Bob Kurland never thought the dunk was anything more than a high-percentage shot.
In the 1940s, dunks weren’t a big part of basketball. Nobody celebrated a slam. Basketball was three decades away from the first dunk contest.
But Kurland was the first. He is credited with being the first to dunk in a game and to regularly use the high-percentage shot.
Kurland, who led Oklahoma State to two national championships in the 1940s, died at home in south Florida on Sunday. He was 88.
The Aggies from Oklahoma A&M as they were known then, were built around Kurland, was one of basketball’s first stars. A 7-footer, he towered over most opposition in leading coach Henry Iba’s teams to the NCAA titles in 1945 and 1946. Kurland, a three-time All-American, was chosen the NCAA Tournament’s most outstanding player in both events.
The dunk happened by accident, Kurland recalled in a 2012 story by the Orlando Sentinel. The team was playing a game at Temple in 1944 and the ball bounced away under the Aggies’ basket.
“The ball happened to be under the basket,” Kurland said. “I got it up and stuffed it in. That started it, I guess … it was an unintentional accident. It wasn’t planned.”
Kurland also impacted the rule book. Because he and DePaul big man George Mikan often leaped to swat away or simply snag opponent’s shots above the rim, basketball instituted defensive goaltending in 1945.
The game’s premier big men played in one of college basketball first major showdowns, after the 1945 season when Oklahoma A&M met DePaul, the NIT champion. But Mikan fouled out in the first half with nine points, and Kurland scored 14 in the Aggles’ lackluster victory.
Kurland, from Jennings, Mo., considered attending Missouri. But Oklahoma A&M played a game at Saint Louis University. Iba invited Kurland to dinner on the trip and offered a scholarship. Missouri could only offer Kurland a job.
Kurland played on two Olympic gold medal winning basketball teams, in London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952. He was drafted by the St. Louis Bombers in 1947 but never played pro basketball, instead, opting like many of his era from the Midwest to play in the Amateur Athletic Union ranks. He played and worked for Phillips Petroleum and led the Philips 66ers, based in Bartlesville, Okla., to three AAU championships.
Kurland entered the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1961.