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Steve Aschbruner

John Kundla (center, in suit) and the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers won the championship.
NBAPhotos/ NBAE/ Getty Images

Living legend Kundla recounts days as Lakers' first coach

Posted Dec 28 2010 2:33PM


It seems like such a modern term, coined or at least copyrighted by Pat Riley, even though his Los Angeles Lakers teams in the 1980s failed to actually string together three consecutive championships. Phil Jackson is the NBA coach who has perfected it, winning his titles in bunches with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. In fact, that's how Jackson wants to go out this spring, winning once more for a fourth "three-peat" that, in 2011, would become his latest and greatest accomplishment.

Except that "three-peat" isn't just "now." It was very much "then," dating before the invention of the 24-second clock. In fact, the rest of this piece ought to be printed in sepia-colored ink.

When John Kundla coached the Minneapolis Lakers to the 1950 NBA championship in six games over the Syracuse Nationals (after breezing undefeated through the first three rounds), it was his and the Lakers' third in a row. The NBA doesn't actually recognize this because the Lakers' first title came in the National Basketball League, a rival operation to the Basketball Association of America, which was the precursor of the NBA as we know it.

With George Mikan as its new center, added to players such as Jim Pollard and Herm Schaefer and a coach from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul -- Kundla -- Minneapolis (43-17) breezed to a division title by 13 games before beating Oshkosh, Tri-Cities and Rochester in the postseason. That spring, the Baltimore Bullets went 28-20 for coach Buddy Jeannette and beat defending BAA champion Philadelphia in what the NBA considers its second official Finals.

By 1948-49, the Lakers had shifted to the BAA. They went 44-16, Mikan led the league in scoring (28.3) and a 32-year-old Kundla led Minneapolis to a 4-2 Finals victory over the Washington Capitols coached by a 31-year-old Red Auerbach.

They won again in 1950 for what qualifies at least as a three-peat for Kundla as a coach. Then, after going 49-19 in 1950-51 but falling to Rochester in the West Division finals, the Lakers did it all over again, winning in 1952, 1953 and 1954 to establish themselves as the NBA's first dynasty.

Kundla can claim NBA titles in five of his first six seasons (and six of seven as a pro), something no other coach can match. And he talked about that and more in a Christmas Eve telephone conversation from the Minneapolis nursing home where he lives these days.

At 94, the man who coached Mikan, Pollard and three other Hall of Famers with the Lakers has been out of the NBA for 52 years. He was younger when he coached his last pro game, finishing 423-302 (BAA/NBA only), than Jackson (44) was when he coached his first. But Kundla took over at the University of Minnesota from 1959 to 1968, coaching future NBA stars such as Lou Hudson and Archie Clark.

Kundla himself became a Naismith Hall of Famer in 1995, and two years later he was named one of the NBA's 10 Greatest Coaches. He stays competitive in bingo games, according to his son Nathan. And as Kundla likes to say, "I look like a million, but I'm only 94." Merry Christmas! How are you doing these days?

John Kundla: I'm doing well. I count my blessings. I just got a letter from the bishop of New Ulm [Minn.]. He said, "I remember you when I was a boy, going to Laker games." Now he's pretty old, if he's the bishop. I got a letter from a fellow in France wanting an autograph. He's in France and he knows about the Minneapolis Lakers. I was really shocked about it. From France! Do you still follow the NBA? If so, are you a Timberwolves fan or a Lakers fan?

JK: I don't see anything with the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves have been no fun watching this year. They've had tough luck. But I watch the Lakers. I admire their coach. And Kobe Bryant. What a wonderful job they've done. What's curious, though, is that the Lakers seemed to have little interest in their Minneapolis roots for so long. Author Roland Lazenby, a Lakers historian, said recently that the team had left the old Minneapolis trophies sitting neglected in a closet somewhere before re-thinking things. It took them about 40 years to start recognizing their past. What do you think changed?

JK: They want to beat Boston's record, y'know. That's why they want the five championships: To beat out Boston. So with the five from Minnesota, the Lakers can claim 16. And if the NBA recognized your championship in the NBL in 1948, both the Lakers and the Celtics would be "all about 18" this season. At least there are a couple of banners in the Staples Center rafters now, recognizing the Minneapolis titles and the Hall of Famers on your squad who won them. I was out there covering the Timberwolves that night in April 2002 when they had a ceremony before and at halftime of the Wolves-Lakers game.

