Tuesday, July 25, 2017

John Kundla, 1916-2017

It's hard to believe that there's a Hall of Fame coach out there who managed to outlive all of his Hall of Fame players.

There was. But not anymore.

John Albert Kundla was born on July 3, 1916 in Star Junction, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. He was of Slovak descent on his father's side, and Austrian on his mother's. When he was 5, his mother, who didn't like the drinking culture of the Pittsburgh area, moved John out to Minneapolis, hoping her husband would join them. He never did. Until the move, John spoke only Slovakian at home.

He adapted quickly, and happily lived in Minnesota for the rest of his life. He played baseball and basketball at the now-closed Minneapolis Central High School and at the University of Minnesota, winning the Conference title in basketball in 1937. He played minor-league baseball, but never got above Class D (which would be Class A under today's system). He coached high school basketball in Minnesota, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and later became the basketball coach at the College of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

In 1947, the Minneapolis Lakers -- so named because Minnesota was known as "The Land of 10,000 Lakes" -- of the National Basketball League offered him $6,000 a season to be their head coach. This was twice what he was making at St. Thomas. (It's about $64,000 in today's money.) At 31 years of age, he was a pro basketball coach.

A month into the 1947-48 season, the Chicago American Gears folded, and their best player, the 6-foot-10 former DePaul University star George Mikan, became available. The Lakers snapped him up, and they won the NBL Championship. That got the notice of the rising Basketball Association of America, which became the NBA in 1950. They admitted the Lakers, beginning the league's 1st dynasty.

They won the title in 1949, beating the Washington Capitols, the 1st NBA team coached by Red Auerbach. Mikan and Jim Pollard were named to the All-NBA Team. Mikan was the defining player of that era, using his height to dominate the lane. And long before Philadelphia 76ers legend Billy Cunningham came along, Pollard, the star of Stanford University's 1942 National Championship squad, had the jumping ability to get him the nickname "The Kangarood Kid."

They also had Arnie Ferrin, who had led the University of Utah to the 1944 National Championship. (They also had a player named Johnny Jorgensen, not to be confused with the baseball player of the same name, nicknamed Spider, who helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the National League Pennant in 1947 and '49.)

In 1950, they added Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin, and a Minnesota kid who also played a little football, Harry "Bud" Grant. Yes, Vikings fans, that Bud Grant. With a starting five of Ferrin and Martin at guard, Pollard and Grant as forwards, and Mikan at center, they beat the Syracuse Nationals in the Finals. To this day, 2/3rds of a century later, John Kundla remains the only man to win a Championship in his 1st 2 seasons as an NBA head coach.

In 1951, Mikan broke his ankle near the end of the regular season. Without him, they lost the Western Division Finals to the Rochester Royals -- meaning they were still a pretty good team without him, just not a championship team. The Royals then beat the Knicks in a tough 7-game series, the closest the Knicks would get to the title until 1970.

Some retooling was in order, and, with Grant choosing football, they needed another guard. The Royals had traded Frank "Pep" Saul, of Westwood, Bergen County, New Jersey and Seton Hall University, to the Baltimore Bullets. This was not the team that we know today as the Washington Wizards: They won the NBA title in 1948, but by this point, were losing money left and right, and when the Lakers flashed the cash, they sold Saul.

They also added Howie Schultz, a Minnesotan who had played for the Dodgers; and Myer "Whitey" Skoog, another Minnesota product, to their bench. The Lakers plowed through the NBA in 1951-52, and, while it took 7 games, they beat the Knicks in the Finals. In 1953, they won the title again, needing only 5 games to dust off the Knicks. And in 1954, with Skoog having taken Saul's place in the starting lineup, and Clyde Lovellette, star of the University of Kansas' 1952 National Championship, added as an obvious move to have a proper successor to Mikan before it was necessary, they beat the Syracuse Nationals in 7, making it 5 NBA Championships in 6 years.

To put that in perspective: That's nearly all the titles ever won by Minnesota major league teams. The Twins have won 2 World Series. The Vikings have won 4 NFC Championships, but never a Super Bowl. The Timberwolves and the Wild have each reached 1 Western Conference Final in their entire histories. The North Stars reached 2 Stanley Cup Finals, but lost them both.

