John Kundla, prolific University of Minnesota basketball coach celebrates milestone

Kundla was the first coach of the Minneapolis Lakers and a Gophers coach for nine seasons.

Jack White

His jersey isn’t retired. There are no statues in his honor, and the banners he helped hang are almost as aged as Williams Arena itself. 

Even many of the prolific players he coached are only memorialized now, but John Kundla, a legend himself, has a century behind him and almost 80 years of stories he’s still telling.

Kundla — a Minnesota basketball staple — played for the Gophers and later coached the team, as well as the former Minneapolis Lakers. He won four NBA Championships, one Basketball Association of America trophy and coached six members of the Basketball Hall of Fame during his career. He also was the first coach at the University of Minnesota to offer scholarships to black athletes.

Recently, Kundla added a new title to his list of accolades: centenarian. The storied coach turned 100 years old on July 3 and credits his beloved game in helping him reach the milestone. 

“I was lucky to get great ball players,” Kundla said. “The University of Minnesota helped a lot with my health. Being a gym teacher … helped for my age.”

Player first

Kundla started his sports career as a prominent player, playing two sports while at Minnesota. He started on the freshman basketball team for the Gophers before playing guard for the varsity squad from 1937-39.

Kundla helped lead the Gophers to a Big Ten Championship under head coach Dave McMillan in his 1937 sophomore campaign. 

A Minnesota Daily story from Feb. 9, 1937, described sophomore Kundla as “elusive and sharpshooting,” and praised his 20-point performance that led the way during a victory for the “underdog” Gophers over the Purdue Boilermakers.

Kundla later helped lead the same team to the Big Ten Championship, which ended an 18-year first-place drought for the Gophers.

As a two-sport participant, Kundla was named the Minnesota Athlete of the Decade for the 1930s, an honor still on display at Williams Arena. He also served as Minnesota’s primary first baseman on the baseball team. 

Kundla carried his baseball career on after college but played just one season with the minor league Paducah Indians before heading back to Minnesota.

Coaching beginnings

Kundla returned to Minnesota to earn a master’s degree but also started his career as a coach.

He served as an assistant to the man who helped him find success in the game, Minnesota’s second-longest-tenured head coach, Dave McMillan.

“McMillan taught me basketball fundamentals,” Kundla said. “I think when we won a championship in ’37, he was responsible for it.” 

Kundla coached grade school and high school after his stint at Minnesota and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served for two years during World War II. 

“I became an officer,” Kundla said. “That was a big help when I started coaching, to be an officer in the Navy.”

After his military service, Kundla coached at the University of St. Thomas for one season.

Going pro

Professional basketball came to Minneapolis in 1947 when Ben Berger and Morris Chafen bought the Detroit Gems and renamed the team the Lakers.

The franchise needed a head coach for the young team, and Kundla was at the top of the list. 

The Lakers gave Kundla an offer, but he was hesitant to accept. 

“I turned them down twice,” Kundla said. “Finally, they came to me for the [third] time and came up to my house, talked to my wife, and I finally signed.”

The decision proved to be a good one. Kundla won a championship in five of his first six seasons as the team’s head coach. 

Kundla coached hall-of-famers George Mikan, Jim Pollard and Elgin Baylor during his tenure, so it was no surprise that Kundla himself was also inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his achievements with the Lakers in 1995.

Kundla also coached Bob Harrison, one of the first black players in the NBA. Harrison — who later coached at Harvard University — said he still stays in contact with Kundla. 

“If anybody deserved to be in [The Hall of Fame], he did,” Harrison said.

From Lakers to Gophers

Though the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960, Kundla’s coaching days were far from over. His new venture took him back to his roots – Williams Arena. 

Kundla had a 110-105-career record in his 9 seasons as head coach of the Gophers.

The Gophers finished as high as second place in the Big Ten under Kundla’s coaching and was ranked as high as No. 7 in the country during his tenure.

“He had already coached a professional team, so he coached like a professional,” said Archie Clark, a former player. “Our team was relatively like a professional team; that’s what he brought to our team. There wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah-rah. Do your job. That was it.”

One of Kundla’s more notable achievements came through the integration of basketball teams. Kundla was the first University of Minnesota coach to give scholarships to black athletes. Archie Clark was one of them, along with fellow future NBA star Lou Hudson. 

“I sure went through hell with that thing,” Kundla said. “I got a lot of heat and nasty letters for them. We played in the South looking for games, and hotels wouldn’t take us because of blacks and often we’d have to sleep in a black hotel. You’d go to eat and they wouldn’t feed you and tell you to ‘get out of here.’”

The coach also integrated the Lakers in a time where many professional basketball rosters only had white players.

“He was always respectful of me and my heritage and my basketball ability,” Harrison said. “I appreciated John.”

Runs in the Family

Kundla traded coaching for teaching in 1968 and took time to slow down and focus on his family.   

Kundla was married to his wife Mary Kundla for 68 years. The two had six children, and their grandchildren also went on to have athletic success in basketball. Kundla’s granddaughter, Rebekah Dahlman, was the first player in Minnesota high school history to score more than 5,000 points and was named 2013 Minnesota Miss Basketball in her senior year. She now plays Division I college basketball for Vanderbilt University. 

Rebekah’s brother Noah Dahlman plays professional basketball for CS Dinamo Bucuresti in Romania. He also graduated with an Elite Eight appearance and All-American honors as a collegiate player at Wofford College. 

Isaiah Dahlman is the fourth-top scorer in Minnesota high school basketball history and played college basketball at Michigan State, making an appearance in the NCAA championship game with the Spartans in 2009.

“They’ve all graduated from college,” said Jim Larson, a friend of Kundla. “Most of them, I think, at least five of the six grandchildren played collegiate athletics, and they’re very outstanding young people. [Kundla] is extremely proud of them, every one of them.”

No. 100

It has been nearly 80 years since John Kundla began his journey as a Gophers basketball player and almost 60 since he took the helm of the program. He is the oldest living member of any national basketball, football, baseball or hockey fall of fame, but the game is still fresh in his mind.

Kundla passed his triple-digit milestone on July 3, which now matches his prolific victory numbers, and a century of basketball and family memories starts right on campus. 

“What an experience — and thanks to the University for making it possible,” Kundla said. “With meeting my wife at the University, I can’t say [thank you] enough.”