Remembering John Kundla, and his memories of the Minneapolis Lakers dynasty

John Kundla/Star Tribune

John Kundla/Star Tribune

John Kundla shook my hand a lot.

Last summer, I visited Kundla at his assisted living home in northeast Minneapolis, shortly after he turned 100. His son, James, was there to help if Coach couldn’t hear or got confused. Coach only had nothing to say when I ask non-basketball questions.

The handshaking thing felt very 1960s. Any time we were both laughing, he’d extend his hand, give mine a hearty shake and release it. Once it came time for me to leave, we did that compulsory Minnesota thing of leaving-but-not-leaving for like a half hour. We must’ve shook hands 17 times.

It was classy, and cool. And every time we shook, I thought about that hand shaking George Mikan’s, or Elgin Baylor’s, or Red Auerbach’s, or Bill Russell’s.

Kundla, the Minnesota native who died last week at age 101, is not just the chief architect of the Minneapolis Lakers. He’s the inventor of sustained success in pro basketball.

Look at pro ball now, annually nudging ahead as America’s future pastime. The NBA is year 'round as fans follow offseason moves as much as box scores. Kundla pioneered the work of team-building, of understanding the spirit of the basketball athlete, and collecting basketball people.

Coach can, and will, answer almost anything I ask about the Minneapolis Lakers. He cares only about the story of the team. A big first step, alongside general manager (and somehow, also, then-Star Tribune columnist) Sid Hartman, is the 1947 signing of budding star forward Jim Pollard. Shortly after, a Chicago team in a rival league dissolved and its players were divided among the NBA teams by raffle. The Lakers won the rights to George Mikan.

According to Mikan’s bio, his arrival in Minneapolis was “by chance.” But Kundla told a different story. Yes, the Lakers have the rights to Mikan, but only for a year, and only if he wants to play in Minneapolis in the unknown NBA. Coach goes to Chicago and lays out the blueprint that would define NBA domination.

Mikan didn’t arrive by dumb luck. The first great NBA player bought in to Kundla.

Coach spent considerable time talking about the relationship between Mikan and Pollard. Both players liked to hold court down on the right block. Pollard was a talent in his own right. Kundla knew the way to success was through Mikan.

At first, Pollard tried to edge over into Mikan’s space. Kundla recalled one play where Mikan established a pin-down low on the right block, got the ball, then waited for Pollard to make a baseline cut.

By design, Mikan either passes, or Pollard cycles through, so Mikan has room to start making moves for a shot. But Pollard just slows down when he doesn't get the ball, and tries to post up—right next to Mikan, who would yell at his teammate to go away. Eventually, Kundla got the team to fall in line behind Mikan.

The memories sharpest in Coach’s mind came from the 1950 NBA finals against the Syracuse Nationals. Syracuse had the best record in the league and home court advantage. The Lakers were coming off their first championship with a bullseye on their back.

“Mikan didn't like cigarette smoke,” Kundla said.

Like, really didn't like it. And the Syracuse fans knew it: In an interview, a reporter had asked Mikan about his personal tastes, and the star mentioned cigarettes bothered him. When the Lakers arrived at Syracuse’s State Fair Coliseum for game one, the stadium was so full of cigarette smoke, the whole game was played under a fog. Kundla remembered walking in and looking at fans’ faces as they puffed and taunted Mikan.

During most of my visit, Kundla was laughing and joking. When he talked about the 1950 Finals, he got quiet, concentrated, and leaned in toward me.

The cigarette gambit was the wrong move. Mikan locked in, scoring 37, and the Lakers won a tight one, with the buzzer-beater sunk by Bob "Tiger" Harrison.

The Lakers went on to take the series in six games, clinching on Syracuse’s floor. “That’s where the picture with me on Mikan’s shoulders was taken,” Kundla told me, pointing to the framed photo on a shelf.

He recalled the meal after the game in crystal clear detail. All of the wives and girlfriends had traveled to Syracuse, and everyone sat at a long table. He remembered his steak, and what other people were eating, and ran down who left early, who stayed late. He was talking to me as if I was a friend who knows these couples, and told stories about specific conversations at the table that end in big laughs.

Coach talked about walking out into the New York night as champions. He didn’t say it explicitly, but the astonishing detail he’d held on to made it clear. This was the moment. They knew. They’d built something together.

That moment is what every basketball coach, manager, player, fan dreams of. Kundla discovered it. It’s sustained NBA success, something first executed by this legendary Minnesotan and the local team.

Watching Kundla discuss intimate details of building a basketball juggernaut, his love for the game so apparent, was like sitting with an ageless spiritual figure: an angel fallen from the basketball heavens whose purity led him to understandings and places other coaches and franchises couldn’t find. Not even 60 years later.

One of those times John Kundla and I shook hands, we were talking about life in 1950s Minneapolis. Completely unprompted, while my hand is in his, Kundla brought me in and lowered his voice. He told me he always tried making Minnesota a welcome place for black players. “Not just Elgin [Baylor],” he says.

I was overcome by the thought of a white man from the 1950s telling me he had my back. A powerful man, my Minnesota kin, one who cared for basketball and basketball people. I just thanked him.

It was the first time I can recall race being brought up and there being nothing more to say. And that's thanks to the game. Basketball is, to some, truly transcendent. Heaven. Another of its angels has gone home.