JK: They brought Mikan, [Vern] Mikkelsen, Clyde Lovellette and myself, they brought us out first class to give us rings. I'll never forget that. First class. And they gave us beautiful rings -- 14 [diamonds]. Beautiful rings! Sounds like that was a better way to travel than you guys did back in the day. Back in January, there were stories written for the 50th anniversary of the Lakers plane's forced landing in an Iowa cornfield. But even that old DC-3 would have been an upgrade from the way your teams traveled.

JK: We traveled on trains. We'd get to Chicago and then have to change stations to get to New York. We had a heckuva time. The conductors all knew us. Sleeping in berths and all, oh man ... Mikan had a, what do you call it, a compartment because the berths were too small. I remember Mikan on the road, he'd be in the room next to me, the beds were always too small. He'd take the mattress off the bed and put it on the floor so his feet could hang off. Now they've got big beds, but at that time, it was miserable for the tall guys.

Ex-Lakers coach John Kundla (right) chats with his former player, George Mikan, in 2001.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images It had to be tough for players to get their game legs after being on trains for so long.

JK: Aw, it was horrible. They played a lot of poker. But it was no fun traveling. How different was the talent and the competition level from the NBL to the BAA?

JK: They spent more money for players in the BAA at that time. It was a lot tougher in the big cities, because there was more money. There was more money in part because you brought the league's greatest drawing card over from the NBL. Mikan was named the best player of basketball's first half century and, at 6-foot-10 and at least 245 pounds, was bigger and heavier than most of his opponents. Talk about his impact.

JK: When Mikan joined us in the National League, it was teams like Oshkosh, Sheboygan and so forth. The next year, they wanted us to go in with Philadelphia and New York because of Mikan. Mikan was a big drawing card. So we joined the BAA -- they didn't call it the NBA yet. It was Mikan who brought the big leagues to Minneapolis. After we got into the NBA, then Calvin Griffith brought the baseball team, Washington [Senators], to Minneapolis. George is responsible for that happening. They've got a statue of Mikan at Target Center and he deserved that because he's the one who was responsible for building that [market]. By the time you got him -- Ray Meyer had drilled Mikan into a legitimate player during their years together at DePaul -- was coaching Mikan as simple as tossing him the ball and letting "George do it?"

JK: When Mikan joined us, we had a heckuva time adjusting. We'd throw the ball to him and five guys would sag in on him. He couldn't even get his shot off. So we developed plays where, if you throw it in to Mikan, go away from the ball [to draw your defender away]. We finally got a system going of working special plays between Mikan and Pollard, and it worked. We won the championship three years in a row. Zone defenses were OK then?

JK: It was illegal. But they still sagged into him. Till George said, "Don't throw the ball to me and come in there. Go away from me." Mikan was the man who succeeded you as Lakers coach, when you took over as general manager in 1957. But he only lasted half a season. Did you think he would be more successful as a coach?

JK: I did. But he admitted that he didn't have the background or something, I don't know. He gave up coaching and was glad to give it up. He was too nice of a guy, too, I remember he said. Then he became the commissioner of the new league, remember that?

[Mikan was the first commissioner of the American Basketball Association, bringing both his law degree and his credibility to the NBA's rival league for its first two seasons.] Did you ever get approached by any teams to come back to the NBA to coach again? You stepped down as Lakers coach again before the team's last season in Minneapolis.

JK: I had gotten the offer from the University of Minnesota to coach there. With Mikan gone, we had a bad time. No center. We had Clyde Lovellette, but Clyde wasn't too much of a defensive player. Our attendance fell way down. We didn't have a place to play -- that was another problem. We played at the Auditorium and the Armory, and the fellas hated playing there. The floor was real hard and they always got shin splints. So you don't wonder how you might have done with both Elgin Baylor and Jerry West on your team?

JK: I drafted Elgin Baylor. What a ballplayer he was -- he was a one-man team! Jerry West came after, but Baylor joined us and became the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game. He was a good assists man, rebounds. A good team man. From everything we know -- the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and the Lakers in Minneapolis to the Gophers job and the fact you still live in Minnesota -- it sounds like you might not have been comfortable in Los Angeles anyway.

