When John Kundla attends Minnesota Timberwolves games, he often
fixes his gaze on the team's coach, Flip Saunders. He watches
Saunders try to coax consistency--never mind greatness--out of
adolescents who already have signature lines of basketball
shoes, who regard instructions from the bench as mere
suggestions. Kundla rewinds the shot clock a half century to
when he was the coach of the Twin Cities' NBA entry, and he
reflects on the occupational challenges that confronted him.
Then, invariably, he breathes a sigh of relief.
"I'm not sure I could coach professional basketball players
today, and I'm not sure I'd want to," Kundla says. "I still love
basketball, but it's an entirely different sport from when I
coached. 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
Before Phil Jackson and his dime-store Zen, before Pat Riley and
his hair mousse, even before Red Auerbach and his stogies, there
was John Kundla. In 1947-48, Kundla's first season as coach of
the Minneapolis Lakers, his team won the National Basketball
League (NBL) championship. The following season the Lakers
joined the fledgling NBA and, led by dominant 6'10" center
George Mikan, won five championships in the next six years.
Kundla was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995,
but his success came during an era when his team traveled by
Pullman car to play opponents such as the Sheboygan (Wis.)
Redskins, the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks and the Anderson (Indiana)
Packers. It was a time when the players were more susceptible to
gravity, the Lakers' team payroll was less than $100,000, and
Nike was still known only as a bit player in Greek mythology. As
a result, even among devoted basketball followers, Kundla's name
often is met with a reflexive response of "Who?" In fact last
season when Kundla was named by the NBA as one of the league's
top 10 alltime coaches, he found out from a friend in
California. "It wasn't even mentioned in the Minneapolis
newspaper," he says wistfully.
November 3, 1997
Though a slender, vigorous 6'2" physique and an affable manner
make Kundla appear 20 years younger, the coach is 81. He leads a
life of ease. Thanks in part to successful hip-replacement
surgery, he spends his days biking, playing golf, tending to the
tomatoes in his backyard garden and spending time with his six
children, ages 35 to 52, and six grandchildren. He lives on a
tree-lined middle-class block in the Minneapolis suburb of
Robbinsdale. The two-story house he shares with his wife of 57
years, Marie, is the same one he bought when he was hired as the
Lakers' bench boss in 1947.
"I turned that job down three times," he says with a chuckle. "I
was the coach at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, and I wasn't
sure that a professional basketball team in Minneapolis was
going to make it. I finally agreed to take the job only after
they gave me a guaranteed contract for three years at $6,000."
Following a triumphant first and last season in the NBL, the
Lakers joined the NBA in 1948, having earlier acquired Mikan in
the dispersal draft after his NBL team the Chicago Gears folded.
"How lucky can you get?" Kundla says. "We already had a great
team, and then we got George, the best basketball player in the
first half of the 20th century."
In Mikan's first season in the NBA he averaged 28.3 points.
After steamrolling through the '48-49 regular season, the Lakers
defeated the Washington Capitols in the NBA Finals. "They just
didn't have anyone who could guard George," says Kundla. "We'd
throw the ball to him in the paint, and if they double-teamed,
he would pass to a wide-open teammate. If they played him
straight up, he would score or get fouled every time."
The next season Minneapolis was even better. The Lakers' top
rookie, forward Vern Mikkelsen, came with impressive credentials
but was caught in a frontline logjam behind Mikan and another
future Hall of Famer, Jim Pollard. After a few games Kundla
decided to experiment by playing Mikkelsen at a new position,
power forward, alongside Mikan down low. It took a few games for
the team to adjust to this innovative formation, but soon the
front line was simply unstoppable. The Lakers lost only one game
at home and successfully defended their title against the
Because of the Lakers' success, Kundla was chosen to coach in
the league's inaugural All-Star Game, in 1951. These days the
NBA All-Star Weekend is a three-day, funk-filled extravaganza,
replete with laser shows, a Stay in School jam (a free concert
for schoolkids at the All-Star arena) and a slam dunk contest.
That first game, however, was something less of a production.
Kundla met Mikan, Pollard and the rest of the Western Division
squad in the bowels of Boston Garden shortly before tip-off. "I
diagrammed a few plays, tried my best to get everyone into the
game and then went back to Minnesota," he says. "The stipend was
a $50 war bond. To be honest, I don't remember much more than
Kundla does, on the other hand, have vivid recollections of a
game in 1950 that pitted the Lakers against the Fort Wayne
Pistons, one of the league's weaker teams. Knowing their chances
of outscoring Minneapolis were slim, the Pistons simply held the
ball that night, shooting only when within point-blank range.