After the 1954 season, the Lakers' fate was sealed, and the sport changed forever. The 24-second shot clock was added. The reason was a game on November 22, 1950, when the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Lakers 19-18, with only 3 Pistons points to the Lakers' 1 scored in the 4th quarter. The Pistons wanted to keep the ball out of Mikan's hands, and so they only attempted 13 shots. This and other, similarly low-scoring games led to the shot clock's adoption.

This made the game considerably faster, and made the Lakers' game obsolete. In a 1969 book, New York sports-talk maven Bill Mazer said of Mikan, "He wasn't graceful. He was more like a stampeding elephant."

That was when Mikan was still a relatively recent player. In 1996, on an ESPN Classic panel discussing the greatest teams in NBA history in the wake of the Chicago Bulls' 72-win title season (and with Mikan very much still alive and having sat for an interview with the network), Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe said that you couldn't compare a great pro team, including before the NBA, from before the shot clock to one after it, citing Mikan, and the man who won the NBA's 1st scoring title and led the Philadelphia Warriors to the 1st Championship in 1946-47:

Before that, I don't think Jumpin' Joe Fulks makes it in today's NBA, except, maybe, as a 12th man. George Mikan? A good backup center. Greatest player of his time, deserved every accolade he ever got, but now? He's Greg Kite with a hook shot.

In case you've forgotten, Kite was Robert Parish's backup as center on the 1984 and '86 NBA Champion Boston Celtics. Ryan, who probably knows more about the Celtics than any living person now that Auerbach is dead (and more about the NBA's history than any person currently covering it), was suggesting that the NBA centers to come -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Parish, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal -- would have handled Mikan fairly easily.

Whether that means the other stars that Kundla coached, or Kundla as a coach, would have made it in the modern NBA, Ryan didn't say. But Mikan seemed to think he would have done just fine, telling Sports Illustrated in 1997:

He was a great coach, one who really understood the players. John wasn't a screamer, and was very mild-mannered, but he'd let loose when we deserved it. And, usually, I was the first one he bawled out. The message he sent was that no one on the team was above criticism.

Mikkelsen agreed, telling The St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1995, when he and Kundla were elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame together:

Our coach had to be the greatest psychologist who ever lived. There is only one ball. A lot of so-called superstars didn't get it as much as they would have liked, because George was the priority. But John kept everyone happy. John sold each of us on the importance of our individual roles.

Whitey Skoog also agreed, when interviewed for the same story as Mikkelsen:

John was an excellent coach. What I appreciated most, and the other ballplayers did too, was his willingness to put himself out there to help each ballplayer improve...

He was humble and positive. I really appreciated John’s ability to communicate. He was never negative about a player’s mistakes. He worked to find a way for the player to improve. He never criticized a player in the press, and gave the players the credit for the Lakers’ success.

But in a 2007 interview with SI, Kundla himself seemed to suggest that the game had passed him by:

I'm not sure I could coach professional basketball players today, and I'm not sure I'd want to. The players are younger, and don't play as much as a team. With agents, crowds, television and the big bucks, everyone involved is under so much more pressure. Pressure for us was still having some meal money left by the time dinner rolled around.

At first, the Lakers weren't affected too much by the institution of the shot clock. Although Mikan retired, only 30 years old but possibly having seen the writing on the wall, Mikkelsen, Martin, Pollard and Lovellette had enough left to get the Lakers to the Western Division Finals, before losing to the Pistons. They only dropped from 46-26 to 40-32. But Pollard then retired, and, despite a comeback by Mikan, they fell to 33-39 for 1956, a drop of 13 games in 2 years. Mikan then retired for good, Martin was traded. By 1958, they were 19-53.

After the 1958-59 season, Bob Short, a Democratic political operative from Minnesota, purchased the team. Despite having ties to Minnesota, he wanted to move them to Los Angeles. Kundla didn't want to go, and the University of Minnesota offered him a lifeline, hiring him as head coach of the program for which he once played. In 1960, Short moved the Lakers, and Minnesota was without an NBA team until the Timberwolves were expanded into existence in 1989. (The ABA had the Minnesota Muskies.)

