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Minnesota Basketball: Gopher Player John Kundla #TBT

Following the passing of Minneapolis Laker coach, and U of M legend John Kundla I thought I’d take a closer look at the University of Minnesota player John Kundla in today’s #TBT, tune in tomorrow to for Goldy’s Almanac for my analysis of his Gopher coaching career.

Kundla with the floater December 3, 1938

I had the great fortune of meeting John Kundla in 2015. My day job allows me to interview Minnesotans for the Minnesota Historical Society, and I think there are few more successful Minnesotans than Coach Kundla. The following is a passage about his early life and learning the game of basketball.

I was Slovak, and I can speak Slovak to this day. I came to Minneapolis and went to school, and I know the first day of class I got up and …the thirty-third question, and the teacher says, "John, stay after class. Now put your tongue between your teeth and say, 'thirty-three, thirty-three." But I picked up the language and taught my mother how to speak English, and become a citizen. My father never did show up. And I went to Schiller…all the grade schools here: Schiller, Sheridan, Holland, Webster, and Edison – I went to Edison one year. And the priest was after my mother for money all the time, so we moved to south Minneapolis, on Nicollet Avenue, and the closest church was the Wesley Temple, so I went to Wesley Temple. They had a nice, new gym there, and I learned how to play basketball, and watched good basketball players play there. And then we moved further north. We went to West High a year, and then I finally went to Central, and I got my graduation from Central. When I graduated, I was too young to go to college, and instead, I got a job at the Field Hotel, and I worked there cleaning the dining room, mopped the floors and everything. I got my meals, and my… I answered the phone as a part-time – to relieve the other ones.

John finally enrolled at the U of M in 1935. Joining both basketball and baseball teams John had to sit out his Freshman year. So the 1936-1937 season was John’s first on Dave MacMillian’s basketball team, and the only Big Ten Championship for the program between 1919 and 1972. Despite being only a Sophomore Kundla led the team in scoring, averaging 9 points per game.

Kundla as a Sophomore in 1936

The pivotal game in the 1936-1937 season came on March 1st against Northwestern. The Gophers needed to win to keep their Conference Championship hope alive. Two days earlier John Kundla had to leave the Wisconsin game after injuring his ankle. Knowing the stakes he choose to play hurt in front of 13,000 fans at the Barn vs the Wildcats. Kundla gutted out 11 points in the 34-33 overtime victory for Minnesota.

John won 30 games, only losing 10 in his basketball career, but the Gophers finished 2nd and 4th in the conference in his remaining two years. As captain in 1938-39, Kundla set the Gophers' single-season scoring record of 210 points, and in the spring of 1939 was awarded the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor for academic and athletic excellence.

Kundla playing 1st base in 1938

As good of a basketball player as he was, he may have been an even better baseball star. A first baseman, he hit .309 in 1938, and after college would pursue a professional baseball career. Again here is a quote from John from my 2015 interview with him.

...and when I graduated, I stayed out a year, I went to Paducah to play baseball – for one year – baseball player – pro. I'd get a hundred twenty-five dollars a month. And when that was over…I came back and…I hit 312. I did alright in baseball. I was supposed to go to St. Louis the next year to the upper class, but I stayed to get my Masters Degree at the University of Minnesota, which was the best thing I ever did.

I’ll cut it short here, so tune in tomorrow to read about John Kundla’s stint as Coach of the Minnesota Gophers.