JK: I didn't want to go to L.A. No. I was offered Minnesota and I stayed here. I had heard a lot of bad things for players in L.A. They offered Mikkelsen the same thing, to [play out there]. And he also turned them down. [Mikkelsen was just 30 years old when he ended his NBA career in 1959-60.] Minnesota lost its NBA team to Los Angeles. Now some people worry that it might lose its NFL team if the Vikings can't get a place to play better than the Metrodome.

JK: The Vikings want the people of Minneapolis to build them a new stadium. We've got enough troubles here with the Dome. The roof broke down. And they're a billion dollars short in taxes or something. I doubt they're going to build a new stadium for the Vikings. Have you gotten to know the current Lakers at all? Phil Jackson is an old North Dakota guy.

JK: As a matter of fact, when I was at the University of Minnesota, he came in to play. He had a real good fake move as a forward. Also I remember that I invited him to come to Minnesota when I was coach there. He said that I turned him down, but that couldn't be true because I never met him. It must have been somebody else. I remember that I tried to recruit him. When you watch NBA games today, what stands out as different from when you were in the league?

JK: I don't know if the game is better, but they can shoot better, I'll tell you that. The 3-pointers are unbelievable. The percentages that they shoot -- that somebody can make 14 3-pointers in a game! And they jump much higher. They can dunk -- I don't like the dunking -- but they can get so high. The passing game is gone. They don't pass the ball the way that we did, to make plays. It's a different game altogether. It's a shooting game. Why do you think they shoot so much better? Practice? Better ball technology?

JK: It's just practice, I guess. That 3-point shot really changed the game. Also, a lot of them take bad shots because of it. Teams will forget about defense. So the teams that really do play defense are the winners. You've got to play defense and block shots, and you want guys who play underneath the basket and get the rebound -- like [Kevin] Love here in Minnesota. But the 3-point shooters dominate the game right now. Ah, so you do watch a little bit of Timberwolves basketball. What are your impressions of Love?

JK: He's amazing. Just a knack to be in the right place for the rebound. He has a nose for the ball. One of my grandsons who plays for Wofford College [Noah Dahlman] does the same thing: He has no outside shot. He just plays underneath the basket, blocking out and getting the rebound. He's the leading scorer on his team. It's unbelievable. [Another grandson of Kundla, Isaiah Dahlman, played at Michigan State. And his granddaughter, Rebecca Dahlman, is a Minnesota all-state player at Braham High School.] Have you done any coaching of your grandkids?

JK: I give them advice on blocking out: Get pressure on your back and get your hands up. They can't jump if you've got pressure on them. They can't jump over you. That's helped Noah more than anything. That seems like a lost art -- or maybe just a lost fundamental -- in the NBA, where you see All-Star players just standing and waiting when a shot goes up.

JK: Defense is still the key. The good teams have good defense. They give up one shot and that's it. At the other end, they get two or three rebounds and attack the basket. Is that what you stressed with the Lakers?

JK: I had Mikan, Mikkelsen and Pollard. I had the greatest front line, I think. Gave them one shot and we had the rebound. Go to the other end and we'd play volleyball at that basket. How different might NBA history be if the Lakers had stayed in Minneapolis?

JK: It would probably be all right. But when Mikan left, we just didn't get any people for crowds. The attendance was real poor. So Bob Short sold it to L.A. That was a shame. But right now, it's like they might lose another team. The Timberwolves can't draw any people because they don't win. Did you follow Garnett while he was with the Wolves?

JK: Oh yes. He was a good rebounder. I watched him in high school. But I heard he wasn't always a good teammate here. But you're OK with Kobe Bryant, right?

JK: At the game when they gave us the rings, I was sitting up close to watch him. And when he got the ball, boy, he had that quick move to get right to the basket. It's amazing the speed. He's tall, too, he's not short. I think he's about 6-4. And his shooting is unbelievable. He gets up in the air where people can't guard him and even on those 3-pointers, he's accurate. His percentage is unbelievable. Once a Lakers man, always a Lakers man?

JK: I'm still pulling for them. I like Jackson. He does a nice job. Some coaches, they don't sit down at all. They pace the sidelines the whole game He doesn't get up and stand up for plays, he sits in his chair and figures things out. He's a little different. He's a great coach. Takes one to know one.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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