John Kundla, who celebrates his 100th birthday Sunday, would never have coached the Minneapolis Lakers to six championships if it weren’t for some unique circumstances.
A friend of mine named Mike Alpert and I got the idea of bringing two National Basketball League exhibition games between two Wisconsin teams, Sheboygan and Oshkosh, to the Minneapolis Auditorium. Both games drew well, and I talked with my boss Charlie Johnson, the sports editor of the Star Tribune, about bringing a pro team from that league to Minneapolis in 1947.
I had a friend named Doxie Moore who was the Sheboygan coach and later became commissioner of the league. He informed me the Detroit Gems were available for sale. They were going bankrupt and the owner, Morris Winston, was eager to get anything he could for the franchise.
I have to say I did a pretty good job negotiating with him. Winston agreed to take $15,000 for the club.
The next thing to find was two people with big pockets who would be interested in coming up with the money. I found a man by the name of Morris Chalfin, and he found a partner in Ben Berger, and with that I was off to Detroit with a check to buy the club.
Building a champion
The Gems had finished last in 1946-47 with a 4-40 record, but they ended up with the rights to George Mikan, one of the greatest players of all time. He had been playing for the Chicago American Gears team after graduating from DePaul.
Then the next thing was to find a coach. And, as these things go, Kundla was not the first choice. He was coaching St. Thomas at the time, but the coach with the best reputation was Hamline’s Joe Hutton Sr., who was beating some of the great teams in the country and was a fine recruiter.
However, Hutton turned the job down, even though we offered him a lot more money than he was making at the time, because his son Joe Jr. was playing for the Pipers and he wanted to coach him.
It wasn’t easy to sell Kundla, either. He lived in a second-floor apartment with his wife, Marie, and they must have turned me down 10 times before I finally convinced him to take the job for a $6,000 salary, twice what he was making at St. Thomas. It’s amazing to compare that to the millions coaches are getting today.
Personnel was the next issue, and Kundla helped put together a bunch of ex-Gophers players such as Don Smith, Kenny Exel and others.
Fortunately, I was able to sign Jim Pollard, who was playing AAU basketball in California, and who was the Michael Jordan of that time. In order to get Pollard to come here, we had to bring some of his teammates and pay him $10,000 a year.
The next big break for Kundla was when we signed Mikan for $12,500, the most ever paid to a player at the time.
Kundla was very excited when Berger and Chalfin paid $15,000 to buy two ex-Gophers, Tony Jaros and Don Carlson, from the Chicago Stags.
The rest is history. Coached by Kundla, the team dominated the NBL for one year and the NBA for 10. NBA records show he won five championships and posted a 423-302 record before the team moved to Los Angeles.
And the value of the franchise has only gone up. Berger sold the team to Bob Short for $150,000 in 1957, then Short sold the team for $5 million to Jack Kent Cooke in 1965. Cooke sold it to Jerry Buss in 1979 for $67.5 million. Today the team is worth $2.7 billion.
Kundla simply one of the best
Kundla coached in the first four NBA All-Star Games, and his five titles are tied for third with Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich. He actually won six titles, because that first year in the NBL, the team went 43-17 and won the league championship, but the NBA doesn’t give him credit for that.
Kundla is also the only coach in history to win a title in his first two NBA seasons. Golden State’s Steve Kerr had a chance to match Kundla this season, but the Warriors fell one victory short.
Kundla was probably the most popular coach in the NBA. The media loved him, his players loved him, and humility was the word that was invented for him. He never took any credit for anything. Kundla simply didn’t have an enemy in the world.
One thing Kundla will never forget is when he brought the Lakers to New York and the Madison Square Garden marquee read “Mikan vs. Knicks.”
I’ve received a lot of nice letters in my long newspaper career, but one I prize the most is the one I got from Kundla dated March 1, 2014.
It reads like this:
I came across one of many copies of the Laker Championships with Ben Berger and Max Winter. I wished you could have been in that picture. It would have been nice to have had another picture with Vern Mikkelsen, Pep Saul, Bobby Harrison, Swede Carlson and Tony Jaros.
You put the team together Sid, and if it was not for you coming to our apartment to meet with Marie and myself, I would have not have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, one of the biggest honors of my life.
Again thank you for putting it all together.
Sincerely, John Kundla
Yes, he was one of the greatest coaches of all time, and he remains a close, personal friend on his 100th birthday.
• One thing different about Target Field this season is the number of home runs hit. Through June 30, 2015 (40 games), there were 73 home runs hit there (37 by the Twins, 36 by opponents). Through the end of this June (also 40 games), there were 100 homers hit there. Of course, the big difference is that opponents had hit 60 this season, compared to 40 by the Twins. That was a big reason why they were only 15-25 at home going into this current homestand.
• Two players for the Twins’ Class AAA Rochester team were named to the International League All-Star team, second baseman Jorge Polanco and pitcher Jason Wheeler. Red Wings pitching coach Stu Cliburn also was named to the team, which plays the Pacific Coast League All-Stars on July 13 in Charlotte, N.C.
• Torii Hunter Jr. signed with the Los Angeles Angels after being drafted in the 23rd round. However, Hunter will not play pro baseball yet as he will instead finish playing football this fall for Notre Dame. A wide receiver, Hunter Jr. caught 23 passes for 363 yards last year, and he figures to be the Irish’s top target this season. He has been a part-time baseball player for the Irish for two seasons, being used mostly as a defensive replacement and a pinch runner.
• Three Gophers athletes were named to the 2016 Academic All-America cross-country/track and field teams: Luca Wieland of the men’s team and Alex Backman and Jess Lehman of the women’s team. Across all programs, the Gophers had 11 athletes named Academic All-America this season, the most in school history.
• Former Gophers football coach Jerry Kill will be inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame later this year.
• The Gophers have offered a scholarship to the brother of Laquan Treadwell, the first-round Vikings draft pick. Juawan Treadwell is out of Crete-Monee High School in suburban Chicago and plays receiver and defensive back.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.