NBA's first three-peat coach, John Kundla, pulling for Heat
JUL 03, 2013 10:25a ET
Pat Riley has gone so far as to trademark the term "three-peat." But it doesn't mean much to John Kundla.
You could say Kundla was the original author of the three-peat. He coached the Minneapolis Lakers to titles from 1952-54, making them the first NBA team to win three championships in a row.
Since then, only two other NBA coaches have won three straight, and Riley isn’t one. The others have been Red Auerbach, who won eight in a row with Boston from 1959-66 and Phil Jackson, who three times had a three-peat.
But there’s no need to use that phrase around Kundla.
"It’s just some kind of a new term," Kundla said in a phone interview from the Minneapolis nursing home where he lives. "It doesn't mean anything to me. It’s just a modern way of talking. We didn't call it anything. We just tried to go out there and win."
Kundla turns 97 Wednesday, and is the oldest living Basketball Hall of Famer. He still watches basketball regularly on television and looked on with great interest last month as the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs for a second straight title.
Now, whether he likes the term or not, Kundla is going to hear talk about a three-peat. The Heat will try next season to become the just the fourth NBA franchise to claim a third straight crown.
Kundla said he will be rooting for Miami. He has met on several occasions with fellow Hall of Famer Riley, who trademarked three-peat in 1988 when he had won a second straight title as Los Angeles Lakers coach and before he fell short of doing it in 1989. Now, Riley can try to get his three-peat as Heat president.
Kundla has been impressed with Heat star LeBron James. And he has much gained appreciation for Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, whom he didn’t know a lot about before the series against the Spurs.
"I really like the coach," Kundla said of Spoelstra. "He doesn't get up and yell and everything. I like the way he coaches. He doesn't get too excited. He knows what he’s doing about coaching and resting people. He made the adjustments when (the Spurs) were stopping James from driving (and he hit outside shots) He’s doing a great job."
Next season, Kundla would be proud to welcome Spoelstra into the exclusive club of NBA coaches who have won three titles in a row. He even thinks Spoelstra and his Heat could end up claiming more overall titles than Kundla did with the Lakers.
Kundla won five, tied with Riley for third most in NBA history. Jackson, whose three-peats came with Chicago from 1991-93 and 1996-98 and with the Lakers from 2000-02, has claimed 11 and Auerbach nine.
"We won five, but I’m saying that Miami is going to do better than that," said Kundla, who also won NBA titles in 1949 and 1950. "LeBron has some good years left. They have good players and good coaching and a real good general manager (Riley). It takes a little but of luck. There’s always injuries. But I hope they do it."
Kundla knows a bit about injuries. In 1950-51, his Lakers had the NBA’s best record and center George Mikan had a career year with averages of 28.4 points and 14.1 rebounds. But Mikan fractured his leg before the 1951 Western Division finals against the Rochester Royals. With their star limping around, the Lakers lost 3-1.
Had Mikan been healthy, Minneapolis might have won six straight championships. But Kundla takes that all in stride.
In fact, Kundla had coached the Lakers to a title in the National Basketball League in 1947-48, the year before it merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA. If that title was recognized by the NBA, Kundla would have six overall championships, including two three-peats, even if he doesn’t use that term.
"That’s all right," Kundla said of his first title not being recognized. "I’m just blessed that I had a chance to coach such great players."
In addition to 6-foot-10 Mikan, the NBA’s first dominant big man who Kundla said was "Mr. Basketball," the Lakers had three other future Hall of Famers in Vern Mikkelson, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin. They would get another future Hall of Famer in Clyde Lovellette for their fifth and final championship in 1954.
The Lakers were the most western team in the NBA during their heyday. Even though they had the worst travel schedule in the league, they kept winning.
"It used to take us 1½ days on the train to come back from New York," Kundla said. "I remember we’d change trains in Chicago and they had pay toilets in the train station. Mikan (with his long arms) used to reach over the top and open them for free. Guys couldn't get much sleep at all on the train. And in the hotel rooms, Mikan couldn't fit in the beds, so he would just take the mattress off and put it on the floor."
Kundla has plenty of memories, some he shares at times with Mikkelsen, who is 84 and still lives in the Minneapolis area. But as far as everyday talk at the nursing home, the subject rarely is about basketball.
Kundla said he watched the Finals games with five or six male and two or three female residents. But he said the other men don’t know much about basketball and the women "would rather watch baseball."
Kunda has been at Main Street Lodge Assisted Living since his wife Marie died in 2007. He’s been mostly in a wheelchair the past five years, although he sometimes uses a walker. He tries to remain as active as he can, and is said to play a mean game of bingo.
"He’s in great shape," Mikkelsen said.
So what’s the secret to Kundla still going strong at 97?
"I count my blessings every day," said Kundla, who plans to have his two daughters and three sons (another son is deceased) over to the nursing home Wednesday to celebrate his birthday. "And I’m an old gym teacher and I make sure I stay in shape. Every day, I get on the stationary bike."
It’s been more than 54 years since Kundla coached his last NBA game at age 42. After 12 years with the Lakers, Kundla left in 1959 to coach his alma mater, the University of Minnesota . With Mikan having retired in 1956, attendance had dwindled at Lakers games and the team would end up moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
After coaching the Golden Gophers for nine seasons, Kundla retired as a coach. He was just 51.
"I was glad to get out of it," Kundla said. "It’s tough losing those close ones. It’s tough on your health."
It's hard to tell, tough, how it might have affected Kundla’s health. In the decades after he retired, he played plenty of golf.
Kundla was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. He has run into Riley several times at Hall functions, the last one being in the past decade after Riley had stepped down from coaching.
"I asked him, 'Why’d you retire?' He had a big smile on his face and said, 'The same reason you did,'" Kundla said.
Kundla’s salary as an NBA coach was $6,000 a year, 1/10th of a percent of the $6 million Jackson made when he steered the Lakers to their second franchise three-peat in 2002. But Kundla doesn’t have a problem with having toiled before big bucks entered the NBA.
"I suppose they’re happy with it," said of those earning big money now in the NBA. "I think it spoils a lot of people. The players, they've got three cars and they waste their money and some are broke already. It’s a different word, but I‘m glad I got what I got out of it. Their salaries are millions of dollars, but I wouldn't know what to do with all that money."
Also a different world is today’s style of the play. Kundla sees both good and bad in that.
"They can jump higher and shoot better than we did," Kundla said. "Some of the players are unbelievable (with their athleticism). But I don’t care too much for the 3-point shot. Because of it, a lot of people take bad shots. And a lot of these players try to shoot a lot because I guess they get more money or something for it. We had more passing in our day. We had better teamwork."
Kundla, though, can find no complaints about James.
"I have great admiration for James," Kudla said. "He’s one of the best five (players of all-time). He’s outstanding. He’s an all-around player. A lot of players these days don’t play defense but he plays defense."
With that in mind, Kundla will be rooting for James to steer the Heat to three-peat next season. He just won’t be calling it that.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson.
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