Don’t Call Him The Wizard

June 4

I only met coach John Wooden once, and it was only for five seconds, but I will never forget it.

It was my freshman year at UCLA, his last year as men’s basketball coach.

Wooden used to take a morning walk around Drake Field, the track stadium at the UCLA campus. I was just finishing a run one morning before the Bruins were headed to San Diego for the 1975 Final Four. As I was toweling off, he came by and we made eye contact.

“Hi coach, how are you? ”

“I’m just fine, how are you?”

“I’m good.”

I couldn’t let the conversation end in such a mundane way. As he walked away I said, “go get ’em in San Diego.”

He said “we’ll certainly try.”

I saw Coach Wooden at Pauley Pavilion a few times when I played intramural games but never chatted with him. Despite the fact I’ve had a career in media, I haven’t had a chance to meet him since. But that cold, overcast morning when we exchanged a simple greeting is a personal highlight.

It’s funny: everything Wooden represented — humility, faith, balance — is everything the business of sports talk is NOT. Yet I can attest that he has influenced how I conduct my everyday business, and how I approach my job.

***

Many, many things will be written about Wooden and the UCLA program, the Pyramid of Success, the numerous quotes, his way of looking at the world, and his love for his late wife Nell until the day he died. That day was Friday evening, June 4, 2010. Wooden is gone but his life and his legacy will be remembered for decades, perhaps centuries.

How is it that a man who seemed to be a throwback to a Norman Rockwell Middle American existence reached the pinnacle just a few miles from Hollywood in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s ? How is it that three decades after his final game as coach, people still saw him as an Oracle ? What was it about this man that resonated throughout the generations ?

If I can pick two words to answer that question, they would be “faith” and “love.” To me, the basketball court was simply a platform to practice and express his uncompromising belief in God. I think it was his way to give testimony — through his love of basketball.

Many of his famous quotes are derived from, or very similar to, passages in the Bible:

“Talent is God-given. Be humble.”

“Passion is temporary. It doesn’t last long. Love is enduring, and that’s the most important thing.”

“Happiness begins when selfishness ends.”

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are,
while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

“Be quick but don’t hurry.”

“Material possessions, winning scores and great reputations are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord, because He knows what we really are and that is all that matters.”

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

What was the appeal of John Wooden ? He was timeless. His words apply to all people, not just basketball players, and he taught his players with that in mind. He also liked to win, probably a little more than he let on, and his success is a towering standard coaches are still trying to meet today.

***

As a child, I remember watching Wooden’s weekly show on Channel 5 in Los Angeles, when he would play highlights and explain another block in his Pyramid of Success. I remember trying to stay up late on a Thursday or Saturday night to watch tape-delayed UCLA games. I remember going to Pauley Pavilion to see the Bruins play several games, most memorably a 133-84 shellacking of Pistol Pete Maravich and LSU.

I remember the trademarks of the Wooden teams: the fact that he wouldn’t scout the opposition, but only worried about his own team’s preparation, the fact that the gentle man was a dynamo in practice; his penchant for teaching the bank shot, the immaculate appearance of his teams, their great talent — even on the bench, and their intimidation.

I remember the worst words that reputedly came out of his mouth were “goodness gracious sakes alive” if he was upset at a player in practice. I tend to think he uttered other words at referees behind that trademark rolled-up program during games.

I remember that when a game was tight in the early going, he would employ the full-court press and the Bruins would go on a 17-2 or 20-3 run that would knock the wind out of opponents’ sails. They could be like snowballs rolling downhill, crushing everything in their path. No losing seasons, a winning streak of 88, 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, 38 wins in a row in the NCAA tournament.

I remember when “Lewis,” as Wooden called Lew Alcindor ( Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ), made his much-heralded trek out west, and the freshman team beat the varsity in a 1965 scrimmage. I remember Alcindor dropping 56 on USC in his first varsity game, teams applying The Stall to counteract him, and then the NCAA outlawing dunking for a few years — one of the most ridiculous rules ever.

I remember Wooden winning titles with teams that didn’t have a player over 6-foot-5, teams with Alcindor and Bill Walton, and teams with Steve Patterson and Ralph Drollinger at center. He coached great kids such as Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes, Lynn Shackleford, and Dave Meyers … and more challenging players such as Alcindor, Walton, and Sidney Wicks.

I remember Walton taking to the streets in anti-war protests, and letting his hair grow long. When he returned for practice before a season, he declined Wooden’s request to cut his hair. Wooden told him very kindly that it was okay if he didn’t want to play that year. Mr. Walton soon met Mr. Barber.

I remember Wooden’s final team in 1975, and the fact that he didn’t announce his retirement until right before the national championship game against Kentucky. I remember being on campus the night they beat the Wildcats, and walking past celebration parties to head for the library and study for a test. I think Wooden would have liked that.

I remember after Wooden won that final game, a booster congratulated him and said “that makes up for not winning last year.” I remember that Wooden’s successor, Gene Bartow, was skewered for going 53-9 in two seasons and had to leave due to stress. Wooden’s assistant Gary Cunningham succeeded Bartow and was gone after two years and a 50-8 record.

***

Gary Radnich and I have joked many times about the “bagman” of UCLA, Sam Gilbert, a developer who was the school’s chief booster. People back then wondered how got Alcindor a Bentley or other players got the latest threads. I don’t think there’s any question that if present-day rules were applied to UCLA, there would be NCAA sanctions. As it was, I don’t think Wooden wanted to know what was going on — he just concentrated on basketball and building the school’s image.

It’s also fair to point out that Wooden flourished after Pete Newell retired at Cal. Wooden could never get over Newell — perhaps one reason he stayed so humble. And perhaps one reason he detested the moniker “Wizard of Westwood.”

Wooden and UCLA won at a time when fewer teams were in the NCAA tournament, but the Bruins always had a target on their back, and almost always lived up to their billing.

In the end, however, Wooden’s legacy goes beyond basketball and the trophies — the impact he had on his players, the way he lived his life, and the influence he had on a skinny ten-year-old kid who played in his backyard every night until it was dark.

That kid is doing his best to live his life as an adult, in his own very imperfect way, by Wooden’s example.

***

Wooden loved only one woman in his life — Nell, his wife of 53 years. He believed he would rejoin her, so tonight is a very happy night for the greatest, humblest coach ever.

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