The old building's unsuitability, on top of waning attendance, greased wheels already in motion to move the fabled Lakers dynasty from its birthplace in the Upper Midwest to the lush and more lucrative Los Angeles market.
And yet, there the Armory sits to this day. The National Guard stopped using it entirely by 1980. Various civic functions and minor sports events were held there, and the state's historical society blocked an attempt by Hennepin County to build a jail on the site. Prince used the old barn to shoot the music video for "1999" there. Aerosmith reportedly did one there too.
For most of the past two decades, it has been used as an indoor parking lot for commuters. A local real-estate developer, Ned Abdul, bought the joint last summer for $6 million with the idea of transforming it into an event center adjacent to the NFL Vikings' massive new indoor stadium being completed this summer. But a city commission stepped in to declare it a historic landmark, slowing Abdul's plan.
The Armory, it should be noted, was completed in 1936, which makes it 80 years old. And 20 years younger than another civic treasure: John Kundla, coach of George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin and others on those great Lakers teams.
Kundla is still standing, too, though that applies figuratively most days. He uses a wheelchair as his most frequent form of locomotion now, scooting himself down the halls of his assisted-living facility in northeast Minneapolis or getting assists from his sons Tom or James.
This city -- these Twin Cities, actually, with neighboring St. Paul -- are where Kundla was grew up, where he achieved his Hall of Fame-worthy basketball success, and where he opted to stay when the Lakers were crated off to L.A. He had a modest house, he and wife Marie had six children to raise and they settled in for the long term.
"I count my blessings," Kundla said last week in an interview with NBA.com and NBA TV. "For my family. I couldn't do this ... one son, almost every day, is here at 8 o'clock. He lived in Finland and Germany, Sweden, now he's here all the time. One of my sons takes care of all the bandaging, another [child] takes care of all the mail and everything.
"You can't do it alone. My hearing is gone and my eyes are poor. ... So I count my blessings with the family. Thanks to my family I've gotten this far."
At which point the elderly coach smiles and happily adds: "Still playing bingo."
A player's coach ... before it was en vogue
Competitive now (he still rides a stationary bike daily), competitive then. Or maybe you don't realize how successful Kundla and those Lakers were in the days before Kobe Bryant, before Shaquille O'Neal, before Magic Johnson and Pat Riley and Wilt Chamberlain and even Jerry West.
Before Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics grabbed the NBA by the throat and dragged it into the 1960s, winning 11 championships in 13 seasons, it was Kundla, Mikan and the Lakers doing that from the '40s into the '50s. They won six in seven seasons, though the first one in 1948 gets neglected in NBA record-keeping because it came in the National Basketball League. The best NBL players and teams merged into the Basketball Association of America, the official precursor of the NBA with its bigger cities and bigger arenas, for the 1948-49 season. And the Lakers, with Mikan as the league's most dominant player and biggest drawing card, kept winning.
Check out the list of NBA coaches by championships: You've got Phil Jackson (11), Auerbach (9), Gregg Popovich (5), Pat Riley (5) and Kundla (5), and that's it. None of the other 316 men who have coached NBA teams has won more than two.
"He was a great coach, one who really understood the players," Mikan told Sports Illustrated in 1997, two years after Kundla finally was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "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."
Kundla's calm demeanor on the sidelines was ahead of its time -- he essentially was a player's coach, understanding the dynamics of the relationships with pro athletes. Though one time that controlled manner worked against him. The score was close, a referee whistled a foul, Kundla jumped up and -- boom! -- he got a technical foul, just for that.
"I said, 'What for?!' " the coach recalled last week. "The referee said, 'For inciting the crowd!' I said, 'I have no substitutes, they're all fouled [out].' ... I told the league, the league fired the [referee]. I didn't incite the crowd.
"Talk about standing up? Every other team, their coach stood up the whole game. And he called a technical on me."
It's one reason Kundla enjoyed watching Jackson work on the sideline for the Bulls and the Lakers, mostly staying put in his high-cushioned chair. "Heckuva coach. And he did it without jumping up and running up and down the court," Kundla said, chuckling. "It's like they're telling 'em which way they're going."
