John Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA championships and helped cement the franchise’s place as the league’s first true dynasty, died July 23 at an assisted-living center in Minneapolis. He was 101.
His son Tom Kundla confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
With George Mikan in the middle and Mr. Kundla the calm, steady hand directing the team, the Lakers won the 1949 championship in the Basketball Association of America — the league that preceded the National Basketball Association — and NBA titles in 1950 and from 1952 to 1954. The Lakers also won a National Basketball League title in 1948, but the NBL marks are not included in the NBA’s records.
Mr. Kundla was the oldest living Hall of Famer in any of the four major pro sports. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. A year later, he was named one of the league’s 10 greatest coaches as part of the league’s “NBA at 50” celebration.
Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Mr. Kundla stand as the only three coaches to have won more than two championships in a row, and Kundla remains tied with Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley for total championships, with five.
He was hired at 31 and resigned at 42 with a career record of 423-302, happy to cede the attention and the accolades to his players over himself. He was known for his understated sideline demeanor, unique compared with the fiery drill sergeants of the era.
“John wasn’t a screamer and was very mild-mannered, but he’d let loose when we deserved it, and usually I was the first one he bawled out,” Mikan once told Sports Illustrated. “The message he sent was that no one on the team was above criticism.”
John Albert Kundla Jr. was born in the steel hamlet of Star Junction, Pa., on July 3, 1916. “My mother didn’t like the area,” he later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “She told me later it was too loud, there was too much drinking. She moved us to Minneapolis when I was 5. She said the plan was that my father would follow in a couple of years. . . . He never did.”
Mr. Kundla played on the University of Minnesota basketball team in the late 1930s and, after Navy service in World War II, became a coach at what is now the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
The Detroit Gems of the NBL moved to the Twin Cities in 1947 and hired Mr. Kundla to run the renamed Lakers. In Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, the Lakers assembled the first super-team, beating New York in 1952 and ’53 and Syracuse in ’54 for three straight titles.
Mr. Kundla stepped down in 1959 to coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles.
Mr. Kundla and his wife, the former Marie Fritz, who died in 2007, had six children.
What was Mr. Kundla’s secret on the court?
“One game with about a minute left to go. Tie game. I substituted,” he recalled to NBA.com last year. “The player I substituted gets a beautiful basket and wins the ballgame. Everybody said, ‘What a smart move you made.’
“What had happened, the [other] player came to me and said, ‘I want to go to the bathroom.’ I got credit for being smart.”