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Kundla still holds court: On 100th birthday, former Lakers, Gophers coach still has stories to tell

Former Minneapolis Lakers coach John Kundla raises his arms and says, “I made it!” during his 100th birthday celebration with his former Gophers players at MainStreet Lodge in Minneapolis last week. He turns 100 today. Andy Greder / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — In front of five of his former Gophers players Monday, John Kundla raised his arms from the rests on his black wheelchair and exclaimed.

“I made it!”

The oldest living hall of famer in the four major professional sports reveled in an early celebration of his 100th birthday, which arrives today. The legendary coach of the dynastic Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s and the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program in the ’60s has remained competitive from his assisted-living apartment in northeast Minneapolis.

Wearing his players’ birthday gift of a maroon-and-gold Minnesota practice jersey with No. 100 on it, Kundla shared how he pedals an exercise bike for about 10 to 15 minutes each day. He often plays bingo and gets on a pontoon boat for the home’s guided fishing trips to Lake Johanna in Arden Hills.

Kundla caught a “tiny crappie” in May and wished he had the technique of guide Kathy Littfin, who had the patience to reel in a “bigger sunfish.”

“I was jerking (my fishing pole),” Kundla said. “She was real still, and I should have followed her.”

In the ocean of pro basketball history, Kundla’s name remained unrivaled during the NBA Finals in June. When Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games, Kundla maintained his spot as the only coach to win NBA titles in the first two seasons on the bench.

Kundla won the 1949 title in the Basketball Association of America, the NBA’s predecessor, and followed it up with an NBA title in 1950. After falling short in the 1950-51 season, Kundla became the first coach to win three consecutive NBA titles, from 1952-54, and was later joined in the three-peat club by Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson.

Nowadays, Kundla’s stories can meander from subject to subject. While his recollections can be hazy and hearing faint, his spirit remains strong.

“This is unbelievable,” said former Gophers player Al Nuness, 70. “He’s got the same smile and the same enthusiasm when he sees his old players. It’s just a joy.”

In an interview with the Pioneer Press, Kundla, still beaming and using his coaching voice, shared Navy experiences in the South Pacific during World War II, then abruptly shifted to tales about George Mikan and Jim Pollard, Lakers star players from the 1950s.

“I had a great experience, but I thank the players,” Kundla said. “I had good ballplayers and they adjusted real well and played as a team.”

Kundla’s five living children are equal recipients of his routine gratitude. His wife, Marie, died in 2007. His son, Jack, passed away in 2008. “I couldn’t do this alone,” Kundla said. “Jim, next to me, Tom, (David), Karen and Kathy. They all help.”

“He has always been a very humble man,” said son Tom Kundla, “but I tell him you were the glue of those teams.”

About seven years ago, John Kundla had fallen and developed a shingles infection. He was hospitalized for weeks.

“I, and a lot of us, weren’t sure he was going to make it back,” Tom said. “Then he said, ‘Look at this, I won four bucks at bingo.’ ”

That’s when Tom knew his dad was on the road to recovery. “That competitiveness came back,” Tom said.

John Kundla loves watching NBA games when the limited opportunities arise at his home, MainStreet Lodge. He also listens to Timberwolves games on the radio. He marvels at the size and skill of LeBron James and points out how the three-point shot has changed the game.

To honor Kundla’s contribution to basketball, which mostly came pre-shot clock era, the Wolves and the NBA are working on a way to make more games available to him from home at the start of next season. He could be marveling at the size and skill of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns come late October.

Roots and memories

Kundla was born July 3, 1916, in Star Junction, Pa., near Pittsburgh. He moved to Minneapolis with his mother, Anna, when he was 5. His father, John Kundla Sr., a coal miner and steelworker born in Slovakia, never joined them in Minnesota.

Kundla was a standout forward for the Gophers and, after World War II, coached at St. Thomas before being hired, at age 31, to coach the Lakers in 1947. They won the National Basketball League championship in 1948, but the NBA didn’t recognize it as an official title.