Kundla was the 1st coach in any sport at UM to give scholarships to black players, among them future NBA All-Stars "Super" Lou Hudson and Archie Clark -- and got hate mail for it. Nonetheless, he remained their head coach until 1968, with his best season being 1965, going 19-5 and getting the Golden Gophers to 2nd in the Big Ten.

However, under the rules of the time, only a league champion could go to the NCAA Tournament, and Minnesota was stuck for years behind the Ohio State teams of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, and then behind the Michigan of Cazzie Russell. Kundla also taught physical education at UM, retiring from that post in 1981.

In 1995, 37 years after coaching his last professional game, Kundla was finally elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1996, as part of the NBA's 50th Anniversary celebration, he was named one of the NBA's 10 Greatest Coaches.

In 2002, his Laker team was honored on the 50th Anniversary of one of their titles, and he and the surviving players from the title teams were honored by the current Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. They, and the families of those who had died, were given championship rings, and a banner with the names of the Minneapolis Lakers' Hall-of-Famers was raised with the Los Angeles retired numbers: Pollard (Number 17), Mikkelsen (19), Martin (22, retired for Elgin Baylor), Lovellette (34, eventually retired for O'Neal), Mikan (99) and Kundla. It is powder-blue with gold trim, to match the Lakers' colors at the time.
Minneapolis Lakers banner at Staples Center,
next to the banner honoring broadcaster Chick Hearn

While in college, he met a woman named Marie. They married and had 6 children: Sons Tom, James, Jack and David, and daughters Kathleen Dahlman and Karen Rodberg. Marie died in 2007, and Jack did so the next year.

He had 6 grandchildren, including Isaiah Dahlman, Minnesota's Mr. Basketball in 2006, briefly the State's all-time scoring leader, and a player at Michigan State University. Noah Dahlman, who played basketball at Wofford College in South Carolina, and was voted 2010 Southern Conference Men's Basketball Player of the Year. And Rebekah Dahlman was Minnesota's Miss Basketball in 2013, and remains the State's all-time leading scorer in girls' basketball.

After his wife's death, he moved into an assisted living community in Minneapolis, and still followed the NBA on television. "It's unbelievable how big they've grown," he said in a New York Times interview shortly before his 100th birthday, July 3, 2016. "But there's still finesse in there, the way they handle that ball, pass it around."
John Kundla, July 3, 2016, with a jersey given to him
by the University of Minnesota, in honor of his 100th Birthday.

John Kundla died on July 23, 2017, this past Sunday, at the age of 101. The current version of the Lakers paid tribute to the man who set the tone for the franchise, long before Bill Sharman coached Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, before Pat Riley coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, before Phil Jackson coached Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Whoever is in charge of the L.A. team's Twitter account wrote, "The Lakers family is saddened by the passing of our original coach, John Kundla. Our thoughts are with his family and friends."

Nor did the owner of the current Minnesota NBA team, the Timberwolves' Glen Taylor, let his passing go without tribute: "John was an incredible staple of Minnesota basketball, and he continued to be a fan of the local hoops scene well after he left coaching. Our condolences go out to the Kundla family during this time."
Of John Kundla's NBA Championship Minneapolis Lakers: Johnny Jorgensen died in 1973, Herm Schaefer in 1980, Billy Hassett in 1992; Jim Pollard, Edwin "Whitey" Kachan and Jack Dwan in 1993; Tony Jaros in 1995, Don Smith in 1996, Paul Napolitano in 1997, Don Carlson in 2004, George Mikan and Earl Gardner in 2005, Jim Holstein in 2007, Howie Schultz and Joe Hutton in 2009, Slater Martin and Lew Hitch in 2012, Vern Mikkelsen in 2013, and Clyde Lovellette in 2016.
There are 7 of them still alive: Donnie Forman (played on the 1949 title team, 91 years old), Arnie Ferrin (1949 and 1950, and if he makes it to this coming Saturday, he will be 92), Bud Grant (1950, 90), Bob Harrison (1950 and 1952, scheduled to turn 90 on August 12), Frank Saul (1952, 1953 and 1954, 93), Whitey Skoog (1952, 1953 and 1954, 90) and Dick Schnittker (1953 and 1954, 89).

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