The coach who built pro basketball’s first dynasty
John Kundla 1916–2017
John Kundla’s Minneapolis Lakers dominated professional basketball long before it was a multibillion-dollar industry. A low-key and well-liked coach, Kundla forged the sport’s first pro dynasty, winning five championships in the NBA and its immediate forerunner, the Basketball Association of America, from 1949 to 1954. The Lakers would later move to Los Angeles and became the quintessential glamour franchise. But in Kundla’s time, the team struggled to attract fans, despite all those titles and basketball’s first bona fide superstar— 6-foot-10-inch center George Mikan, a bespectacled hook-shot artist and rebounding machine. “The biggest crowd we ever had was for the [Harlem] Globetrotters, when we drew, I think, around 10,000 people,” Kundla recalled in 2004. “Otherwise, especially in the early years, you had to clap to keep warm in there.”
Born in Star Junction, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, Kundla was the son of Eastern European immigrants. “His father was a coal miner and steelworker,” said The New York Times. To escape coal country, his mother moved with him to Minneapolis when he was 5. “The plan was that my father would follow in a couple years,” he recalled. “He never did.” A 6-foot- 2-inch forward, Kundla starred for the University of Minnesota’s Big Ten champion basketball squad. After high school coaching stints, he led the basketball program at the College of St. Thomas, and then became the Lakers’ inaugural coach in 1947. With Minneapolis, Kundla became “one of just three NBA coaches to win three consecutive titles,” while “his five league titles are tied for third,” said the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Six of his players— Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Lovellette, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, and Jim Pollard—went on to join Kundla in basketball’s Hall of Fame.
“Kundla stepped down in 1959 to coach at his alma mater,” said the Associated Press. The first Minnesota coach “to offer African-Americans scholarships,” he helmed the team until 1968, and then taught physical education until 1981. Named one of the 10 best coaches in NBA history in 1996, Kundla admired modern players but didn’t think he’d like working with them. “They don’t play as much as a team,” he said last year. “With agents, crowds, television, and the big bucks, everyone involved is under so much pressure. Pressure for us was still having some meal money left by the time dinner rolled around.”