Hall of famers reflect on bygone era

Aaron Kirscht

It was 69 years in coming, but former Minneapolis Lakers great Vern Mikkelsen finally got his chance.
He made the most of it.
Mikkelsen and former Gophers and Lakers coach John Kundla visited with a group of kinesiology students in Cooke Hall on Wednesday, telling stories from their Lakers glory days of the 1950s.
“This is a highwater mark of my entire life,” Mikkelsen, 69, said. “I’ve dreamed about being a professor at a major university, and here I am, lecturing before a class at a major university. Thing is, we don’t have a lesson plan.”
It didn’t matter. The two hoops legends still turned an informal hour-long discussion into a journey through basketball’s past, all the while providing context for the game’s high-profile present.
Kundla, Mikkelsen and the Lakers flourished in the days of the two-handed set shot, the under-handed free throw and finesse — before the 24-second shot clock, the three-pointer and 300-pound centers came to dominate the game.
The Lakers, who moved to Los Angeles in 1960, were the NBA’s first dynasty. Their prolific run in the early 1950s, when they won four league championships in a five-year span, rivals that of the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s.
Minneapolis’ Michael Jordan (and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, too) in those days was center George Mikan, with Jim Pollard playing the slashing and scoring role of Scottie Pippen and Mikkelsen — although he probably wouldn’t care for the comparison — clearing the boards a la Dennis Rodman.
And then there was Kundla, who, like Chicago’s Phil Jackson, molded a championship franchise around a single dominant player. Only Kundla did it first.
In the ’40s, any player of Mikkelsen’s size — 6-foot-6 or taller — was a candidate to play center. But the Lakers already had a center of some repute in Mikan, and Mikkelsen wasn’t likely to steal much playing time away from the league’s best and most popular player.
So Kundla moved Mikkelsen over to a position that hadn’t been invented yet: power forward. Instead of having his back to the basket, as he had done all his playing career, Mikkelsen was staring it down. He was no longer a focus of the offense, but rather one of the cogs in the machine that made it go.
That’s not to say he was neglected, however, as Mikkelsen was careful to recall.
“One day, John gets up and says, We’ve got to have a play for Mik,’ and I got all excited,” Mikkelsen said, “So he says, OK, Mik, you go set a pick over here, then go set a pick over here.’ And I say, Yeah, coach, then what?’ and John says, And then go get the rebound.’ But you know what? It worked.”
The play was nicknamed “Askov,” after Mikkelsen’s northern Minnesota hometown, and it did work. Mikkelsen was among the NBA’s top 10 rebounders four times in his career.
Kundla was among the first coaches to design plays, a strategy that earned the Lakers’ coach some ridicule around the league. Perhaps that’s why they worked so well.
Kundla, 81, is a modest character, not overly willing to tout his accomplishments. Mikkelsen, however, had no problem praising his coach and friend.
“John didn’t really know what he was putting together back then,” Mikkelsen said, “but this is the model for basketball today.”
Kundla, a native of Star Junction, Pa., played for Minnesota in the late 1930s and coached at St. Thomas before taking over the Lakers’ bench in 1948. During his 11-year pro coaching career, he compiled a record of 423-302, which ranks 27th on the NBA’s all-time list, including a 60-35 record in the playoffs.
“I turned down the job three times before taking it,” Kundla said. “I had nothing to do with pro ball. We got some great players, we put together some plays and we really got going. I got lucky.”
Kundla retired from the Lakers in 1959, a season before they headed west, and returned to the University, where he spent nine seasons as the men’s basketball coach.
Mikkelsen originally planned to attend Minnesota, but was lured instead to Hamline in St. Paul, a program that traveled nationwide. Mikkelsen was a three-time Converse All-American at Hamline, where his jersey was retired, before he was drafted by the Lakers (and Kundla) in 1949.
Mikkelsen was named second-team All-NBA five times in his 10 seasons with the Lakers, during which the team made the playoffs nine times. He scored more than 10,000 points in his career, averaging more than 14 points per game.
And the prototypical power forward knew how to play rough; he committed 2,812 fouls and holds the NBA record for disqualifications with 127.
“It’ll never be broken,” Mikkelsen said of his dubious distinction. “They pull players after two fouls nowadays. When I got my second foul, I’d look at (Kundla) and he’d look away. I’d say, Get me outta here,’ and he’d be looking at the cheerleaders.
“It was all because of bad officiating. I never committed a foul in all the years I played.”
Mikkelsen and Kundla retired from the Lakers together in 1959 and entered the Hall of Fame together in 1995 — the first time a player and his coach had been inducted together. They joined five other individuals in that class, including another Lakers great, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who Mikkelsen called “the tall, bald-headed fellow.”
“Lew Alcindor,” Kundla said. “I still call him Lew Alcindor.”
Mikkelsen and Kundla’s friendship has spanned nearly 50 years. Both still live in the Twin Cities area and get together for breakfast at least once a month.
And both still follow the NBA closely, much like a pair of nervous fathers watching their children teetering on a ledge.
The NBA Mikkelsen and Kundla left behind is different, of course, but they differ on whether the game has improved. Mikkelsen said he still enjoys the athleticism and purity of the sport. Kundla is bothered by showboating and the influence of money on the game. The player said he’d love to play today, while the coach said he couldn’t work with today’s players.
But for better or worse, Mikkelsen and Kundla are forever tied to the game. And the benefits of membership in basketball’s elite, it seems, are many.
“With that (Hall of Fame) ring and 95 cents you can get a cup of coffee anywhere in the world,” Mikkelsen said.