John Kundla dies at age 101

Bas­ket­ball Hall of Famer

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES - BY JON KRAWCZYNSKI

Be­fore Phil Jack­son and Pat Ri­ley, be­fore Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown, even be­fore Red Auer­bach, there was John Kundla.

Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Min­neapo­lis Lak­ers to five NBA cham­pi­onships, died Sun­day. He was 101.

Son Tom Kundla said his fa­ther died at an as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­ity in North­east Min­neapo­lis that he called home for years.

With Ge­orge Mikan in the mid­dle and Kundla the calm, steady hand di­rect­ing the team, the Lak­ers won the 1949 cham­pi­onship in the BAA - the league that pre­ceded the NBA - and NBA ti­tles in 1950 and 1952-54, ce­ment­ing the fran­chise’s place as the league’s first true dy­nasty. The Lak­ers also won an NBL ti­tle in 1948, but the NBL marks are not in­cluded in the NBA’s records.

Kundla was the old­est liv­ing Hall of Famer in any of the four ma­jor pro sports.

Kundla was in­ducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. A year later, he was named one of the league’s 10 great­est coaches as part of the league’s “NBA at 50” cel­e­bra­tion.

He was hired at 31 and re­signed at 42 with a ca­reer record of 423-302, happy to cede the at­ten­tion and the ac­co­lades to his play­ers over him­self. He was known for his un­der­stated side­line de­meanour, which was unique com­pared to the fiery drill sergeants of the era.

“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,” Mikan once told Sports Il­lus­trated. “The mes­sage he sent was that no one on the team was above crit­i­cism.”

Kundla was born in Star Junc­tion, Penn­syl­va­nia, on July 3, 1916. He re­lo­cated to Min­neapo­lis with his fam­ily at the age of 5.

The De­troit Gems of NBL moved to the Twin Cities in 1947 and hired Kundla to run the re-named Lak­ers. In Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pol­lard, the Lak­ers as­sem­bled the first su­per-team, beat­ing New York in 1952 and ‘53 and Syra­cuse in ‘54 for the three straight ti­tles.

“The Lak­ers fam­ily is sad­dened by the pass­ing of our orig­i­nal coach, John Kundla,” a team state­ment read. “Our thoughts are with his fam­ily and friends.”

He also was a trail­blazer dur­ing those racially tense sea­sons, of­ten turn­ing down ho­tels that re­fused to house black play­ers when the team was on the road. When he later coached at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, Kundla was on the bench when the first black play­ers ar­rived at the school.

“John was an in­cred­i­ble sta­ple of Min­nesota bas­ket­ball,” Tim­ber­wolves and Lynx owner Glen Tay­lor said in a state­ment.

To this day Jack­son, Auer­bach and Kundla stand as the only three coaches to have won more than two cham­pi­onships in a row and Kundla re­mains tied with Popovich and Ri­ley for to­tal cham­pi­onships with five.

“He was an all-time great, Hall of Fame NBA coach,” Tim­ber­wolves coach Tom Thi­bodeau said in the team re­lease “He had a very pro­found im­pact on the NBA, coach­ing and the over­all game.”

What was Kundla’s se­cret? “One game with about a minute left to go. Tie game. I sub­sti­tuted,” Kundla re­called to last year. “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.”

That kind of hu­mil­ity was his hall­mark, both on the court and at home.

Kundla and wife Marie, who died in 2007, had six chil­dren. Five of Kundla’s six grand­chil­dren played col­lege bas­ket­ball, a hoops-lov­ing fam­ily that would only find out how revered the pa­tri­arch was when oth­ers would speak for John. Only two were around dur­ing his Lak­ers days.

“We were too young to re­al­ize how im­por­tant it was and what a num­ber of ac­com­plish­ments he had made un­til we reached the age of rea­son,” Tom Kundla said. “That’s what my dad does. No big deal. We’d see the tro­phies and the big gold bas­ket­ball in the en­try way. It was a norm.”

Kundla stepped down in 1959 to coach at his alma mater, the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, be­fore the Lak­ers moved to Los An­ge­les.

“We played team ball,” Kundla told “We didn’t try to (run up) the score. We played de­fence. We didn’t try to make the other team look bad. But the play­ers were a real good group to­gether.”

His in­duc­tion speech for the Hall of Fame lasted just over six min­utes, with the vast ma­jor­ity of it spent thank­ing coaches, play­ers and his wife, Marie, “who still yells de­fence in her sleep, be­lieve it or not.”

The en­tire fam­ily was there for the in­duc­tion cer­e­mony, many of the chil­dren only then re­al­iz­ing just how ac­com­plished their fa­ther was.


In this April 25, 1952, photo, Min­neapo­lis Lak­ers coach John Kundla, top, is car­ried by his play­ers to their dress­ing room in Min­neapo­lis af­ter de­feat­ing the New York Knicker­bock­ers to win their fourth NBA bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship in five years. Hall of Fame coach Kundla died Sun­day, July 23, 2017. He was 101.

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