In 1947, when John Kundla was making about $2,500 a year as the head basketball coach at the College of St. Thomas, I was a representative of the newly formed Minneapolis Lakers, and offered him a contract for double that amount. Despite that offer of $5,000, then upped to $6,000, Kundla kept rejecting it.
Kundla, who died Sunday at 101 years old, was living in a modest apartment in northeast Minneapolis, across the street from where he and the outstanding Schiller basketball team played high school ball. His wife, Marie, finally told me, “Will you get out of here, and stay out of here! John is not interested in taking your job.”
The turning point that led him to accept the job to coach in the 1947-48 season was when Dave MacMillan, for whom Kundla had played at the University of Minnesota, told him that he should take it.
Kundla was not the first choice — that was Joe Hutton, who had compiled a great record at Hamline. But Hutton turned down the job because he wanted to coach his son.
I’ll never forget the Lakers, then in the National Basketball League, going over to Oshkosh, Wis., and winning their first game under Kundla.
That first team won the NBL Championship, and midway through the season they added George Mikan, who ended up with the Lakers after his team, the Chicago American Gears, folded.
“How lucky can you get?” Kundla told Sports Illustrated in 1997. “We already had a great team, and then we got George, the best basketball player in the first half of the 20th century.”
Kundla, who went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, revolutionized the professional game. With the drafting of Vern Mikkelsen out of Hamline, he played three big men in the starting lineup for the first time. He had Mikkelsen at the forward spot, with Mikan at center, and Jim Pollard at the other forward.
It took a while for Mikkelsen to acquaint himself with that position, but eventually he became a great one.
Kundla was the head coach of the first four NBA All-Star Games and his five championships remain tied for third place all-time in NBA history with Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley, trailing only Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. And Kundla has a claim to six titles, having won that NBL title, but the NBA doesn’t give him credit for that. He is also the only coach to win a title in his first two NBA seasons.
We had a great relationship. Kundla allowed me to put together the personnel on his roster, which included buying the contracts of ex-Gophers Tony Jaros and Don Carlson from the Chicago Stags for $15,000, an unheard of amount at the time.
He led six players to Hall of Fame careers: Elgin Baylor, Clyde Lovellette, Slater Martin, Mikan, Mikkelsen and Pollard.
One thing people also need to remember is that Kundla broke a color line at the University of Minnesota when he became the Gophers head coach in 1963. Archie Clark, Lou Hudson and Don Yates were the first three black players to receive basketball scholarships for the Gophers.
Still, Kundla always was troubled that, while he was living a great life, he kept hearing about one former Laker after another passing away. The one that really hit him was Mikkelsen, who died in 2013.
One thing I will never forget is receiving the following note from Kundla, which remains pasted on my office wall:
“Sid, I came across one of many copies of the Lakers championships [photos] 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 Marie and myself, I would have not 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.”
No one probably had more to do with making the NBA what it is today than John Kundla and the Lakers, who put the league on the map.