Kundla does, on the other hand, have vivid recollections of a game in 1950 that pitted the Lakers against the Fort Wayne Pistons, one of the league's weaker teams. Knowing their chances of outscoring Minneapolis were slim, the Pistons simply held the ball that night, shooting only when within point-blank range. Though both teams entered the game averaging more than 80 points, the Pistons won 19-18, still the lowest-scoring game in NBA history. Fort Wayne's leading scorer tallied five points, and Mikan, the only Laker to register a field goal, scored 15 of his team's 18 points. "The fans were booing like crazy, but there was nothing we could do," says Kundla. "It wasn't until 1954 that they instituted the shot clock."
While "three-peating" as champs from 1952 through '54, the Lakers developed a strong fan base in Minnesota, regularly packing Minneapolis Auditorium to its 10,000 capacity. "The only problem was that in the spring, they used to hold conventions and trade shows in our arena, so when the playoffs rolled around, we had to rent a gym in St. Paul or at a local college," recounts Sid Hartman, a Minneapolis columnist with the Star-Tribune for more than 40 years who was the team's de facto general manager.
Kundla's former players uniformly say that their coach's most valuable trait was a preternatural ability to cede power to the players without creating anarchy. "He was a great coach, one who really understood the players," says Mikan, who recently retired from his Minneapolis law practice and frequently joins Mikkelsen and their old coach for breakfast. "John wasn't a screamer and was very mild-mannered, but he'd let loose when we deserved it, and usually I was the first one he bawled out. The message he sent was that no one on the team was above criticism."
"We had to be nice to John because he wasn't just the coach, he was also the traveling secretary, who reimbursed us for our expenses," jokes Mikkelsen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Kundla in 1995 and lives in Minnetonka, Minn. "John was a great X's-and-O's coach, and he was an absolute master at handling the egos, a super psychologist. He was there as a friend, and we had a lot of fun together, but when he had to, he ran a tight ship."
Mikan retired in 1956, and several lean years followed for the Lakers. After selecting Elgin Baylor in the 1958 draft, the Lakers were on their way to becoming a top team again. But, weary from the increasingly rigorous travel schedule and the time away from his family, Kundla resigned after the '58-59 season to take over as coach at the University of Minnesota, where he had been a starting forward in the late 1930s. In relative anonymity, he coached the mediocre Gophers for nine seasons before accepting a teaching and administrative position at Minnesota's St. Paul campus in 1968.
Kundla hasn't coached a game at any level since Lyndon Johnson's Administration, but he is still a hoops fan. An aversion to driving at night keeps him away from the Target Center, where the Timberwolves play, more often than he would like, but he and Marie spend plenty of evenings sprawled on the couch frantically operating the remote control to catch the best game on television, preferably pro. "When I watch basketball now, what strikes me most is how much shooting accuracy has improved and how athletic these guys are. Jordan is just incredible, but I especially like playmakers, guys who pass the ball and break down defenses, guys like John Stockton, and the kid we have here, Stephon Marbury." A coach to the end, Kundla pauses before adding, "Marbury has great speed, but I'd sure like to see him use it more on the defensive end.
"Fans will always complain about the officiating," continues Kundla, who received technical fouls as often as Minneapolis has mild winters. "But the game is called much more loosely today. Traveling, charging fouls, palming—the refs let all of that go. Also, because the players are better athletes, they go one-on-one a lot more, and that can be fun to watch. Overall I think David Stern deserves a lot of credit for helping make basketball so popular. I'm an old-timer, but to me pro basketball is still very entertaining."
Kundla shakes his head when talk turns to "that Rodman character," as he calls the Chicago Bulls' rebounder. Otherwise, unlike so many other NBA alumni of his generation, he is not prepared to play Chicken Little and proclaim that the downfall of pro hoops will come at the hands of today's socially irresponsible stars. In fact, now that the statute of limitations has lapsed, Kundla concedes that the conduct of his players was, at times, something less than exemplary. Slater Martin and Bobby Harrison, for instance, were involved in a postgame brawl in Davenport, Iowa, and arrest warrants were said to have been issued for both players. Thereafter, whenever the Lakers returned to Davenport, the two players would remain in Minneapolis, having fallen prey to a mysterious illness.
Kundla is in close contact with Mikan and Mikkelsen and with many other former charges. "I always had a good relationship with most of my players, and I enjoy keeping up with them," he says. "I don't live in the past, but when I think about it, I really feel lucky to have coached so many great guys. I have no complaints, no regrets about how everything turned out. I'm glad that I coached in the era that I did."
Nevertheless, when he is informed that 26 of the NBA's 29 coaches will make at least $1 million this season, a grimace and a smile momentarily wrestle on his face. The smile wins out. "A million dollars? I never made that much in 27 years of coaching combined." he says with a what-can-you-do-about-it shrug. "The only thing I have a million of is great memories. But to me that's not making out too badly at all."