Though both teams entered the game averaging more than 80
points, the Pistons won 19-18, still the lowest-scoring game in
NBA history. Fort Wayne's leading scorer tallied five points,
and Mikan, the only Laker to register a field goal, scored 15 of
his team's 18 points. "The fans were booing like crazy, but
there was nothing we could do," says Kundla. "It wasn't until
1954 that they instituted the shot clock."
While "three-peating" as champs from 1952 through '54, the
Lakers developed a strong fan base in Minnesota, regularly
packing Minneapolis Auditorium to its 10,000 capacity. "The only
problem was that in the spring, they used to hold conventions
and trade shows in our arena, so when the playoffs rolled
around, we had to rent a gym in St. Paul or at a local college,"
recounts Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis columnist with the
Star-Tribune for more than 40 years who was the team's de facto
Kundla's former players uniformly say that their coach's most
valuable trait was a preternatural ability to cede power to the
players without creating anarchy. "He was a great coach, one who
really understood the players," says Mikan, who recently retired
from his Minneapolis law practice and frequently joins Mikkelsen
and their old coach for breakfast. "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."
"We had to be nice to John because he wasn't just the coach, he
was also the traveling secretary, who reimbursed us for our
expenses," jokes Mikkelsen, who was inducted into the Hall of
Fame with Kundla in 1995 and lives in Minnetonka, Minn. "John
was a great X's-and-O's coach, and he was an absolute master at
handling the egos, a super psychologist. He was there as a
friend, and we had a lot of fun together, but when he had to, he
ran a tight ship."
Mikan retired in 1956, and several lean years followed for the
Lakers. After selecting Elgin Baylor in the 1958 draft, the
Lakers were on their way to becoming a top team again. But,
weary from the increasingly rigorous travel schedule and the
time away from his family, Kundla resigned after the '58-59
season to take over as coach at the University of Minnesota,
where he had been a starting forward in the late 1930s. In
relative anonymity, he coached the mediocre Gophers for nine
seasons before accepting a teaching and administrative position
at Minnesota's St. Paul campus in 1968.
Kundla hasn't coached a game at any level since Lyndon Johnson's
Administration, but he is still a hoops fan. An aversion to
driving at night keeps him away from the Target Center, where
the Timberwolves play, more often than he would like, but he and
Marie spend plenty of evenings sprawled on the couch frantically
operating the remote control to catch the best game on
television, preferably pro. "When I watch basketball now, what
strikes me most is how much shooting accuracy has improved and
how athletic these guys are. Jordan is just incredible, but I
especially like playmakers, guys who pass the ball and break
down defenses, guys like John Stockton, and the kid we have
here, Stephon Marbury." A coach to the end, Kundla pauses before
adding, "Marbury has great speed, but I'd sure like to see him
use it more on the defensive end.
"Fans will always complain about the officiating," continues
Kundla, who received technical fouls as often as Minneapolis has
mild winters. "But the game is called much more loosely today.
Traveling, charging fouls, palming--the refs let all of that go.
Also, because the players are better athletes, they go
one-on-one a lot more, and that can be fun to watch. Overall I
think David Stern deserves a lot of credit for helping make
basketball so popular. I'm an old-timer, but to me pro
basketball is still very entertaining."
Kundla shakes his head when talk turns to "that Rodman
character," as he calls the Chicago Bulls' rebounder. Otherwise,
unlike so many other NBA alumni of his generation, he is not
prepared to play Chicken Little and proclaim that the downfall
of pro hoops will come at the hands of today's socially
irresponsible stars. In fact, now that the statute of
limitations has lapsed, Kundla concedes that the conduct of his
players was, at times, something less than exemplary. Slater
Martin and Bobby Harrison, for instance, were involved in a
postgame brawl in Davenport, Iowa, and arrest warrants were said
to have been issued for both players. Thereafter, whenever the
Lakers returned to Davenport, the two players would remain in
Minneapolis, having fallen prey to a mysterious illness.
Kundla is in close contact with Mikan and Mikkelsen and with
many other former charges. "I always had a good relationship
with most of my players, and I enjoy keeping up with them," he
says. "I don't live in the past, but when I think about it, I
really feel lucky to have coached so many great guys. I have no
complaints, no regrets about how everything turned out. I'm glad
that I coached in the era that I did."
Nevertheless, when he is informed that 26 of the NBA's 29
coaches will make at least $1 million this season, a grimace and
a smile momentarily wrestle on his face. The smile wins out. "A
million dollars? I never made that much in 27 years of coaching
combined," he says with a what-can-you-do-about-it shrug. "The
only thing I have a million of is great memories. But to me
that's not making out too badly at all."