When John Kundla attends Minnesota Timberwolves games, he often fixes his gaze on the team's coach, Flip Saunders. He watches Saunders try to coax consistency—never mind greatness—out of adolescents who already have signature lines of basketball shoes, who regard instructions from the bench as mere suggestions. Kundla rewinds the shot clock a half century to when he was the coach of the Twin Cities' NBA entry, and he reflects on the occupational challenges that confronted him. Then, invariably, he breathes a sigh of relief.
"I'm not sure I could coach professional basketball players today, and I'm not sure I'd want to," Kundla says. "I still love basketball, but it's an entirely different sport from when I coached. The players are younger and don't play as much as a team. With agents, crowds, television and the big bucks, everyone involved is under so much more pressure. Pressure for us was still having some meal money left by the time dinner rolled around."
Before Phil Jackson and his dime-store Zen, before Pat Riley and his hair mousse, even before Red Auerbach and his stogies, there was John Kundla. In 1947-48, Kundla's first season as coach of the Minneapolis Lakers, his team won the National Basketball League (NBL) championship. The following season the Lakers joined the fledgling NBA and, led by dominant 6'10" center George Mikan, won five championships in the next six years.
Kundla was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, but his success came during an era when his team traveled by Pullman car to play opponents such as the Sheboygan (Wis.) Redskins, the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks and the Anderson (Indiana) Packers. It was a time when the players were more susceptible to gravity, the Lakers' team payroll was less than $100,000, and Nike was still known only as a bit player in Greek mythology. As a result, even among devoted basketball followers, Kundla's name often is met with a reflexive response of "Who?" In fact last season when Kundla was named by the NBA as one of the league's top 10 alltime coaches, he found out from a friend in California. "It wasn't even mentioned in the Minneapolis newspaper," he says wistfully.
Though a slender, vigorous 6'2" physique and an affable manner make Kundla appear 20 years younger, the coach is 81. He leads a life of ease. Thanks in part to successful hip-replacement surgery, he spends his days biking, playing golf, tending to the tomatoes in his backyard garden and spending time with his six children, ages 35 to 52, and six grandchildren. He lives on a tree-lined middle-class block in the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale. The two-story house he shares with his wife of 57 years, Marie, is the same one he bought when he was hired as the Lakers' bench boss in 1947.
"I turned that job down three times," he says with a chuckle. "I was the coach at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, and I wasn't sure that a professional basketball team in Minneapolis was going to make it. I finally agreed to take the job only after they gave me a guaranteed contract for three years at $6,000."
Following a triumphant first and last season in the NBL, the Lakers joined the NBA in 1948, having earlier acquired Mikan in the dispersal draft after his NBL team the Chicago Gears folded. "How lucky can you get?" Kundla says. "We already had a great team, and then we got George, the best basketball player in the first half of the 20th century."
In Mikan's first season in the NBA he averaged 28.3 points. After steamrolling through the '48-49 regular season, the Lakers defeated the Washington Capitols in the NBA Finals. "They just didn't have anyone who could guard George," says Kundla. "We'd throw the ball to him in the paint, and if they double-teamed, he would pass to a wide-open teammate. If they played him straight up, he would score or get fouled every time."
The next season Minneapolis was even better. The Lakers' top rookie, forward Vern Mikkelsen, came with impressive credentials but was caught in a front-line logjam behind Mikan and another future Hall of Famer, Jim Pollard. After a few games Kundla decided to experiment by playing Mikkelsen at a new position, power forward, alongside Mikan down low. It took a few games for the team to adjust to this innovative formation, but soon the front line was simply unstoppable. The Lakers lost only one game at home and successfully defended their title against the Syracuse Nationals.
Because of the Lakers' success, Kundla was chosen to coach in the league's inaugural All-Star Game, in 1951. These days the NBA All-Star Weekend is a three-day, funk-filled extravaganza, replete with laser shows, a Stay in School jam (a free concert for schoolkids at the All-Star arena) and a slam dunk contest. That first game, however, was something less of a production. Kundla met Mikan, Pollard and the rest of the Western Division squad in the bowels of Boston Garden shortly before tip-off. "I diagrammed a few plays, tried my best to get everyone into the game and then went back to Minnesota," he says. "The stipend was a $50 war bond. To be honest, I don't remember much more than that."