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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Kevin Kunnert

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

The pro basketball career of Kevin Kunnert lasted almost a decade, and included two different stops with the franchise that once was called the Buffalo Braves. It’s striking, then, how he became associated with a single infamous moment in basketball history in which he merely played a supporting role.

Kevin Robert Kunnert was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on November 11, 1951. He proved to be a persistent resident of that Midwestern state, staying there through the end of college. Kevin had nine brothers and sisters.

Kunnert attended Wahlert High School in Dubuque, which is located right along the Mississippi River where Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois meet. As someone growing into his 7-foot frame, Kunnert naturally was steered into playing basketball. It took some time to grow into that body, as he only started seven games in high school. In fact, he was on the junior varsity as a junior. Even so, the Golden Eagles finished third in the state tournament in Kunnert’s senior year in 1969. No Wahlert team had ever done better in state basketball competition at that point. Kevin was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2018.

That lack of experience didn’t stop Kunnert from having big dreams during his high school days. “I kind of knew when I was in high school that I was going to the NBA,” he said in 2021. “I told that to my older brother Pat. But no one went from Iowa to the NBA. … I was a very determined person. If you live in the gym and keep working on your skills … that’s what you have to do – believe in yourself.”

The next step was college, and somehow he was noticed – his height may have had a lot to do with it – by recruiters during his brief prep career. Kunnert landed at the University of Iowa, and he was part of a basketball program that was on something of a roll. As a freshman, Kevin watched the Hawkeyes go 14-0 in conference play, 20-5 overall. Iowa’s team won its last 16 games in regular season play, but lost a heartbreaker to Jacksonville in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The coach of that team was Ralph Miller, a future member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Kunnert only worked with Miller as a freshman, as the coach left after the 1969-70 season to work at Oregon State. “He used to sit there in a chair, and he’d smoke cigarettes, and run your butt off,” Kunnert remembered. “He told me he wanted me to drive to the basket – something I never did, and I should have listened to him. I go in there and played a freshman team, and we beat somebody. The (varsity) team is in the meeting room, and he’s talking to them. And someone says, he (Miller) wants to talk to you. So I go in the front corner. He grabs me by the neck, gets two inches from my face, and pushes me against the wall. He says, “I told you to drive to the basket.’ He scared the hay out of me, but that was Ralph Miller. He intimidated people.”

Dick Schultz replaced Miller as the new head coach, and he had to coach an Iowa team that had lost three of its top scorers. Fred Brown stepped up to score 27.6 points per game, and Kunnert chipped in with averages of 10.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game – including a 30-point game against UCLA. Even so, the Hawkeyes fell all the way to 9-15, 4-10 in the Big Ten. With Brown gone in the following season, someone had to do the shooting for Iowa. Rick Williams stepped into the role to score almost 20 per game. Kunnert improved to 18.2 points and 14.7 rebounds. The Hawkeyes were a little better at 11-13, 5-9 in conference play.

Considering his history, the numbers were quite a tribute to Kunnert’s hard work. “When I came to Iowa, I could hardly shoot or walk,” the center said after his college career. “The pointers I received at Iowa were the key to my development. It’s one thing to go out and play, but it’s another if you don’t know how to improve – you can’t get anywhere. It was great to have people who knew how to help.”

As a senior, Kunnert took over as the top offensive option. He averaged 19.2 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, tops on the team in both categories. Kunnert led the Big Ten in rebounds and field goal percentage, and he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time. The Helms Foundation picked him as a first-team All-American, and he won the George Clarkson Award as the best college basketball player in Iowa. It only helped a little. Iowa had a winning record at 13-11, but was still 6-8 and in sixth place in the Big Ten. After his last game – a 93-76 win over Illinois, Kunnert wasn’t too sentimental. “In a way, I’m kind of glad my career is over,” he said. “It gets tough after a while.” For Kunnert’s three seasons, the Hawkeyes finished an unmemorable 33-39.

That wasn’t Kunnert’s fault of course. He was a bright spot, and figured to be a high draft choice in the 1973 NBA draft. “When I came out of Iowa, the Houston Rockets wanted to pick me with the fourth pick in the draft,” Kunnert said. “They phoned my agent from Chicago, Arthur Morris. They asked, ‘If we draft Kevin, how much money is he going to want? Arthur says, ‘Why don’t you draft him and find out?’ and hung up on him.” Morris told Kunnert that the Rockets were having major financial problems, and he wanted to discourage them from taking the Iowa center.

The plan worked. Kunnert went at the No. 12 spot to the Chicago Bulls. That figured to be a good spot for him, since Chicago had won 51 games the season before and figured to be strong again in 1973-74. “I’m very happy I went in the first round,” Kunnert said at the time. “It’s a good feeling. I wanted to go to a good team with a chance for a championship, and Chicago is a good team, has a great coach (Dick Motta), and don’t have a superstar center.” Kunnert also was drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association, but signed with the Bulls.

