John Kundla, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and one of the top coaches in NBA history, died Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis.
Kundla, who was the oldest surviving Hall of Fame member of the four major sports, was 101.
“John was an excellent coach,” said former Minneapolis Lakers guard Whitey Skoog, who played for Kundla for six seasons. “What I appreciated most, and the other ballplayers did too, was his willingness to put himself out there to help each ballplayer improve.”
Kundla was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 — three years after a story in USA Today said that he was deserving of membership in the Hall, but he was “all but forgotten.” In 1996, he was named one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history.
The Los Angeles Lakers tweeted, “The Lakers family is saddened by the passing of our original coach, John Kundla. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”
“John was an incredible staple of Minnesota basketball, and he continued to be a fan of the local hoops scene well after he left coaching,’’ Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said. ‘‘Our condolences go out to the Kundla family during this time.”
When the Minneapolis Lakers were formed in the summer of 1947, the 31-year old Kundla wasn’t the team’s first choice to be head coach. When he was offered the position, he initially turned it down. After becoming the coach, he and the Lakers were an immediate success. Kundla remains the only coach in NBA history to win league titles in his first two seasons in the league.
“He was humble and positive,” said Skoog, who coached basketball and golf at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., after retiring from the Lakers. “I really appreciated John’s ability to communicate. He was never negative about a player’s mistakes. He worked to find a way for the player to improve. He never criticized a player in the press and gave the players the credit for the Lakers’ success.”
Skoog said what stands out most for him from the Lakers’ dominance of professional basketball (six league titles in a seven-year period) in the 1950s, is “John’s ability to coach a single unit that pulled together under his tutelage.”
Kundla was born on July 3, 1916, in Star Junction, Pa., a coal mining and steel mill town near Pittsburgh. When he was 5 years old, Kundla and his mother, Anna, who was born in Austria, moved to Minneapolis. His father, John Sr., who was born in Slovakia, was supposed to join them but never did.
Kundla, who only spoke Slovak until he and his mother moved to Minnesota, graduated from Minneapolis Central High School at 16. In the fall of 1935, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
He lettered in baseball and basketball for the Gophers, playing on the Gophers’ Big Ten championship team in basketball in the 1936-37 season. In the 1938-39 season, he set the Gophers' single-season scoring record of 210 points. In 1939, he was awarded the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor (for academic and athletic excellence), and in 1940, the Minneapolis Tribune named Kundla to its all-Gophers team for the previous decade.
Following graduation in 1939, he played professional baseball for Paducah (Ky.) in the Class D Kitty League. He batted .314 in 57 games. After the stint in professional baseball, Kundla became the director of physical education and basketball coach at Ascension School in Minneapolis.
In January 1941, he became an assistant basketball coach for the Gophers. The Minneapolis Tribune reported his hiring by writing, “the return of Kundla as a coach brings back one of the best-liked Gopher athletes in Minnesota history.”
Eighteen months later, Kundla was hired to teach and coach baseball, basketball and football at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Tribune’s Charles Johnson applauded the hire by writing, “De La Salle made no mistake when it picked Johnny Kundla ... Unless we miss our guess, this former Gopher luminary eventually will develop into one of the most successful mentors the University has ever turned out.”
In his second season, Kundla, who taught world history at DeLaSalle, coached the Islanders to the championship of the state Catholic basketball tournament.
“I was hired as football, basketball and baseball coach because they didn’t have enough money to hire more than one coach,” Kundla told Hennepin History magazine in 2013. “I loved coaching at DeLaSalle, although the close games were hard to take. I remember when we lost to St. Thomas with five seconds to go … I almost drove the bus into the river after that one.”
In April 1944, one month after winning the state title, he joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific. After the war, he returned to Minnesota, and in February 1946, he was hired to coach baseball and basketball at St. Thomas College. Kundla coached the Tommies basketball team to an 11-11 record in his only season.
Taking over the Lakers
In June 1947, a Minneapolis businessman named Ben Berger purchased the Detroit franchise of the National Basketball League (NBL) and announced a move to Minneapolis. The team’s first choice for coach was Hamline coach Joe Hutton. After Hutton turned the team down, Kundla was offered the job. But Kundla turned down the team’s first offer. He agreed to the second ($6,000 a year).
In the Lakers’ first seven seasons in Minneapolis, Kundla directed them to six league championships (in three different leagues). The Lakers won the National Basketball League title in 1948. In 1949, the Lakers won the Basketball Association of America title. After that season, the BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA. The Lakers, with George Mikan, won four NBA titles in their first five seasons in the league.
Kundla is one of just three NBA coaches to win three consecutive titles (Red Auerbach and Pat Riley are the others). His five league titles are tied for third (with Riley and Gregg Popovich). He coached in the league’s first four All-Star Games.
Following the 1956-57 season, Kundla moved to the Lakers’ front office. But midway through the 1957-58 season, he returned to coaching and led the Lakers through the 1958-59 season.
In 12 seasons as coach, he directed the Lakers to a 466-319 record. The Lakers made the playoffs in all but one season. Six of the Lakers he coached are in the Hall of Fame — Elgin Baylor, Clyde Lovellette, Slater Martin, George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard.
Back at the U
Following the 1958-59 season, Kundla became the first University of Minnesota alumnus to become the Gophers basketball coach. Kundla was the first U basketball coach to offer African-Americans scholarships. In January 1961, Bobby Bell, three weeks after playing for the Gophers football team in the Rose Bowl, became the first African-American to play for the basketball team. Future NBA All-Stars Archie Clark and Lou Hudson played for Kundla and the Gophers in the mid-1960s.
After the 1967-68 season, Kundla stepped down. In nine seasons, he coached the Gophers to a 110-105 record, 67-59 in the Big Ten. His best seasons were 1963-64 when the Gophers finished third in the Big Ten (17-7 overall and 10-4 in the Big Ten) and 1964-65 when the Gophers were the Big Ten runner-up (19-5 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten).
After resigning, he continued to teach in the U’s Physical Education Department until retiring in 1981.
Kundla and his wife Marie, whom he met while they were students at the U, raised six children. They were married 65 years before Marie passed away in 2007. In 2008, he moved into an assisted living community in northeast Minneapolis.
His basketball legacy continued with his grandchildren. Grandson Isaiah Dahlman was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2006 and held the boys’ state career scoring mark before it was broken in 2008. Dahlman’s sister Rebekah was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball in 2013 and is the all-time leading scorer in state girls’ basketball history. Five of Kundla’s six grandchildren played college basketball.
In addition to his grandchildren, Kundla is survived by sons Tom, James and David and daughters Karen (Rodberg) and Kathy (Dahlman). Son Jack passed away in 2008.