John Kundla – A man from the past

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the pressure for us meant that you still had money for the dinner”
John Kundla

Imagine to see Erik Spoelstra at 100, (for precision, it still takes 53 years), who talks about his victories with the Heat, or maybe another team, remembering the scores and some stories about LeBRon and Dwyayne Wade, and Chris Bosh.

Carefully calculate the time it takes (it’s 2070), and look back, more than 53 years ago, get to 58.

In 1959, John Kundla gave up NBA coaching, after more than 10 years at the Lakers, in which, with George Mikan, he won 5 championships.

History, at this point, goes already quite far.

John Kundla’s parents, he was born in 1916, came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, migrated to the USA in a mining city, which John will leave at the age of 5 with his mother, Anne, to go and live in Minneapolis. If in 1923 Minneapolis was like Rio, compared to Star Junction, you can imagine Star Junction then. Nevertheless, John Sr., his father, did not leave the small-town near Pittsburgh, and John Jr. increased the list of Americans who grew up without a father, and succeeded anyway.

John’s mother, Anne, was Austrian, and his father Slovakian. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is very important in the history of the US. A lot of creative people flew to the USA after the end of the Hapsburgs. Sigmund Freud stopped in London. Von Hayek created an economic school still rivalling J. M. Keynes’. Hedy Lamarr, the marvelous actress, was an engineer and developed remote guidance system for missiles. Max Fleischer was a cartoonist. Ernst Lubitch, Billy Wilder and countless others.

The Austro-Hungarians were at the end of a very long story, their Empire crumbled down during the war, and it must have been a very strange news for John’s parents, to discover they were no more under the same flag. Something that, in part, may have worked to separate them, despite having a son.

At the time, John was a good University basketball player, in Minnesota University in the 30s. In those years, the end of the University coincided, most of the time, with the end of the sporting activity, given that the AAU championship was amateur, and the ABL, the biggest basketball league at the time, was located mainly in the east.

Unfortunately, the end of the 30s brought the war, and Kundla joined the army, fighting both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific front. After the war, he came back home and started coaching, though still young and capable to play, at St Thomas University in Minneapolis.

Professional basketball was still a long shot away. The NBA did not exist, only the forerunner, the BAA, played in some of the big cities of the East, and the the ABL, the oldest league, struggled to draw enough spectators to make the teams profitable. Another league played in the Midwest, made mainly of teams sponsored by General Motors Suppliers: the NBL.

A game between two of the best teams of the time from the ABL: Oshkosh and Sheboygan, drew a lot of spectators. Sid Hartman, the organizer, thought that there was a chance to do something with basketball in Minneapolis. He knew the Detroit Gems were folding and the owners would accept to sell the team. Sid negotiated 15000 $ with the owners, found two investors and went to Detroit, just to come back with the team itself.

John Kundla was not the designated coach, though.

“The coach with the best reputation was Hamline’s Joe Hutton Sr., who was beating some of the great teams in the country and was a fine recruiter.” Wrote Hartman years later in an article, “… Hutton turned down the job… It wasn’t easy to sell Kundla, either. He lived in a second-floor apartment with his wife, Marie, and they must have turned me down 10 times before I finally convinced him to take the job for a $6,000 salary, twice what he was making at St. Thomas.”

Kundla became the coach and helped to assemble some of the team. In the meanwhile, Hartman signed Jim Pollard, one of the best guards of the time, Vern Mikkelsen as power forward and, above all, George Mikan, after his team folded.

Mikan, at 6-10, was the dominator of the time. Considered too tall to play the game, when young, he was lucky enough to play under Coach Ron Meyer at De Paul, who made him develop some signature moves that made him the biggest single threat in the league before Wilt Chamberlain.

The team was ready. John was ready.

The debate about those Lakers of the late 40s and early 50s, revolve around Mikan, Pollard, Mikkelsen, how strong they were. But John Kundla was their secret weapon.

Like many other former soldiers in a war zone, John was a leader, one who would lead calmly, without crying, making their men a team with training, and negotiating with the strongest players of the time, who probably had more or less the same vices of today’s players, though they earned less.