After the 1949 BAA title, Kundla said one of his most precious memories was Game 1 of the 1950 NBA Finals against the Syracuse Nationals.

Nationals player/coach Al Chervi had the ball with about 30 seconds left and the score tied 66-66. “He was supposed to give it to the center, but instead he took (a shot),” Kundla recalled.

Cervi missed, and the Lakers secured the rebound with about three ticks to go. Bob Harrison, who averaged less than five points per game that season, received a pass near half-court and unfurled a 40-foot heave.

“I took two dribbles over the half-court line and let it fly as the buzzer went off, and the damn ball went in the hole,” Harrison recalled with a laugh in a YouTube video posted in 2010. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals.”

Final: Lakers 68, Nationals 66.

After Kundla retold his fuzzy version of the story, he smiled at the main fact: The win propelled the Lakers to their first true NBA title. “I remember that, and Bobby Harrison does, too,” he said.

One of Kundla’s go-to stories is about when revolutionary center Mikan paired up with star forward Pollard in 1948.

“I give them the plays and Mikan says, ‘Hail Mary full of grace,’” Kundla said. “And Pollard says, ‘Oh, would you shut up? I can’t hear Kundla.’

“Oh, jeez, I had to break them up before they fight,” Kundla said.

But the Lakers’ bread-and-butter play was called “JG,” for Jim and George.

“We would throw it in to Mikan, and if he didn’t (shoot), give it to Pollard and he would turn around and take a shot,” Kundla said. “It was the best play. It was the play that gave us the championship(s).”

What Kundla’s Lakers teams did well are the same things he stressed when he watched the 2016 NBA Finals: play defense and control offensive and defensive rebounds.

Kundla had a chance to join the Lakers after they moved to Los Angeles in 1960, but said he wanted to stay home because he’s “not a Hollywood guy.”

He left pro hoops in 1959 with a 432-302 record, plus a 60-35 mark in 10 playoff appearances over 11 seasons. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Courage at U of M integration

In 1959, Kundla took over as coach at his alma mater, Minnesota, where he won a Big Ten championship in 1937. In 1963, he awarded scholarships to Lou Hudson, Archie Clark and Don Yates.

“All are Negroes,” wrote Sports Illustrated in December 1963. “No Negro has ever before played varsity basketball at Minnesota.”

“The nasty letters I got …” Kundla said of responses to the integration.

At Monday’s party, Nuness, an African-

American, said Hudson called him and highly recommended Minnesota over Nuness’ first choice, Iowa.

“They certainly paved the way,” Nuness said.

But Nuness recalled further potholes along the path. Nuness said a holiday tournament at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1968 was rife with racial tension.

“We were scheduled to play (Mississippi), and the Ole Miss team had to get permission from (their school chancellor) to play us because we had African-Americans,” Nuness said. “It infuriated me as an African-American, and coach Kundla really had to calm us down and get us to understand what we were actually about to do.”

John Wilson, the Gophers’ team manager, said Kundla stressed that when the players wore the “M” patch on their sport coats, they not only represented themselves and the team but also the university and the state as its only major college basketball program.

“He always comported himself with dignity and style and class, and that is how we were supposed to comport ourselves,” Wilson said.

Throughout Kundla’s coaching career, he was known for not getting riled up during games or screaming at players in practice. He once shed his bow tie during a Lakers game but that was an anomaly.

“Going back to what his background was, he had respect without having to demand it,” former Gophers player Paul Presthus, 71, said. “He was that type of guy. He always treated people fairly. He’s accomplished a lot, but he’s a better person because of the way he treats people.”

As Monday’s afternoon party closed, former player Larry Overskei shook hands with Kundla and said, “We’ll see you next year, coach.”

Players trickled out of the basement reception room. Kundla sat in the middle of the room. Family members tidied up.

With his players still in earshot, he cried out the Gophers’ cheer. “Ski-U-Mah! Ski-U-Mah!”

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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