The Minneapolis Lakers won a championship in six of their first seven seasons, 1948 to 1950, and then 1952 to 1954. It is very likely they would have won seven in a row, if center George Mikan had not broken an ankle near the end of the 1951 regular season, and tried to play while hobbling around in the playoffs.
The Lakers lost 3-1 in a best-of-5 series in the Western finals vs. the Rochester Royals, a team that then defeated the New York Knicks in seven games for an NBA title.
What do we old-timers say on occasion? “That was before my time.’’
The glory years of the Lakers were before my time. I was 8 when the Minneapolis Lakers won their last championship, beating the Syracuse Nationals in a Game 7 on April 12, 1954.
There are glimpses of sports events before that, by my first vivid memories occurred that fall: losing 50 cents to my Uncle Harry betting on 111-win Cleveland against Willie Mays and the New York Giants in the World Series, and being located in the end zone of an overflow crowd for the Gophers’ famous 22-20 victory over Iowa on Nov. 13 at Memorial Stadium.
I had been 9 for a month by then, so maybe that’s why I still can see clearly Bob McNamara’s kick return vs. the Hawkeyes. Go, Bob, go … keep going.
The other part of this absence of memory is that the Lakers were very much a Twin Cities thing. On the prairie of southwestern Minnesota, we fretted over Gophers football and closely followed baseball in all its forms – 16 major league teams, the Minneapolis Millers, and the town-team Fulda Giants.
I knew more about what was happening with the Milwaukee Braves (once they arrived from Boston in 1953) than the Minneapolis Lakers. And while I don’t remember specific games played by Paul Giel, I recall the disappointment in Fulda when he finished a narrow second to Notre Dame’s Johnny Lattner for the 1953 Heisman Trophy.
Baseball and Gophers football … and oh, yes, the state basketball tournament. Those were the preoccupations in Fulda, while the Lakers were winning championships.
My full appreciation for those Lakers came three decades later, when I started having conversations and writing occasional columns with John Kundla and Vern Mikkelsen as central characters.
I was taken by the great friendship between a former coach (Kundla) and Mikkelsen (player) from the Lakers glory. It was a wonderful twist of fate that, after a long wait, Johnny and Mick were inducted together into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. in 1995.
John’s friendship helped to comfort Mikkelsen when Jean, Vern’s wife of 47 years, died in 2002. Mikkelsen’s friendship did the same for John when Marie, his wife of 65 years, died in 2007.
They went in the Hall of Fame together. They were honored together by the Los Angeles Lakers in the arena for a few grand days around L.A. Kundla and Mikkelsen would talk of the generosity of the Buss family with such gratitude that you knew it was a memory that would last forever.
Mikkelsen died on Nov. 21, 2013, at his home in Wayzata, at age 85. His son John was with him. Before his death, his grandsons Kyler, 12, and Caden, 10, talked with Mick by phone from their home in Phoenix.
“It was beautiful,’’ John Mikkelsen said.
John Kundla returned a phone call to me from his apartment at Catholic Eldercare the next morning.
“Vern died … that’s terrible news,’’ Kundla said. “He was the gentle giant. Funny, too. He bragged about coming from the Rutabaga Capital of Minnesota. What was the name of that little town?’’
“That’s right,’’ he said. “With the Lakers, we had a play called Askov that we ran all the time.’’
Kundla continued with family, other friends and bingo rivals at Catholic Eldercare. He reached 100 on July 3, 2016, and the milestone was marked with large stories in newspapers and prominent sports Websites around the country. The New York Times went full out with a piece on John a couple of weeks before he turned 100.
I offered this warning to John when visiting for the Star Tribune’s piece on his 100th birthday: “I wrote a column on Edor Nelson, the football coaching legend at Augsburg, on his 100th birthday, and Edor died a couple of weeks later.’’
John laughed and said he would try to avoid that jinx He made it another year, 101 on July 3, but there had been recent health setbacks and on Sunday, surrounded by much of his large family, John died in the early afternoon at Catholic Eldercare.
Karen Rodberg, John’s daughter, described the peacefulness of the event for her deeply religious father, and it sounded beautiful.
Mick and Johnny … grand friends, grand gentlemen.