John wanted his players to be a team. No individual work, everybody helps each other. His human warmth glued everything, his capacity to listen, to talk like a man and always be very calm, had a positive effect on his players. Even in the last years of his life, his players still reached out to him. For a long time after their playing time was over, John used to luncheon with Mikan and MIkkelsen to talk, to be in contact, to keep the warm camaraderie of the playing days.

He was not a character. Unlike Eddie Gottlieb, and his seemingly constant movement on the sideline, or Red Auerbach, with his insane desire to win, John was a calm and humble man. This was probably necessary, given Mikan’s famous temper and the others on the team unwilling to let him dominate.

John was a polite man, and a determined man. His players and his friends talk about a lot positive characteristics he embodied, but probably forgot the most important one: charisma.

Charisma is not something you attribute to yourself. You can’t enter a room and say you’re charismatic. Charisma descends from your actions, from your integrity, your kindness. Somebody may scare players and people, but this does not mean he is charismatic. It just means he scares them. The real charisma is something his players, associates and family members talk about: his calm, his warmth, his intelligence, his capacity to understand the man.

And it yielded a return. The team won a championship in the NBL in 1948. The following year, the Madison Square Garden power, meaning its powerful president Ned Irish, who led the New York Knicks, brought the Lakers to the BAA with the promise of a more profitable league. There, they won in 1949 against Auerbach’s Washington Capitals, and 1950 against Al Cervi’s Syracuse Nationals.

In 1951, Mikan broke his ankle at the end of the Regular Season. The Lakers managed to reach the semi-final, but lost.

1952 delivered a final series between two coaches with a Slovakian surname: John Kundka of the Lakers and Joe Lapchick, of the Knicks. The Lakers won, as in the following year, handing New York and their coach, a legend in the Orginal Celtics (no connection to Boston), the last loss in three consecutive years.

In 1954 the Lakers won the last title, again beating the Nationals in the final. John kept coaching them, but Mikan left the game to become an executive of the team. The Lakers lost some of their best players and stopped winning, though they always made the playoffs.

In 1957 Mikan took over the coaching job at the Lakers, but the result was catastrophic. After they fell to 9-30, Kundla came back but won only 10 games with 23 losses, missing the playoffs for the only season.

In the 1958-59 season, the Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor, a superstar forward from Seattle University, who lifted them to the final again. In a matchup between past and present of the NBA, Auerbach won the only series against Kundla in his career, with the legendary team guided by Bill Russel on court.

In the 1959-60 season, the Lakers went to Los Angeles. Kundla, at just 43, left the NBA to coach Minnesota University until 1968, where, for the first time in the history of the University, he gave scholarships to African American players.

While the NBA was becoming great, his first coaching legend aged serenely in the far North, defying age and time. He had been married to his wife Marie for more than 60 years when she died in 2007. Still healthy, he moved to an assisted facility, where he kept watching basketball games and supporting his Minnesota University.

In the years 2000s he was rediscovered and interviewed several times, as though he was a human time machine from another age. He remembered his players, whom he had almost all outlived, and liked to tell stories of the first years of the NBA.

He loved today’s basketball. And it must not seem odd. As a coach, he utilized one of the first powerful almost 7 footers (6-10ft, 2.07m actually), Mikan, adapting the pro game to his skills. Intellectually, he was always interested in innovation and admired the skills of modern players.

On July 23, 2017, 20 days after he had turned 101, Kundla died peacefully in his bed. He never left his Minneapolis, where, with his wife, he had raised 6 children. He never looked behind himself melancholically. He loved to play bingo, speak and make jokes.

His grandchildren Isaac Dahlman and Noah Dahlman played in the NCAA, and Noah in Europe, too.

Probably, Kundla felt like he had cheated death. A cheat that often turns against yourself, because you reach a point in which you’re the only one of your time, and you have nobody to talk to.

His last photos show him smiling, wearing a sweatshirt with “100” written all over it. If you want instructions on how to live a wise and happy life, learn from him.

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