It all started in the Twin Cities
Born in Star Junction, Pa., on July 3, 1916 -- a baby of Woodrow Wilson's first term, born before wars had Roman numerals attached -- Kundla moved with his mother at age 5 to the Twin Cities. He excelled at basketball before the sport gained full traction at the college and professional levels, starring at Minneapolis Central and then the University of Minnesota.
He went to work as a gym teacher, coaching at a pair of local high schools and then at the University of St. Thomas. That's where he was in 1947 when the promoters behind a new pro team, previously operating as the NBL's Detroit Gems, approached him about the newly named Lakers' job. It was a different time then, as evidenced by the zeroes in Kundla's salary.
"Mikan [eventually] made $72,000. Mine was $6,000," Kundla said. "I was getting $3,000 at St. Thomas. When I went with the pros, they gave me $6,000. These coaches now making millions, you get the shakes."
At one of his first practices, he recalled, Kundla mentioned that he wanted the players to learn three particular plays. At which point Mikan muttered something about the Hail Mary, the Full of Grace and... "Jim Pollard said, 'Will you shut up! I can't hear Kundla.' They were gonna fight," the coach said. "I had to break it up. But they got to be good friends after that."
In fact, Kundla got serious mileage out of Mikan and Pollard playing off each other in a two-man game. "Our best play: 'J-G.' 'Jim and George,' " Kundla said. "Mikan said, 'When you throw the ball to me, don't come in here. Keep away from me! ... Throw the ball to Mikan deep in the pivot [and] cut. Mikan would fake and shoot a lefthander. Or just the opposite."
The Lakers won the NBL title in 1948 and the BAA crown in 1949. By their first official NBA season, ball handler Martin and big man Vern Mikkelsen had joined the squad. Minneapolis' front line -- with the 6-foot-10 Mikan, 6-foot-7 Mikkelsen and 6-foot-4 Pollard -- dominated the boards in those days and led to another NBA innovation: the power forward.
Minneapolis Lakers Title Teams
"With Mikkelsen, we [tried to play] a double pivot and it didn't work at all," Kundla said. "So we put him at forward and he learned to shoot [facing the basket] and pass it, and we had the best rebounding offense and defense. That really was a big thing of the Lakers -- rebounding.
"Pollard was the most graceful player I've ever seen. He could really run and jump and dunk the ball. ... Martin liked to play defense. If they'd switch, he'd get mad at the guy switching. He was really proud of his defense."
A golden era in Minnesota
The Lakers beat Syracuse in six games for the championship in 1950 and were soon getting crowds of 10,000 or so at the defunct Minneapolis Auditorium. Kundla, though, laughed about a game two years earlier when fewer fans showed up.
"Arilee Pollard [Jim's wife] was sitting in the stands and Jack Dwan was dribbling down the court," Kundla said. "Arilee yelled out, 'Pass the ball!' He picked up the ball and said, ''Shut up, Arilee!' "
Those Lakers, though, were family, traveling by train, eating and playing poker together. Heeding a Mikan rule, they also refrained from smoking in the locker room. They lost in the 1951 Finals to Rochester, dropping the best-of-five series in four games. But Minneapolis bounced back to win three more consecutive titles, beating the Knicks in 1952 and 1953, followed by Syracuse in seven games in 1954.
As the NBA's first dynasty, they were the team Abe Saperstein challenged when he wanted to make a point about the skills of his entertaining Harlem Globetrotters team. The Globetrotters faced the Lakers eight times and won the first two, before Minneapolis locked in to win the next six over several seasons.
The Lakers had played in what still ranks as the NBA's lowest-scoring game, Fort Wayne holding the ball as a tactic to thwart Mikan and winning that November 1950 game, 19-18. [The shot clock didn't arrive for four more years.] In March 1954, Minneapolis and Milwaukee were asked to play a regular season game using 12-foot baskets as an experiment to limit the big man's advantage. Both teams shot miserably, the Lakers won by two points and most involved felt the higher rims actually gave tall players more of an edge.
Through it all, despite his 423-302 (.583) coaching record, Kundla's profile stayed low, owing to his personality and the paucity of media covering the league. Thirty-six years between his final Lakers game as coach and the Hall of Fame's call? Come on. Kundla did recall one individual highlight, though.
