John Kundla
John Kundla (center) talks with the media alongside Clyde Lovellette and Arilee Pollard on April 11, 2002.
(Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

John Kundla: Legacy of the Lakers' First Coach

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Back when NBA teams still traveled aboard trains from city to city, John Kundla became the conductor of the league’s first dynasty.

With his mild-mannered demeanor, Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles and one NBL championship during his 12 years at the head of the team.

Seventy years after Kundla was named the first coach of the Lakers, he passed away at the age of 101 in his native Minneapolis on July 23, 2017.

“On behalf of the entire Lakers organization, I’d like to express our sadness at the passing of John Kundla,” Lakers President and co-owner Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “John played an important role in the history of the Lakers organization. Not only was he a Hall of Fame coach, he was our first head coach and led the organization to five NBA championships. In addition to his numerous contributions to the Lakers and our legacy, John was a wonderful man and will be remembered fondly. Our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers go out to the Kundla family.”

In direct contrast to the fire-spitting coaches of his era, Kundla’s players always spoke to his levelheadedness and respect toward the entire team.

As he so often put it, “Praise loudly, blame softly.”

This mantra helped him juggle a roster featuring five fellow Hall of Famers: George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin and Clyde Lovellette.

With Kundla at the helm, the Lakers were a super team, winning five championships in their first six seasons in Minneapolis.

He coached each of the NBA’s first four All-Star Games. He was one of five coaches to ever win more than two championships. His 60-35 playoff record is third-best among those who have coached at least 50 postseason games.

Just 31 years old when he took the job back in 1947, Kundla remains the only coach in league history to capture titles in both of his first two seasons.

But all this success nearly never happened, as it took some convincing for Kundla to join the infant NBA.

After starring on the hardwood at the University of Minnesota, Kundla’s experiences included: a year of pro baseball in Paducah, Kentucky; serving as an assistant for the Golden Gophers’ hoops team; and coaching basketball and P.E. at local Minneapolis high schools.

He also served in the Navy during World War II, as part of both the European and Pacific theaters. Kundla, who was assigned to LST (Landing Ship, Tank) units, recalled playing pick-up basketball while sailing through the Atlantic Ocean.

Following the war, he returned to coaching at the College of St. Thomas in neighboring St. Paul.

After just one year with the Tommies, Kundla was approached to coach the newly formed Minneapolis Lakers. He turned them down.

But management was persistent, doubling Kundla’s salary at the time to $6,000.

Kundla’s Minneapolis teams were powerhouses, but they couldn’t always draw enough fans to fill the arena. When the Lakers moved in 1960, Kundla decided to stay home and immediately took over as head coach of his alma mater.

Kundla was the first basketball coach at Minnesota to give scholarships to African-American players, resulting in a regular stream of hate mail to put up with.

In 1968, he hung up his clipboard for good after a final season with the Golden Gophers. Twenty-seven years after that, he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history during the league’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Though he remained in Minnesota, Kundla continued to watch the Lakers late into his life. He admired Phil Jackson’s intellectual approach to the game and Kobe Bryant’s blend of speed, size and shooting.

In 2002, Jackson, Bryant and the Lakers honored Kundla’s Minneapolis teams by raising a banner at Staples Center with the years of all the championships they won.

Also up in the rafters, hanging alongside the Lakers’ retired jerseys, is another banner with six names on it. Second from the bottom and among the players he led to glory, the name John Kundla sits above the Lakers’ home court.

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