16-point average. Les Harrison, the Rochester Royals’ owner, watched Pollard play with Oakland and tried to sign him. 

It was at that time that the Lakers were being organized. “Minneapolis didn’t give me the biggest financial offer,” says Pollard. “But I checked the financial stability of Benny Berger and other Minneapolis owners, and I figured the Minneapolis project would give me a paying job for a long time. So, I signed up.”

Pollard believes his greatest performance in a Laker uniform came in the playoff series with Rochester his first year. “After we won two games at home, we went to Rochester and I only got two points. The newspaper writers criticized me for having a poor night. I took it as a challenge. when the series returned to Minneapolis, I scored 19 points in the deciding game. It wasn’t the scoring which made me happy, but the realization that I had played my best all-around game.

“Making a lot of points doesn’t give you the most satisfaction. A basket that really counts, one that turns a game or comes at a crucial moment, gives you the biggest kick. Any player knows when he’s playing a good all-around game. I think there is a wonderful thrill in that feeling. 

The Kangaroo says his rebounding technique, believed to be as effective as any in the business, comes naturally to him and is not the result of any particular instruction. On the defensive board, Pollard usually goes up with perfect timing, cups the ball, pulls it into his chest, and lands in position to start his drive down the floor. On the offensive backboard, he likes to play on one side with Mikan on the other, the two tipping back and forth, if necessary, until one of them scores. 

Pollard doesn’t take his kangaroo title lightly. Before a Laker game last year, he cut his elbow during a drill. 

“How’d you do that?” asked coach Johnny Kundla. 

“Ah, I cut it when I bumped it against the rim going in for a setup,” explained the Laker ace. 

Pollard likes Italian food. He delights in meat dishes, especially lamb chops. He leaves alcoholic drinks alone, and he never smokes. 

All of his hobbies are tied in with sports. Baseball is his favorite, outside of basketball, and every summer he plays semi-pro ball with the team in Jordan, Minnesota. 

The Pollards own their own home in Minneapolis. They have a son, Jackie, and a one-year-old daughter, Jean. Young Jackie Pollard is the same age as Mikan youngster, Larry. “Mikan’s boy is the relaxed type, while mine can’t sit still,” says Jim. 

Pollard’s future: He hopes to play two or three more years of professional basketball and then go into the coaching field or possibly specialize in sales work. “I don’t want to continue playing basketball after I’m over the hump,” concludes the NBA’s most-feared backcourt performer. “I don’t want to stay in there when I can’t do the things I should. When I’m starting to get washed up, I’ll know it, and I’ll quit on my own accord. Nobody will have to cut my pay or keep me around to be nice to me.“

But in or out of Mikan’s shadow, Pollard still has a lot of fine basketball left. 

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