Tracing Oklahoma State’s still expanding sports legacy of outstanding athletes to its roots reveals one man, albeit one big man. Bob Kurland.
The key figure on two Oklahoma A&M basketball national title teams and two U.S. Olympic gold medal squads, Kurland died Sunday at his home in south Florida following a lengthy illness. He was 88 years old.
“Bob Kurland was really a quality guy,” said former Cowboys player and coach Eddie Sutton. “He had already finished when I got to college, but I got to know him quite well and he was a marvelous man.”
Before Shaquille O’Neal. Before Hakeem Olajuwon. Before Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Before Wilt Chamberlain. Before Bill Russell.
There was Bob Kurland.
By all accounts, Kurland was the original great basketball big man, a 7-footer who dominated at a time when players his size were seen as a liability, believed to be lacking in stamina and coordination. Under the tutelage of coach Henry P. Iba, Kurland changed that thinking — and changed the game — both in style and in fact, with his propensity for blocking shots eventually leading to the goaltending rule in place today.
After arriving from Jennings, Mo., as a project, Kurland developed into the centerpiece on A&M’s national championship teams of 1945 and ’46. He was a three-time All-American and a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Kurland’s takeoff also launched the Cowboys rise nationally, with that ’45 team winning it all in the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s really kind of the start of everything here at this school,” said OSU football coach Mike Gundy. “We were known for basketball then, and he was in that first group.
“I see the pictures with he and Coach Iba. Pretty neat deal. Back then, we didn’t have the exposure we have nowadays. But he was as big a name as anybody.”
Big in every way, including impact on the game.
And on OSU.
“We wouldn’t have two national championships if it wasn’t for Bob Kurland,” Sutton said. “He had some nice players with him, but Mr. Iba told me that there’s no way they’d have won either national title without him.”
Paul Geymann, a teammate of Kurland’s on the 1946 team, doesn’t disagree.
“We won two national championships and he was the reason,” said Geymann from his Bartlesville home. “He’s what made things go. Everything went through Bob, all our plays and everything. He was instrumental.”
Kurland’s arrival in Stillwater in the fall of 1942 didn’t offer even a hint at what was to come.
A gangling redhead, some stories documenting his early days at A&M joke at how he’d trip over the stripes painted on the maple floor. Iba, however, took a chance on Kurland. And he was rewarded.
“Bob was probably the hardest worker we had,” Geymann said.
That work ethic, combined with Iba’s teaching, fueled Kurland’s development.
“I never got to see him play, only on film,” Sutton said. “But Mr. Iba told me that he was really a hard worker and really developed. When he first got there, he wasn’t very polished.”
By the time Kurland left, he was one of the most decorated players in history.
Kurland was named Player of the Year by The Sporting News and the Helms Foundation in 1946, and later named to Helms’ all-time All-American Team. He was named to Grantland Rice’s all-time All-Star Team. He is OSU’s only three-time All-American and one of just five two-time NCAA Tournament MVPs.
Kurland was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961.
While scores were low during that era, Kurland led the nation with 643 points in 33 games in 1946. That season, he averaged 19.5 points per game and set the single-game school record for points in a game — which still stands — with 58 against Saint Louis.
In that game, Kurland outscored the entire Saint Louis team by 25 in an eventual 86-33 win. His 58 points was also the national record at the time.
“He had a perfect game,” Sam Aubrey, a teammate on that squad, once said. “He shot it from the outside; he turned on the inside; and he just had one of those nights.
“And, of course, we kept getting him the ball.”
A month later, A&M won its second straight NCAA championship.
Kurland was also known for his great rivalry with DePaul big man George Mikan. In 1945, Mikan had led the Blue Demons to the NIT championship, while Kurland was fronting A&M’s run through the NCAAs.
The two teams — and big men — were then matched in a “Game of Champions” in Madison Square Garden to benefit the American Red Cross. Mikan, in his attempts to slow Kurland, fouled out. And the Aggies went on to win easily, resulting in a $50,000 payday for the Red Cross.
Following his college career, Kurland opted not to play in the NBA, instead joining the Phillips Petroleum AAU team, the 66 Oilers out of Bartlesville, where he played for six years and led three championships clubs as a six-time AAU All-American.
That started a long business career with Phillips for Kurland.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the greatest college basketball players to ever play the game,” said OSU coach Travis Ford. “Bob Kurland was instrumental in putting Oklahoma State on the college basketball map, and was someone who greatly affected this university and the Cowboy basketball program, an impact that is still felt today.
“Our condolences go out to his family, friends and former teammates.”
Kurland is survived by his wife of 62 years, Barbara, four children and seven grandchildren.