There was a concrete basketball court next to the pole barn at the Dahlman’s 11-acre hobby farm near Braham. As the six Dahlman children were growing up, a visit from grandparents John and Marie Kundla would include a trip to the court with Grandpa.
“My earliest memories of him are from the farm,” Hannah Dahlman said. “We all would receive the same lesson: ‘Work hard, stay low when you dribble, box out to rebound.’
“With Grandpa, you had to box out.”
Hannah laughed slightly over the phone and said: “He loves the game so much.”
There has been an outpouring of media coverage as John Kundla has approached his 100th birthday on Sunday. Most of it has centered on the six pro titles he won as coach of the Minneapolis Lakers from 1947 to 1959.
There also has been mention of his outstanding playing career for the Gophers, from 1936 to 1939, and the nine years from 1959 to 1968 that he spent as the basketball coach at his alma mater.
Yet, there is no greater tribute to his centenarian love of basketball than the manner in which he passed it along to his six grandchildren.
There were six Kundla children raised in the small home on Zenith Avenue in Robbinsdale. Kathy was the youngest and along with husband Nate Dahlman has a monopoly on the grandkids.
Isaiah was the oldest Dahlman and Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2006. Noah, Jonah, Hannah, Rebekah and Zachariah followed. Rebekah was Minnesota’s Miss Basketball in 2013 and has two years of eligibility remaining at Vanderbilt. Zachariah is a football and basketball player at St. Scholastica.
Early in life, all received the lessons on basketball fundamentals next to the pole barn from Grandpa.
Hannah didn’t play basketball while attending Minnesota State Mankato. That made her unique among the Kundla grandkids.
“My brothers and sister all played college basketball,” she said. “I decided college ball wasn’t for me.”
Grandpa understood, because he’s that kind of man.
“I remember so many great times, and now he’s 100 years old,” Hannah said. “I’m working in the Twin Cities, so I can just drop in and maybe have lunch … we enjoy that so much.
“We’re so lucky to have him.”
There is one scheduling conflict for Hannah and other family members when making visits: bingo.
“We got there once when bingo was going on, and had to wait,” Hannah said.
Bingo is almost as important for John Kundla now as boxing out was when he coached basketball.
When a guy wins enough “Bingo Bucks,” he can trade them in for a Hershey bar, and what 100-year-old among us would pass on a free Hershey bar?
Jersey No. 100
John has resided in the Catholic Eldercare assisted-living facility in northeast Minneapolis since shortly after the death of his wife, Marie, in November 2007.
He has a small room on the second floor, with important photos from his life — from wedding day with Marie to being carried off the court on the shoulders of George Mikan after the Lakers won the NBA title in Madison Square Garden in 1953.
There is also a new adornment in Kundla’s apartment. A group from the University of Minnesota, including retired longtime trainer Jim Marshall, came for a visit last week and brought a jersey.
The number on this new Kundla jersey was 100. That has to be a first in Gophers history.
The approach of John’s 100th birthday first received attention in a large piece in the New York Times early in June. It was accompanied by a wonderful photo of Kundla gazing at an NBA game on a TV in a common area at the facility.
The story of John Kundla in pro basketball is one of glory — of having Mikan, basketball’s greatest player of the first half of the 20th century, and the Kangaroo Kid, Jim Pollard, and ballhandling guard Dugie Martin, and the original power forward, Vern Mikkelsen, and the long line of shooting guards … Herm Schaefer, Bob Harrison, Pep Saul and Whitey Skoog.
It is the story of five titles officially recognized by the NBA, and really six, if you count the National Basketball League in the Lakers’ first-ever season of 1947-48.
Yet, the real story of John Kundla is one of an underdog. He was born in Star Junction, Pa., a hamlet in steel mill country, on July 3, 1916. His mother, Anna, was an immigrant of Austro-Hungarian descent. She married John Kundla Sr.
“My mother didn’t like the area,” John said. “She told me later it was too loud, there was too much drinking. She moved us to Minneapolis when I was 5. She said the plan was that my father would follow in a couple of years.”
John paused and said, “He never did,” and shrugged.
John and his mother moved around the city, so much so that he went to three high schools in Minneapolis: Edison, West and finally Central.
Kundla graduated at 16, and shortly thereafter his mother gave him some breaking news: She was going to marry a man named Ellis Matson and move to Tacoma, Wash.
“I didn’t want to leave Minneapolis,” Kundla said. “A man named Eddie Cohen got me a job at the YMCA Downtown, and I had a room at the Field Hotel.”
John smiled and leaned forward in the wheelchair that he uses to get around the Catholic Eldercare complex.
“Later, the Field Hotel became the Society for the Blind,” Kundla said. “When I was coaching the Lakers and we got some bad calls, I’d yell at the ref, ‘Did they find you at the Field Hotel?’ I never got a technical for that because the ref didn’t know what I was talking about.”
According to a newspaper clipping, Kundla was not a starter on Central’s basketball team in high school. Fortunately, John had access to a lot of basketball while working at the YMCA and was a much improved player when he enrolled at the U in the fall of 1935.
Kundla was a starter on the freshman team, and then a three-year standout as a forward. In his sophomore year, the Gophers won the 1937 Big Ten title.
That was the only time that happened in Dave MacMillan’s 18 seasons as Gophers coach. The title was won with a 33-23 victory over Chicago. Kundla had 11 points that night and earned this praise from Minneapolis Tribune sportswriter Bob Beebe:
“Johnny Kundla, one of the finest first-year forwards the Big Ten has seen in quite a while …”
Kundla also was the regular first baseman on the U’s baseball team. In the summer of 1939, he played 57 games for Paducah, Ky., in the Class D Kitty League and batted .314 (you can look it up on Baseball Reference).
He also earned enough money to buy Marie Fritz an engagement ring (you have to take John’s word for that).
Small home, big family
John coached at Ascension grade school, won a state Catholic school title coaching at DeLaSalle High School and served in the Navy during World War II. He was hired as a coach at the College of St. Thomas in the fall of 1946: assistant in football, head coach in basketball and baseball — all for the kingly sum of $3,000.
The Lakers arrived for the 1947-48 season and tried to hire Joe Hutton, Hamline’s legendary coach. Joe’s family had free living in a large apartment space attached to Norton Fieldhouse. Joe wasn’t going to give up that — or a loaded basketball team that included senior Vern Mikkelsen from Askov, Minn.
After the Hutton turndown, the Lakers went to Kundla. He first said no, but when the offer was upped to $6,000 … well, he and Marie had a family to raise.
Kundla took the Lakers job and they moved into the house in Robbinsdale. Three bedrooms, one bathroom, and eventually six kids: John, Tom, James, David, Karen (Rodberg) and Kathy, mother of the Dahlman grandkids, also four boys and two girls.
John’s space at Catholic Eldercare isn’t exactly roomy, but extra elbow room was never a requirement for a Kundla.
As its zenith on Zenith Avenue, the Kundla house had John and Marie in one bedroom; Karen, Kathy and Marie’s mother (also Marie) in a second bedroom; and the four boys in the third bedroom.
And to repeat: one bathroom.
“The bathroom part was kind of hectic, but you know what?” Karen said. “Our parents were just the most humble and loving people, and that made everything fine.”
And then Karen, daughter No. 1 in the Kundla family, repeated what her niece Hannah, daughter No. 1 with the Dahlman grandkids, had said:
“We’re so lucky to still have our dad. James, he walks over there every day to continue their endless cribbage game. How great is that?”
Age 100, going no-holds-barred with your son in cribbage … it doesn’t get greater than that.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org