Bob Kurland, a forerunner of basketball's dominant "big man," who led Oklahoma A&M College to two consecutive NCAA championships in the mid-1940s, then starred for two gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams, died Sept. 29 at his home on Sanibel Island, Fla. He was 88.
His family announced the death.
When Mr. Kurland, a lanky redhead, arrived on the college basketball scene in 1942, players taller than 6 feet 5 inches were viewed as oddities who could do little but tower over their opponents. Labeled the first 7-footer (though he said he was actually 6 feet 10 1/2), Mr. Kurland gained renown for his athleticism in blocking shots, rebounding and scoring -- a rejoinder to University of Kansas coach Phog Allen, who had ridiculed him as a "glandular goon."
Playing for the Hall of Fame coach Hank Iba, Mr. Kurland took Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) to NCAA tournament championships in 1945 and 1946. He was voted the tournament's most valuable player each time. A three-time all-American, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1961.
In his heyday, Mr. Kurland vied for supremacy with George Mikan, DePaul's 6-10 center, who outweighed him by 20 pounds. These celebrated giants of their era faced each other in 1945 at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City for what was seen as a symbolic national collegiate championship; Oklahoma A&M had just beaten New York University in the NCAA finals, and DePaul had won the National Invitation Tournament.
Mikan, who died in 2005, fouled out late in the first half with only 9 points. Mr. Kurland, scoring 14 points, led Oklahoma A&M to a 52-44 victory in what was a wartime contest benefiting the Red Cross.
Mr. Kurland was credited with giving national exposure to the slam dunk, often called the duffer when he was stuffing the ball. But he was known chiefly for his defensive presence. The goaltending rule, adopted by college basketball in 1944 and still in effect, was designed primarily to keep Mr. Kurland -- but Mikan as well -- from swatting away shots as the ball headed downward to the basket.
Mikan ultimately overshadowed Mr. Kurland, leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five National Basketball Association championships as the marquee figure in the professional game.
Viewing the business world as promising a secure future, Mr. Kurland shunned the pros and joined the Phillips Petroleum Co. of Bartlesville, Okla., as an executive. But he kept playing, leading the U.S. Olympic basketball team to gold medals in 1948 in London and in 1952 in Helsinki, and taking the Phillips 66ers to three national Amateur Athletic Union basketball championships.
He retired from the Phillips company in the mid-1980s.
Robert Albert Kurland was born Dec. 23, 1924, in St. Louis and grew up in Jennings, Mo., a suburb of the city. His basketball skills were raw in high school, but he towered over everyone else -- he was 6-6 as a freshman -- and after the armed forces deemed him too tall for wartime duty, Iba took a chance on him.
Mr. Kurland was voted college basketball's most outstanding player by the Helms Foundation for the 1945-46 season, when he led the nation in scoring with 643 points, for an average of 19.5 a game, when there was no shot clock and the game was played at a relatively slow pace. (Mikan averaged 23.1 points but played in nine fewer games.)