Before Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, before Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown, even before Red Auerbach, there was John Kundla.
Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA championships, died Sunday. He was 101.
Son Tom Kundla said his father died at an assisted living facility in northeast Minneapolis that he called home for years.
With George Mikan in the middle and Kundla the calm, steady hand directing the team, the Lakers won the 1949 championship in the BAA — the league that preceded the NBA — and NBA titles in 1950 and 1952-54, cementing the franchise’s place as the league’s first true dynasty. The Lakers also won an NBL title in 1948, but the NBL marks are not included in the NBA’s records.
“On behalf of the entire Lakers organization, I’d like to express our sadness at the passing of John Kundla,” Lakers President and co-owner Jeanie Buss said in a statement. “John played an important role in the history of the Lakers organization…. In addition to his numerous contributions to the Lakers and our legacy, John was a wonderful man and will be remembered fondly.”
Kundla was the oldest living Hall of Famer in any of the four major pro sports.
Kundla was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. A year later, he was named one of the league’s 10 greatest coaches as part of the league’s “NBA at 50" celebration.
He was hired at 31 and resigned at 42 with a career record of 423-302, happy to cede the attention and the accolades to his players over himself. He was known for his understated sideline demeanor, which was unique compared to the fiery drill sergeants of the era.
“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,” Mikan once told Sports Illustrated. “The message he sent was that no one on the team was above criticism.”
Kundla was born in Star Junction, Pa., on July 3, 1916. He relocated to Minneapolis with his family at the age of 5.
The Detroit Gems of NBL moved to the Twin Cities in 1947 and hired Kundla to run the renamed Lakers. In Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, the Lakers assembled the first super-team, beating New York in 1952 and ’53 and Syracuse in ’54 for the three straight titles.
He also was a trailblazer during those racially tense seasons, often turning down hotels that refused to house black players when the team was on the road. When he later coached at the University of Minnesota, Kundla was on the bench when the first black players arrived at the school.
“John was an incredible staple of Minnesota basketball,” Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor said in a statement.
To this day Jackson, Auerbach and Kundla stand as the only three coaches to have won more than two championships in a row and Kundla remains tied with Popovich and Riley for total championships with five.
“He was an all-time great, Hall of Fame NBA coach,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said in the team release. “He had a very profound impact on the NBA, coaching and the overall game.”
What was Kundla’s secret?
“One game with about a minute left to go. Tie game. I substituted,” Kundla recalled to NBA.com last year. “The player I substituted gets a beautiful basket and wins the ballgame. Everybody said, ‘What a smart move you made.’
“What had happened, the [other] player came to me and said, ‘I want to go to the bathroom.’ I got credit for being smart.”
That kind of humility was his hallmark, both on the court and at home.
Kundla and wife Marie, who died in 2007, had six children. Five of Kundla’s six grandchildren played college basketball, a hoops-loving family that would only find out how revered the patriarch was when others would speak for John. Only two were around during his Lakers days.
“We were too young to realize how important it was and what a number of accomplishments he had made until we reached the age of reason,” Tom Kundla said. “That’s what my dad does. No big deal. We’d see the trophies and the big gold basketball in the entryway. It was a norm.”
Kundla stepped down in 1959 to coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles.
“We played team ball,” Kundla told NBA.com. “We didn’t try to [run up] the score. We played defense. We didn’t try to make the other team look bad. But the players were a real good group together.”
His induction speech for the Hall of Fame lasted just over six minutes, with the vast majority of it spent thanking coaches, players and his wife, Marie, “who still yells defense in her sleep, believe it or not.”
The entire family was there for the induction ceremony, many of the children only then realizing just how accomplished their father was.
“I would say, ‘Dad you were a superstar coach,’” Tom Kundla said. “‘No no,’ he would say. ‘I had a great team.’ It was always, ‘I had a great team.’”