Former teammates remember the past

John Kundla and Grant Johnson were roommates and close friends on the Gophers’ 1936-37 Big Ten champion basketball team.

Mark Remme

Sitting in the back of a private room in Applebee’s on Washington Avenue, Grant Johnson and John Kundla rehash memories so meticulously one might think they just happened yesterday.

The 91-year-olds (Kundla’s birthday is today) have much in common. Despite not seeing each other in roughly four decades, the former college roommates and team members on the 1936-37 Minnesota men’s basketball Big Ten championship team seemingly picked up right where they left off.

The two reunited on the University campus Friday and made up for lost time in style. With family and friends all around, the two donated an autographed photo of that 1936-37 title team to the athletic department along with another to the Radisson Hotel/Applebee’s hallway of pictures.

They are the only two players from that championship team still living.

“(Friday) was one of the greatest days of my life,” Johnson said. The feelings were evident.

Only twice since 1937 – 1972 and 1982, excluding the 1997 scandal season – has a Gophers men’s basketball team won the Big Ten. Johnson spoke highly of the team he and Kundla took to the top of the conference.

“We had a young team with lots of spirit and a lot of camaraderie,” Johnson said. “In those days it was about defense; if we had the ball, you couldn’t score. Today it’s all about offense.”

The two carried basketball near to them in their ensuing careers.

Kundla’s reputation in Minnesota basketball rivals that of any who’s stepped on the hardwood in the last 70 years.

The former Gophers star led the Minneapolis Lakers to five official NBA titles in a six-year span as its head coach. He came back to the University in 1959 to coach the team he once played for.

Johnson took a path toward education, beginning his teaching career in Cloquet. There he coached basketball before becoming a superintendent of schools in various parts of the state including Buffalo and Detroit Lakes.

It was in Cloquet that Johnson began to thrive with his students, particularly a young freshman named Verne Johnson.

Though no relation, Verne played for Johnson and kept in touch via letters. While Verne had a stint in World War II, he said Johnson wrote both he and his mother reassuring them everything would be OK.

And when Verne’s father passed away at 47, it was Johnson who encouraged Verne to finish college despite financial uncertainties.

“(Johnson) writes me this beautiful letter telling me that I need to go to college,” Verne said. “And (he said) if he had to, he’d finance it himself.”

It was that type of atmosphere Friday afternoon. Family members and close friends celebrated Johnson’s and Kundla’s friendship – both the times they were together and the years they were apart.

“They were best buds,” Johnson’s oldest daughter Kathe Schaffler said. “Dad used to tell me that even off the basketball court they used to enjoy each other; they’d even double date.”

Schaffler said the pair tried to meet up several times since the early 1960s, but it’s never worked out. They’ve kept in touch, but until Friday, they hadn’t been face-to-face.

As part of the afternoon, the two led their crew across University Avenue to Williams Arena. They pointed out Cooke Hall and the University Fieldhouse while recalling where the football practice fields used to sit along the way.

And once they reached The Barn, men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith gave them a tour of the arena they once competed in. Despite being overwhelmed by the new locker room setup and decorations, the two seemed to find much of it as they left it.

“They’ve dressed (Williams Arena) up so much,” Johnson said. “It was kind of drab; now it’s got life and color. And all the pictures on the wall I was really impressed with.”

The pair’s visit seemed to uplift new headman Smith, who perhaps got his first real-life taste of Gophers basketball fervor that, despite 70 years removed from these two men, never burned out.

“For them to be so sharp and to reminisce, you can see (the passion) in them,” Smith said. “I wish more people could be here this moment, like the players and other coaches, to feel what I feel.”

By the end of their meeting, the two experienced the raised hardwood of Williams Arena together once more and shared scrapbooks of past accomplishments.

But most importantly, Johnson and Kundla, family and friends shared a day none of them will forget any time soon.

“They both said today was one of the best times of their lives,” Schaffler said. “I can only imagine the memories going through their minds.”