Lakers' title runs began with Kundla leading way

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2011 - 11:35 AM

The former Minneapolis Lakers coach, now 94, led the team to five championships the NBA recognizes and one title the league doesn't.

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John Kundla (2004 photo)

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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The Los Angeles Lakers came to Minneapolis for a regular-season game for the 42nd time on Tuesday night. It's a tribute to the indestructibility of Sid Hartman that the Timberwolves felt no urgency to honor the great man, waiting until he was established as a nonagenarian to hold a pregame ceremony.

The Timberwolves said the reason for citing Hartman on this occasion was two-fold: A, Sid's work as the behind-the-scenes general manager for the Lakers' championships that took place in Minneapolis; and B, the support he has shown as a sports columnist and radio commentator since the NBA returned in 1989 with the expansion Wolves.

The Minneapolis version of the Lakers gets credit for NBA titles in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954. They also were the champions in 1948 of the National Basketball League, a league the NBA does not recognize as its predecessor.

John Kundla was the coach of those Lakers teams. He's now 94 and was watching the Lakers-Wolves and Hartman's pregame moment on a TV in his room at the Catholic Eldercare assisted living facility in northeast Minneapolis.

There have been times when Kundla has offered a somewhat different view of the Lakers' power structure than could be found in Hartman's chronicle of those days.

Recently, Kundla decided that in his 90s, life could be too short not to make peace with Hartman, so John tracked him down through a series of calls and offered his thanks to Sid for those Lakers days.

"They wanted Joe Hutton as coach, but he wasn't going to leave Hamline with the teams he had in those days,'' Kundla said. "Next, Sid came to our house and offered me the job. I turned him down. I had refereed a pro basketball exhibition and didn't think much of the game."

Kundla was a standout for the Gophers in the late '30s. He stayed on as an assistant coach to Dave MacMillan at the U. He became DeLaSalle's coach for two seasons, then was drafted into the Navy.

He was assigned to LSTs [Landing Ship, Tanks] in both the European and Pacific theaters. After the war, he was hired to coach the College of St. Thomas.

"We would play our games against Hamline in the St. Paul Auditorium and fill the place," he said.

Hartman came with the Lakers' offer after the Tommies' 1946-47 season. When Sid returned, the offer had been upped to $6,000 and Kundla -- with a growing family -- took the job.

"Six thousand was double what I was making at St. Thomas," he said.

The Lakers started a first season in 1947-48 with Jim Pollard as their star. A month into the season, George Mikan became available when his team, the Chicago American Gears, folded. The Lakers outhustled the rival Basketball Association of America (the official ancestor of the NBA) to sign Mikan.

Kundla now says of Hartman, "He did a lot of good things for me," and none was more important than helping to land Mikan -- the bespectacled giant and the game's dominant player.

Six decades later, Kundla quickly can explain the 1951 break in the Lakers' run of championships. "That's the year George broke his ankle at the end of the season," the coach said. "He limped around in the playoffs, but Rochester knocked us out in the Western finals."

Mikan retired after the 1953-54 title and the Lakers' time as pro basketball's first dynasty was over. In 1959, Kundla quit to become Gophers coach.

"I had Elgin Baylor as a rookie my last season with the Lakers," Kundla said. "Elgin was fantastic, but the team had been sold, and everyone knew Bob Short was going to take the Lakers to Los Angeles.

"Marie and I didn't want to move our family to L.A. I had heard the stories about drugs and the rest."

Yes, and that was long before Charlie Sheen.

Kundla followed the Lakers through the spectacular L.A. success and, in 2002, he was invited along with Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin and Clyde Lovellette to Los Angeles.

"The Lakers gave us championship rings to signify the titles we won in Minneapolis," Kundla said. "It was like they were saying, 'Those championships are an important part of our history, too.' "

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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