March Madness

03.21.14

Bob Kurland, the First Player to Dunk, Was a Pioneer for Big Men

Oklahoma State’s basketball tournament legacy is rooted in one of the game’s first 7-footers, forgotten luminary Bob Kurland.

Long before the existence of bracketology, the First Four and even the field of 32, let alone one of 64 or 68, the NCAA tournament began in 1939 to minimal fanfare, and much, much less attention than it receives today. There was no “March Madness.”

The name Bob Kurland will mean little to most who are salivating at the prospect of the next 12 over 5-seed upset, or exhibiting actual anxiety that their office — or this year, billion-dollar — bracket might go bust. But even after his passing last September from long-standing health problems at age 88, Kurland was a living legend whose existence has been overlooked, largely because, unlike contemporaries such as George Mikan, he chose not to play professionally.

“Foothills” as he was nicknamed for being basketball's first 7-footer, though he was happy to admit he was actually closer to 6'10½", was a pioneer of height in the game now dominated by it. What is now accepted as a natural advantage was then viewed as a significant impediment, many questioning whether a player of that stature could even make it up and down the court. Legendary University of Kansas coach Phog Allen, a physician by trade, once referred to Kurland as a “glandular goon,” believing such big men would spoil the game.

Deemed too tall for military duty following high school, Kurland, a gregarious redhead from a suburb of St. Louis received just one scholarship offer, from coach Hank Iba to play for his Oklahoma A&M Aggies (today Oklahoma State), which at the time was seen as taking a notable risk. Kurland was coaxed to Stillwater with a bus ticket, a steak dinner, and little more than a promise that if he remained eligible, he'd receive a college education. In fact, always one to go the extra mile to justify his scholarship, the towering trailblazer could still be found sweeping the floor of Gallagher Hall before games even as he played toward becoming an All-American.

Kurland, on his way to back-to-back NCAA championships in ‘45 and ‘46 — still Oklahoma State's only tournament titles — and the event's most outstanding player both postseasons, was also a three-time All-American, and awarded player of the year after leading the NCAA in scoring in 1946. For these feats, as well as those that followed, the man credited with giving national prominence to dunking, was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961, one of only a handful of players inducted to never play pro ball.

“When I got out of college, the pro league didn’t know what it was doing, where it was going,” Kurland told me in January2013. “We knew—the people that played the pro sports game—knew that if they could get a facility like 85,000 people at a basketball game, and they could get $10 a ticket for it, somebody's going to make some money out of it.

“George Mikan and I, when we were in college and graduating, the guy would write us a letter and they would talk about what their plans were, when they were going to get the arena. They were great letters, but it really wasn't real, because they were still fighting the business of educating people. Mikan and I both had offers between $15,000-$17,000 for a so-called season. As things went along, and the next year the money thing probably got to $25,000 or $30,000, but you also looked around and you found out what was going to happen as far as the kind of business it was going to be. But you could see where it's going. You knew that where there's big money, there's always somebody that's pretty clever at accumulating some of it. I just wasn't cut out to be a whitewash salesman, so to speak. Sports in my view, by people who love sports and love to coach, and center around people becoming adept at playing…they were going to be in and out, and I didn't want that."

Instead of pursuing and gaining notoriety in the professional ranks as the preeminent big man like Mikan, who had played at DePaul and ultimately finished with the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA, Kurland took a job with the Phillips Petroleum Company, continuing to play as a member of the company's industrial league Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, the 66ers, and led them to three national titles and a 369-26 record over six seasons.

"I wasn't really interested in showing off," explained Kurland. "It was a job with the Phillips Petroleum Company and people used to say the difference between you guys and pro guys was three-quarters of an inch of maple on the floor," referring to the hardwood of the pros versus alternate playing surfaces.

By maintaining his amateur status, Kurland was also able to finally serve his country, twice as a member of the United States Olympic team, first in London in 1948, and again four years later in Helsinki. The U.S. took gold at both Games, the second and third in a line of what would become a streak of seven consecutive and nine out of 11 through 1988, the last cycle that featured only amateurs players. After winning his second gold medal, Kurland said carrying the American flag at the closing ceremony was the biggest thrill of his athletic career.

Kurland's playing days included many other extraordinary achievements. Though he remains overshadowed by Mikan to this very day, in truth, the two's college match-ups were just about even. They met five times with Mikan edging Kurland in games won, 3-2, and points scored, 77-64. However, single digits decided each game, and aside from winning their final contest, Kurland also won their most important one—a 1945 battle between his NCAA champions and the NIT champs DePaul at Madison Square Garden, billed as the "Clash of the Titans." While holding the savvier scorer Mikan to just nine points in this Red Cross war benefit game that doubled as a champions' showdown, the more defensive-minded Kurland tallied 14 of his own in leading the Aggies to victory as college basketball's undisputed titleholders. Both Kurland and Mikan are also equally recognized for the NCAA establishing the goaltending rule in 1945, which prevented players from blocking shots on the ball's descent, or from off of the rim.

What Kurland said he remembered most though was not an individual accolade, but a moment that transcended sport.

"I was on the team that introduced Don Barksdale," he said of his former teammate, who was the first black member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, just a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. "Here was an experience that you can't forget, the way that our country has gone. I had people who were amazing, and the opportunity that existed with the kind of folks that were on the Olympic teams in '48 and '52, why, you just don't have those kind of experiences."

'To have a black man drink water out of the same bottle, nobody said a word about it or was worried about it on our team. Barksdale broke the barrier right there. That was a great thing.'

Members of national team had to earn their spots by playing charity games around the country to raise funds for travel and expenses at the Olympics. Following an ugly moment during a parade down Eighth Avenue in New York City where people threw items at the team in protest, Kurland remembered an exhibition in a baseball stadium against Adolph Rupp's University of Kentucky team on a hot evening at dusk in Louisville.

"We took a blow and had a timeout and I looked down around where we were standing and what I looked at was amazing," he said. "Don Barksdale was drinking water out of a soda pop bottle, right after a white guy. To have a black man drink water out of the same bottle, nobody said a word about it or was worried about it on our team. Barksdale broke the barrier right there. That was a great thing. Sports opened a lot of doors for commonsense. They had thought we were a bunch of damn fools, but no we weren't."

Barksdale, after becoming the first black NCAA basketball All-American in 1947 and winning a gold medal at the Olympics with Kurland in '48, became the first to play in an NBA All-Star Game, in 1953, during a four-year NBA career.

Expectedly, the pros were never anything Kurland became too enamored with watching.

"To be honest with you," he said, "my preference is seeing the basketball game that I knew, it's watching the college kids play. It's really a pleasure for me year after year to watch these young guys come up. For the most part, I don't know of a better sport where people can develop, where competition is what it's all about. The game's a game of struggle, and a great game if it's played not by the strongest, but the smartest player."

As Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart leads his Cowboys into the second round of the NCAA tournament against Gonzaga tonight, at least part of the tradition for which the program stands is on the heightened shoulders of the triumphant, but still lesser known, center who came before him.

"Eighty-eight is a pretty good year," Kurland told me of his age before he died. "I've got [a health issue] we're struggling with, but I'm determined to get to a certain point and still be around here."

As long as the record books continue to display his name and countless accolades, and his famous No. 90 jersey remains retired at OSU, he'll be around forever.