"One game with about a minute left to go. Tie game. I substituted," Kundla said. "The player I substituted gets a beautiful basket and wins the ball game. Everybody said, 'What a smart move you made.'
"What had happened, the [other] player came to me and said, 'I want to go to the bathroom.' I got credit for being smart."
Sweet memories endure for Kundla
With Mikan and then Pollard retiring as players, the Lakers' fortunes dipped. Kundla became general manager when Mikan took over as coach, but stepped back in after the former Lakers' center went 9-30 in 1957-58. They finished 19-53 but turned that Draft position into Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, who played his first two seasons in Minneapolis before moving west with the franchise.
Kundla left the Lakers before they left him or Minnesota, though, resigning in 1959 to coach at his alma mater. The Gophers went 110-105 in his nine seasons there, including 19-5 in 1964-65, and produced NBA players Lou Hudson and Archie Clark. By the time Kundla moved on at 51 as an athletics instructor on Minnesota's St. Paul campus in 1968, the Lakers were owned by Jack Kent Cooke and were butting heads almost annually with Boston for NBA supremacy.
He said he got a $5,000 check from Bob Short, the entrepreneur who moved and sold the franchise to Cooke in 1965 for $5.2 million. According to Forbes.com, the Lakers in 2016 are worth an estimated $2.7 billion, with new coach Luke Walton signing a five-year contract worth $5 million a year.
Good luck to them amassing the trove of memories Kundla did, though. Some of the specifics escape him now, so many years later, but with a bit of prompting he still can access many.
Like the giddy 1953 title celebration at New York's glitzy Copacabana ("They took a picture of us. 'Who's this? Who's this?' One guy [snuck into the team photo].")
Like Wilt Chamberlain, who arrived in the NBA just as Kundla exited. "He wasn't a good shot and he didn't get back fast enough on defense," Kundla said. "For some reason, I didn't like him at all."
Like Bob Cousy, the great Celtics guard who became a friend after the two men's wives attended church together. Like Auerbach, Cousy's old boss in Boston.
"He married a girl, she cooled him off a little bit. But he was a wild man," Kundla said last week. "He smoked a cigar all the time. We're both in the Hall of Fame and he's smoking a cigar with women there -- I said, 'Geez, Red.' That upset me. After every game they won, he smoked a cigar. Well, that's all right. But with a woman sitting next to him?
"The other coaches were afraid to criticize him. Boston was tough."
Still the coach
Most of Kundla's Minneapolis players are gone now; Pollard died in 1993, Mikan in 2005, Martin in 2012 and Mikkelsen in 2013. In 2002, the Lakers -- eager to link the five championships in Minnesota to their 11 in L.A. to keep heat on the 17-time champion Celtics -- brought most of them to Staples Center, where Kundla recalls being awed by Bryant's quickness and shooting.
What does Kundla want people to know about his Lakers? "We played team ball," he said. "We didn't try to [run up] the score. We played defense. We didn't try to make the other team look bad. But the players were a real good group together."
Since 2001, there has been a statue of Mikan in the lobby of Target Center, home of the Timberwolves. Two miles away, the flesh-and-blood leader of those Lakers teams -- named in 1996 as one of the NBA's top 10 coaches of the league's first 50 years -- stays busy. There's daily chapel and bingo and meal time and, recently, a flurry of interviews. During the NBA season, he listens to or watches Wolves games, catching others when he can.
"Oh, I watch," he said. "But it's a different game than we played. The 3-point shot made a difference. ... We shot two-handed set shots. But they practice so much and get higher arcs. But they shouldn't shoot to quick. That's bad, to hurry up. Take your time and wait until you have a chance for a rebound. If nobody's underneath the basket, wait for the rebounders."
Always the coach.
During the recently completed 2016 Finals, Kundla watched as Golden State's Steve Kerr tried but failed to become only the second coach in league history to win championships in his first two seasons on the job. Cleveland's Tyronn Lue will be on the clock to match that distinction next spring.
Kundla -- the first and so far only man to do that -- plans to tune in to see if Lue catches him. After that, Kerr, Lue and the rest can try to chase him into triple digits.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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