Sunday, July 3, 2005

Mayer: Allen wanted 12-foot hoops

Former KU coach among vehement proponents


What possible linkage could there be for basketball coach John Kundla - who? - 12-foot hoops and a reality check for the Harlem Globetrotters? Plenty.

When the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship, statisticians noted that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had become the fifth man to lead teams to at least three NBA titles. They tantalizingly didn't name them. That drives trivia buffs nuts.

OK, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson have nine each. Pat Riley, who is president of the Miami Heat organization where Kansas University's Wayne Simien is headed, snared four titles as the Los Angeles Lakers coach. The fifth three-or-more tutor was Kundla with the old Minneapolis Lakers, who had Kansas's Clyde Lovellette on their squad in 1953-57. Kundla, onetime Minnesota player and head coach, was a five-time NBA coaching winner with the late George Mikan as his bell-cow. The Lakers were sensational with the likes of Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and great guards like waterbug Slater Martin.

With a front line that averaged about 6-foot-8, they got constant criticism because they controlled the backboards so effectively. So in 1954, when college coaches actually were considering raising the hoop from 10 to 12 feet, a 12-foot pro game between Minneapolis and the Milwaukee Hawks was set up.

Wait a minute. A guy named Phog Allen at Kansas had been campaigning for the higher buckets for at least 20 years. He was among those seriously interested in establishing that height in 1954. Doc had said in 1940, as only Doc could: "If we raised the goals, these mezzanine-peeping goons wouldn't be able to score like little children pushing pennies into gum machines. They would have to throw the ball like everyone else. They would have to make the team on real skill, not merely on height."

Allen had set up some 12-foot goals in old Robinson Gym where the Jayhawks practiced and had his boys work with them to encourage better trajectories on their shots. To open the 1934-35 season, KU and Kansas State decided to experiment, with each hit on the higher goals counting for three points instead of two. K-State won the first match, 39-35, on Dec. 14, 1934, at old Hoch Auditorium. KU won the second test game, 40-26, on Dec. 18, 1934, at Manhattan.

Came 1939 and Phog still was campaigning with remarks such as, "The 12-foot basket is coming as sure as death and taxes." He even bet a friend a new hat if the higher hoops weren't in vogue by 1940. Never said if he paid off.

Allen kept trying, contending when Oklahoma A&M;'s 7-0 Bob Kurland led the Cowboys to 1945 and 1946 NCAA titles that "when you have 7-footers competing against 6-footers, that just isn't basketball."

The old peach-basket rim stayed at 10 feet until the pro Lakers became such a dominant force. Even though colleges discussed 12-footers in 1954, they weren't really serious about the change despite The Phogger's hustle. But at least the pros were willing to try. Once.

Stew Thornley, author of "Basketball's Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers," chronicled the experiment beautifully, as he did so many Laker events and players. Milwaukee got off to a 6-0 lead and once led 22-15, but Minneapolis trailed by only two at the half. Mikan had missed his first 12 field-goal tries but hit two baskets to spark a Laker comeback in the third period. The Hawks never could regain control.

The Lakers shot only 28.6 percent from the field but finally won 65-63. The 6-7 Mikkelsen called the test "a horrible flop even though it gave a big, strong rebounder like me another 10th of a second to get set after a shot." He led his club with 17 points.

"It just makes the big man bigger," said Mikan. Most of the other Lakers concurred. "It killed the tip-ins," said KU's Lovellette, who was known to record a few stickbacks in his time.

Coach Kundla: "Nobody could hit the darn thing. The guys who usually couldn't shoot were the ones who hit the most. And the big guys still got the rebound." Best jibe was by 5-10 point guard Slater Martin: "I advocate a six-foot basket. It would make a Mikan out of me." Fellow guard Bob Harrison said, "It's screwy; it's terrible. I'll take the old game."

That's how it's been ever since although Phog Allen hinted again it might be time for a change when the likes of Wilt Chamberlain burst upon the scene (of course, Doc never got to coach Wilt at the Varsity level. Talk about a mezzanine-peeper!)

As for Kundla, he won titles before the NBA was formalized and then got his five title rings between 1949 and 1954 in the NBA. He got caught in a promotional crossfire when black players weren't noticeable in the league and fans of the fabled Harlem Globetrotters began to campaign for a match with the white guy champs.

With Mikan, the Lakers were considered a dynasty and with Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Sweetwater Clifton, Elmer Robinson, Wilbert King and Babe Pressley, the Trotters had been labeled by noted Arch Ward of the Chicago Tribune as "the best team in the world."

No surprise, the eight meetings between the two packed Chicago Stadium and the Minneapolis and St. Paul auditoriums where they were played. The Trotters won, 61-69, in February of 1948 and, 49-45, in February of 1949. But that was it. The much taller Lakers won the last six games played between March of 1949 and January of 1958, usually by sizable margins. But, boy, did the tickets sell!

Backtracking, how would today's high-flying Dr. Dunkensteins fare with their slam attempts if they were dealing with 12-foot hoops? Maybe not as well as you might think, although running starts might help.

The Harlem Globetrotters for a long time had contests for guys doing standing dunk attempts, vertical dunks, they called them, on 12-foot buckets. As late as 2001, Michael "Wild Thing" Wilson of the Trotters who had set the world record at 11 feet, 11 inches for a standing dunk tried for a new mark at the 12-1 level and couldn't quite do it. Perhaps somebody has done that since, and chances are some current athletes - Wilt could have - can take a run and dunk over 12 feet. But if the hoop were that high in games, you wouldn't be seeing very many such feats.

And that's how you connect John Kundla, 12-foot hoops and a Globetrotter comeuppance.


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