A look back: Willmar Cardinal grad married a Lakers' star
Jean Hanson, class of '48, and NBA star Vern Mikkelson were partners for 47 years
The Los Angeles Lakers are the National Basketball Association’s glamour team.
Titans of Hollywood sit courtside. Lebron (King) James is the league's all-time leading scorer. Stars like Shaq and Kobe have led the new Lakers to 12 NBA championships in 63 years.
But it all started here — in Minneapolis, before the franchise took flight with that perfect Minnesota nickname for the bone-dry LA basin.
Our original Lakers were the NBA’s first dynasty.
The stars were George Miken, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin and a small-town kid by the name of Arlid Verner Agerskov Mikkelsen. Vern, listed at 6-foot-7, 235-pounds, is framed as the League’s “Original Power Forward” in John Egan’s 2006 book “The Vern Mikkelsen story.”
Vern played 699 games averaging 14 ppg and 9 rebounds between 1949 and 1959.
On June 18, 1955, he married Jean Hanson, a 1948 Willmar High School graduate.
The wedding was held at the Green Lake Lutheran Bible Camp Chapel, east of Spicer.
Many of Vern’s Hamline University and Lakers’ teammates attended. Pollard, an NBA first-team all-star, was the groomsman. Ushers were fellow Lakers Dick Schnittker and Joey Hutton, Jr. Jean’s sister Anne (the future Mrs. Bill Lathem) was the maid of honor.
Rev. Michael Mikkelsen officiated at his son’s wedding along with First Methodist pastor Alvin Nygaard from Jean’s home church. The organist was A.M. Wisness, the superintendent of Willmar schools.
The bridal dinner was held at Hultgren’s Lodge on Green Lake’s North Shore. The couple honeymooned near Grand Rapids, at a camp where Vern had worked summers as a teenager.
Jean and Vern would make their home in Hopkins and raised two sons, Thomas Verner and John Peter.
Vern retired scoring more than 10,000 points in 10 seasons. He would have played longer — he had just turned 30 — but refused to leave his home state.
Egan, a Minneapolis native and award-winning sports writer at the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader for over three decades, wrote that owner Bob Short offered Vern 25 percent of the team to relocate.
“I talked it over with (coach John Kundla) and we both figured basketball didn’t have much of a chance out there.”
Some years later, Jean would slyly rib her husband while she read the Sunday paper: “Vern, I wonder what that piece of the Lakers would be worth now?”
The Lakers bolted because the franchise had no designated home floor. They bounced about the city and North America playing “home games” in Winnipeg, Buffalo, Seattle, Kansas City and Louisville.
Involved in activities
In high school, Jean was busy with extra-curriculars: glee club, band chorus, Wilohi, pep club, speech play and queen attendant. A photo in the yearbook shows her statuesque form in her drum major uniform.
Surely, she would have been an outstanding athlete — if girls had the same opportunities as boys in those years. She was the daughter of Irv Hanson, an amateur baseball player and a former teacher/coach at Howard Lake and Willmar.
Irv became better known around the region for his nursery business. He authored and illustrated several books and wrote a weekly column, ‘Just Add Water’ in the West Central Daily Tribune.
Vern came out of Askov High School in 1945 at age 16. He was fourth academically but not in the top third of his class of 9 students. He drove about 90 miles down Highway 61 to Hamline University on Snelling.
The 6-foot-5 teen had been recruited to play basketball and received a stipend to cover his tuition, which his family couldn’t afford. Rev. Mikkelsen, a Danish Lutheran minister, led rural congregations in Central California (when Vern was born), along the North Dakota border with Montana and several hamlets in northwestern Wisconsin before the family moved to Askov, the rutabaga capital of Minnesota, in 1939.
There is a Willmar connection from Vern’s Hamline career, where he was a small-college All-American. Lakers’ back-up center Howie Schultz graduated in 1949 from Hamline and helped prep the teen to play for the MIAC’s strongest program that had won the small college national championship at the end of the 1948-49 regular season.
Schultz, who also had played major league baseball, would spend summers in Willmar playing first base for the semi-pro Rails.
Vern had played center all through high school and college, his back to the basket. When he joined the Lakers that meant Coach Kundla had two centers trying to occupy the same narrow lane.
The other pivot man was 6-foot-10 George Miken, basketball’s biggest star. The DePaul graduate exclaimed one day at practice, “It’s too darn crowded in here.”
Kundra came up with a plan. He moved Vern to left forward opposite Pollard. Egan, who died in 2017, emphasized in his book that this made Mikkelsen the first true power forward, the template for others that followed.
His job was to set picks, rebound, start fast breaks and defend. He proved indestructible, missing just five starts in 10 seasons.
The Lakers won five titles from 1949 to 1954, Vern playing on the last four. He was a six-time all-star and four time NBA Second-Team — worthy of First-Team perhaps, but the Lakers annually had Pollard and Miken voted to the top five.
Vern and Jean were introduced by his Pipers and Lakers teammate Joey Hutton, son of Hamline’s legendary coach Joe Hutton. Jean was a buyer at The Bridal Shop in Minneapolis and had attended St. Olaf and Minnesota.
Vern: “God has smiled down on me many, many times but none so graciously as that fall day in 1954. We hit it off immediately. I learned something new from her every day.”
Their shared interest in academics and music made them a good fit. Vern played sax and drums and sang in the Hamline acapella choir and would earn a master’s degree in psychology at Minnesota.
The couple had been married 47 years when Jean passed away in 2002 at age 72. A short obit in the Pioneer Press noted, “Jean had an artistic flair for antiques and interior decorating.”
Just before Jean died Vern suffered a severe stroke. He lost the ability to speak and write, but fought back. His recovery included writing down memories that would provide the framework for Egan’s biography.
Vern had a 50-year friendship with Mikan, who lost a leg to diabetes. Both men had difficult years at the end. Vern was always there to help his former teammate, who passed away in 2005.
Vern died at age 85 in 2013 after dealing with multiple afflictions including diabetes, prostate cancer, hip replacement and loss of sight in one eye.
He had gone into the Basketball Hall of Fame the same year, 1995, as Kareem Adul-Jabbar and Coach Kundla.
He had been blessed to play basketball at the highest level but he always said of his marriage, “It was a pairing made in heaven.”