John Kundla was born in the mining town of Star Junction, Pennsylvania to an Austro-Hungarian mother and Slovak father. He moved to Minneapolis at age 5. After attending and playing basketball for Minneapolis Central High School (which closed in 1982), Kundla attended the University of Minnesota and was a standout for the Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball the late 1930s. Following graduation, he stayed on at the university as an assistant coach to Dave MacMillan. He then moved to the high school ranks as the head coach of DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After two years there, the United States entered World War II, and Kundla joined the Navy, where he was assigned to LST units in both the European and Pacific theaters. After the war, he was hired to coach the College of St. Thomas. Following the Tommies’ 1946–47 season, the new franchise Minneapolis Lakers extended an offer to Kundla to coach the team, then playing in the National Basketball League. Kundla turned the offer down, however, as he was not impressed with the professional ranks. Team representatives returned, and this time the offer had been upped to $6,000 (twice his St. Thomas salary) and Kundla took the job at age 31. John Kundla and the Lakers were immediately successful. A month into the 1947–48 season, future Hall of Fame center George Mikan became available when his old team, the Chicago American Gears, folded. Outhustling the rest of the NBL and the teams of the rival Basketball Association of America (BAA), the predecessor of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Lakers signed Mikan. Kundla then guided the George Mikan-led Lakers, which also included star Jim Pollard, to the 1948 NBL title.
Moving to the BAA for the 1948–49 season, which became the NBA in 1949–50, John Kundla’s Lakers won five NBA titles in six years, with 1951 being the only gap in the team’s run, a season in which Mikan broke his ankle at the end of the campaign, thus allowing the Rochester Royals to defeat the Lakers in the Western Conference championship series three games to one. The first team to repeat as league champions then became the first team to three-peat, with Mikan fully healed for the 1951–52, 1952–53, and 1953–54 seasons. John Kundla moved to the Lakers front office ahead of the 1957–58 campaign and handed off the coaching duties to Mikan, but the team’s record fell to 9-30, leading Mikan to step down, and forcing Kundla back to the bench. His return was not the answer either though, as the team finished 19-53, recording one of the worst seasons in its history. In 1959, knowing that the Lakers franchise was going to be moved to Los Angeles (after being purchased by Bob Short, the team moved in 1960) and despite having future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor on the team, Kundla chose to stay in Minnesota and resigned from the Lakers position to coach his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. While coaching he also taught physical education at the university. He was the first Gophers coach to give scholarships to African-American players, resulting in him receiving hate mail. Kundla stayed with the Gophers for nine years before retiring from coaching after the 1967–68 season with a record of 110-105. He retired from teaching in 1981. He turned 100 in July 2016 and died on July 23, 2017, twenty days after his 101st birthday.
- July, 03, 1916
- Star Junction, Pennsylvania
- July, 23, 2017
- Minneapolis, Minnesota