Eons ago (actually, 1929) my father attended UCLA as part of the first class on the Westwood campus. My mother enrolled two years later. It’s probably not surprising that, growing up in my house, the late John Wooden was like a god. In fact, during basketball season, forget the “like” part.
Wooden’s accomplishments are unparalleled. He’s one of only three men to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame both as a player (Purdue All-American three times!) and as a coach. In 2003, he even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yet, Wooden was a profoundly humble man. Today, such humility is non-existent. LeBron James, who hasn’t won any championships, calls himself “The King.” John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA titles, called himself a teacher.
Wooden taught English and coached basketball, but most importantly, he taught his students about life. Among the nationwide tributes being paid to Wooden, including President Obama’s, basketball is hardly mentioned. So, if they didn’t, I will. For starters, from 1971-74 UCLA won 88 straight games and, during one stretch, were 205-5. (That’s not a typo!)
Wooden had four 30-0 perfect seasons while no other coach has had more than one. His teams won seven straight NCAA championships and 10 in 12 years. But Wooden never took any of the credit, saying, “A good coach can win with good players, a bad coach can lose with good players, but no coach can win without good players.” (On a personal downside, Wooden’s UCLA success spoiled me forever.)
My favorite team was the one in 1964, led by Walt Hazzard, and which brought UCLA its first national championship. Over the years there would be so many other remarkable teams with players such as Goodrich, Erickson, Kareem, Allen, Warren, Wilkes, Wicks, Bibby, Walton, Meyers, and Johnson, to name but a few. Wooden always tried to motivate them to be the best basketball players they could and, even more importantly, the best men.
On the 1964 team no starter was over six-foot-five. Today there’s hardly a high school team that undersized. But the young Bruins had such sheer athletic talent that it enabled Wooden to introduce a revolutionary full court zone press. UCLA applied such intense defensive pressure all over the court that, sooner or later, opponents would wilt.
A game could be a nail-biter until an errant pass, often induced by exhaustion or panic, would turn into a Bruin basket. And on the succeeding play, the same thing could happen. It could come in waves. In a matter of minutes, the opposition could be broken physically and mentally, never to recover. It was a nightmare to be on the receiving end, but as a UCLA fan it was spectacular to behold.
As a teenager, I thought Wooden was on the square side. For example, on the first day of practice, he’d show his players the proper way to put on their socks and lace up their shoes. And I thought some of Wooden’s favorite sayings were a tad corny, i.e. “be quick, but don’t hurry,” and “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Today, I think they’re pearls of wisdom. (It’s remarkable how much smarter Wooden got over the years.)
There are many amazing things John Wooden didn’t do. He never got divorced. (Married to Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart, for 53 years until her death in 1985.) And he never went to the pros or held out for more money. In fact, in his 27 years at UCLA his highest salary was $32,500. He also never cursed. “Goodness gracious sakes alive” was as close as he ever came to swearing. (Though many players would attest that it could feel just as harsh.)
Wooden retired in 1975 after his last championship. I thought it was way too soon, but maybe he left just in time. I don’t know how he would have dealt with the culture of “me” and “money” that consumes many players today.
Bill Walton was admittedly Wooden’s most rebellious player. As a “flower child” (albeit, a very tall one) Walton refused to cut his hair as per team rules. Wooden counseled his All-American center that he had every right to follow his conscience, but added wryly, “We’re gonna miss you around here, Bill.” Walton jumped on his bicycle and raced into Westwood to get a haircut.
A week ago, Walton visited Wooden in the hospital to say a final good-bye. Kareem rushed back from Europe, seeing Wooden hours before he passed. Andy Hill, who was on three UCLA championship teams, said, “I told Coach that he could ‘leave,’ but he really can’t because he’s in all of us.”
Wooden was intense and competitive but never sacrificed his principles. In his first year coaching at Indiana State, his team received an invitation to the prestigious NAIB tournament. (Forerunner to the NCAA.) Wooden, who had a black player on the squad, refused to go because the NAIB had a policy banning African Americans. Coincidentally or not, the rule was abolished the next year.
Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully, another icon we’ve been blessed to have, summed up Wooden simply and eloquently, “This was a man.” Long-time L.A. Times sports columnist Bill Dwyre, when asked how do you replace someone like Wooden, replied sadly, “You don’t.” All I can add is, John Wooden, you’re already missed around here.
To reminisce about Wooden and the glory years, Jack recommends the DVD “UCLA the Dynasty,” a remarkable HBO documentary. In the meantime, he can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.