However … he never got to play a minute in Chicago. The Bulls traded him and Gar Heard to the Buffalo Braves for John Hummer and two second-round draft choices. It was one of the best trades in Braves’ history. The Bulls didn’t know what they had in Heard, who blossomed in Buffalo. Meanwhile, Kunnert was still a first-round pick who would have time to break into the lineup behind new starting center Bob McAdoo. Kevin did that, playing a little less than nine minutes per game as he received an education about life in the NBA. The problem was that McAdoo had emerged as a superstar in that season, as he would go on to average more than 30 points per game. The catch is that McAdoo also averaged about 43 minutes per game, and that gave Kunnert little time to develop.

By midseason, the Braves realized they needed some depth in order to take a step forward. Kunnert represented an under-used asset, so general manager Eddie Donovan sent him and Dave Wohl to the Houston Rockets – yes, the financially struggling Rockets - for Jack Marin and Matt Guokas. In Houston, Kunnert joined George Johnson at the center position. Kunnert’s minutes improved to more than 14 per game for the rest of the season. By the way, Kunnert said the Rockets couldn’t afford to make up a new uniform for him – so they gave him Otto Moore’s old uniform (No. 20) instead of a new one with his preferred No. 44.

Johnson was gone by the following season. Kunnert and Zaid Abdul-Aziz were left to split the center duty for the 1974-75 season. Kevin’s scoring average reached double digits (10.8) in 24 minutes per game. The Rockets had a good nucleus in Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy and Mike Newlin, and they improved to 41-41 and won a playoff round before losing to the Boston Celtics. And 1975-76 was a little better for Kunnert – career highs in points (12.9), rebounds (9.8), and minutes (29.2). But the team fell to 40-42, and missed the playoffs.

Help arrived for the Rockets early in the 1976-77 season, and ironically for Kunnert, it came from the Buffalo Braves. Houston acquired center Moses Malone from the Braves for a couple of first-round draft choices. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Malone was a future Hall of Famer. We also know that Kunnert wasn’t going to beat Malone out of a job. Kevin still played about half of each game, and his scoring average was a few ticks under double digits and Malone saw some time at forward. The Rockets improved to 49-33 and made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to Philadelphia in six games.

Kunnert was still a big part of the 1977-78 team, thanks in part to an injury that cost Malone more than 20 games of the season. Kunnert averaged about 27 minutes per game, scoring a little more than 10 points. Kevin was involved in an incident that led to arguably the most famous punch in basketball history. On December 9, 1977, Kunnert and Kermit Washington of Lakers were involved in a skirmish on a rebound, and Kunnert fell to the ground. Tomjanovich came running into the scene to help restore order, and he was punched in the face by Washington. “Rudy T.” missed the rest of the season with several injuries. “I didn’t start it,” Kunnert said later about the incident. “Kermit has had a smear campaign against me, but I didn’t do anything. I resent it being pinned on me. I don’t feel guilty.”

From there, the Rockets simply collapsed that season to 26-54. Houston would rebound the following season, but Kunnert wasn’t around to see it. He signed with the Boston Celtics as a veteran free agent; the Rockets picked up a second-round draft choice in compensation. He never did wear a Boston uniform. The Braves once again played a role in Kunnert’s status at that point. The Braves and Celtics traded franchises in a sense as the Buffalo team moved to San Diego, and a huge trade between the teams was part of the transaction. Kunnert, Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks and Freeman Williams went to the Clippers for three players and two draft choices. There Kunnert was reunited with former teammate Randy Smith, and also played alongside of Washington. Kunnert and Swen Nater essentially divided the center position in 1978-79, with Nater averaging 10.7 points per game.

Kevin only stayed in San Diego for one season. On May 13, 1979, he was part of a huge trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. Kunnert, Washington, a first-round draft pick and $350,000 went to Portland for Bill Walton. Sadly, injuries started to get in the way of Kunnert’s playing time. He only played in 18 games in 1979-80, all early in the season. A year later, his minutes went up to 15.3 per game in 55 contests, but his scoring average was down to 4.4 points per game. Finally, Kevin only played in 21 games in 1981-82. The team missed the playoffs in two of those seasons and was quickly eliminated in the third.

That was it for Kunnert, who retired in the summer of 1982. He finished his career with 4,602 points and 4,031 rebounds over nine seasons. “I was doing good in my career, and in my seventh year I ripped the ACL in my knee,” he said in 2021. “I played two years in the NBA without an ACL. I had a good run. It was fun. I would tell people, just enjoy it. It ends quickly. I never thought I would ever get hurt, and then I got hurt.”

Kunnert stayed in the Portland area after retirement with his wife, Mary, and their three daughters, Sarah, Laura and Katheryn. Since six of his brothers and sisters stayed in Dubuque, he returns to that city quite often for family reunions.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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