Kurland was born in St. Louis graduating from Jennings High School where he participated in basketball and track.  Kurland considered attending the University of Missouri, but when Oklahoma A&M played a game at Saint Louis University, A&M coach Henry Iba invited Kurland to dinner and offered a scholarship. Missouri could only offer Kurland a job.

As college basketball’s first seven-footer, Kurland was an integral part of the team’s consecutive NCAA titles in 1945 and 1946, and was named the NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player both times.  In the 1945-46 season, he scored a then-season record 643 points, including 58 in a game against Saint Louis University, which featured 6-8 freshman Ed Macauley. Kurland was voted Helms Foundation College Basketball Player of the Year.

Because Kurland often leaped above the rim to grab opponents’ shots, the NCAA banned defensive goaltending in 1945. Kurland was also the first person to regularly dunk during games. The rivalry between him and De Paul’s George Mikan would foreshadow similar matchups, especially those of basketball’s “big men.”

Kurland never played professional basketball, passing up the newly formed Basketball Association of America and National Basketball League (which would merge, forming the National Basketball Association), to play for Phillips Petroleum’s A.A.U. team, the Oilers. Kurland played for six years with Phillips, winning three championships.

Since Kurland never played professionally, he was eligible as an amateur for the Olympic Games. In the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, England, he led the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal. He was second on the team in scoring as the U.S. defeated France in the gold medal game, 65-21.  In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, Kurland carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony. He was again a dominant force at center as the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the gold medal game, 36-25.