Bob "Foothills" Kurland died Monday night. He was a Basketball Hall of Famer, pioneer and a great interview with a lot of stories.
I talked to Kurland for my 2003 book "Smooth Moves," which is about the history of pro basketball.
Kurland was a logical interview subject. He was billed as the first seven-footer in college basketball (not quite true; but he was certainly the first good 7-footer in college ball).
He led Oklahoma A&M to a pair of NCAA national championships in 1945 and 1946. After that, the big redhead eschewed an NBA career and opted to play AAU basketball for the Phillips 66ers.
We had a couple phone interviews for the book and they were always fun and informative.
In 1946, he and A&M squared off with DePaul and their big man, future Hall of Famer George Mikan, in an exhibition. DePaul had won the NIT that year, and basketball fans were clamoring to see these two play.
As a side note, the NIT, then and now a New York City institution, was deemed the superior tournament in those days. That may be hard to believe now, but the NCAA only took 12 teams in those early years.
Oklahoma won the game, and Kurland outscored Mikan 14-9. But Kurland didn't really think he was better.
"I always thought George had much better footwork than I had," he said. "He had a great hook shot and he was really strong. I remember how surprised I was at his strength."
And the two became friends. Mikan, said Kurland, influenced his decision to play in the AAU instead of the NBA.
"I remember a conversation I had with George when he was playing with his first team, the Chicago Gears [of the NBL]," recalled Kurland. "And he was really having trouble getting paid. You have to remember that, in the 1940s, pro basketball was not a sure thing."
Kurland opted for the AAU, which also provided him with a job as well as a team.
"I never regretted it," he said. "I already had a family, and stability was really, really important to me. And I was on two Olympic gold-medal teams, in 1948 and 1952. A huge thrill."
Kurland had a great story about the 1948 Olympic trials in New York City. In those days, a tournament determined who would go to the Olympics. The starting five of the winners would automatically go, and the winning coach in the tournament would be the head Olympic coach, with the losing coach an assistant.
Kurland's Phillips 66ers AAU team was in the finals, facing defending NCAA champion Kentucky.
"We had a pretty good team," he said. "And we led most of the way. Late in the game, Kentucky called time and Coach [Adolph] Rupp was not happy. He laid into Kentucky's center, a great All-American named Alex Groza. He was so loud, we could hear him in our huddle."
At this point, Kurland launched into a passable Southern accent.
"Rupp said, ‘Now, Alex, that big red-headed boy is sticking his butt into your face and scoring every time! I did not come to New York City to be the darn assistant U.S. Olympic coach! So git out there and play some D!'
"But we won," laughed Kurland. "And our coach, Omar Browning, became the Olympic coach. And Rupp was an assistant. I don't remember him talking to Omar too much."
Great guy, lots of great stories. I will miss him.
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