The involvement of booster Sam Gilbert with the UCLA basketball program in the 1960s and '70s is well known. But how much of an impact did he really have on the Bruins' success on the court? Not nearly as much as you may have heard.
Sam Gilbert's interaction with the UCLA program decades ago frankly fascinates me, though not necessarily because of the interaction itself. After all, the general flavor of Gilbert's role is both fairly well documented and, if unusual in its scope and especially duration, hardly unique to just one campus in just one era.
No, what I find incredible is that in college basketball circles the very name "Sam Gilbert" can still function as something of an insider's trump card, a knowing reference to be deployed with an arched eyebrow. How this can still be the case I can't say. In fact it's mystifying. Gilbert's dealings with the Bruins drew notice almost immediately, and the comments have now continued for over 40 years. Gilbert may constitute the most frequently outed piece of inside information in the history of sports.
According to former UCLA players and coaches, between 1967 and the late 1970s the millionaire contractor took care of the Bruins in more ways than one, bestowing upon selected stars such NCAA no-no's as clothes, airline tickets, and stereos, as well as paying said stars scalper-level dollars for their season tickets. Yet as late as 2006 Adrian Wojnarowski could still remark, "It just is never talked about--out in the open anyway." Actually by the time Wojnarowski wrote those words Gilbert had already been talked about out in the open for decades, most notably in at least two books, as well as in Time magazine, the LA Times, and the New York Times, among other places. It's not that Gilbert isn't talked about, it's that the talk never stuck, or at least it didn't until the past few years. The story of Gilbert's role at UCLA is colorful enough, but the history of "Ever heard of Sam Gilbert?" as a mocking question directed at John Wooden's admirers is no less interesting.
More than three decades after Wooden retired and more than two decades after Gilbert passed away, the prevailing "insider" assumption has long been that the booster's largesse played a large part in UCLA's phenomenal success. Former Texas coach Abe Lemons once quipped, "I guess if you have a Pyramid of Success--and Sam Gilbert--you can always be a winner," a bon mot later repackaged by Jerry Tarkanian, who famously termed Gilbert the most important building block in Wooden's pyramid.
Certainly Gilbert's "help" shredded the amateur status of, by my count, seven national championship teams. What's much less clear, however, is whether those seven teams truly needed that help in order to score more points than their opponents. We know that the first three national championship teams in Westwood, who won their titles before "Papa Sam" came into view, had required no such assistance. The insiders are right when they say Wooden's tenure at UCLA is often viewed in simplistic terms. But, in an ironic if not terribly surprising twist, a like degree of simplicity has characterized the insiders' own conception of Gilbert's influence.
The first references to Sam Gilbert appeared in print while John Wooden was still at UCLA. In 1969 Gilbert assisted Lew Alcindor in negotiating his first contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. Gilbert variously characterized his compensation for this service as either having been one dollar or as having been rendered in exchange for an autographed picture of Alcindor, who in 1971 changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Perhaps the only thing odder than this tale is that it appears to have been true. Gilbert was operating at the last historical moment when contractors in Encino were indeed wealthier than even the wealthiest NBA players. "He needed us financially like the moon needed rocks," Abdul-Jabbar would later say. Gilbert's net worth was estimated at $25 million. As for UCLA's dominant big man, feel free to harken back to the relevant Dr. Evil clip: Alcindor signed with Milwaukee for $1.4 million over five years, a figure that was unprecedented at the time and indeed was likely inflated by a furious NBA-ABA bidding war for the biggest college star since Oscar Robertson.
UCLA's most devoted and visible fan reveled in the company of the nation's most famous college basketball players--so long as that company was doting and unquestioning. Gilbert went on to negotiate professional contracts, gratis, for a veritable who's-who of the UCLA golden age, including Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Steve Patterson, and Henry Bibby.
Then in 1973 Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh of the LA Times published The Wizard of Westwood: Coach John Wooden and His UCLA Bruins. Wooden detested the "Wizard" nickname, but the book itself was a handy and informative sum-up of the coach's UCLA years, one that plainly admired its subject. At the same time Chapin and Prugh certainly weren't too obsequious or awestruck to bring up the subject of a certain prominent booster:
Gilbert is light years apart from Wooden in personality--a tough-talking man whose vocabulary includes four-letter words beyond just "UCLA," who inhales the world of high finance and "big dollars," and who can be unabashedly frank in his attacks on society, higher education, and the United States government and its war policies with regard to Vietnam....
For those reasons, he has struck responsive chords with many Bruin players--almost to the extent that when players speak out against society and authority, as with Alcindor, [Bill] Walton, and [Bill] Seibert, people often question whether those are really UCLA basketball players--or Sam Gilbert--talking.
Thus, given their contrasts in lifestyle and ideology, Gilbert and Wooden seemingly wage a cold war. They merely coexist amid the UCLA kaleidoscope of winning streaks and NCAA titles and dreams of six-figure contracts.
In other words Gilbert--the voluble and demonstrative son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants--had sprezzatura and Wooden--the taciturn and reserved son of Indiana Protestant farmers--didn't. Indeed Gilbert appears to have been a true original, a construction magnate and athletic department booster who was also, of all things, a flaming liberal. Chapin and Prugh relate that when the U.S. invaded Cambodia in early 1970, Gilbert was incensed that the LA Times ran merely a one-paragraph blurb on the UCLA basketball team's protest telegram to President Nixon.
When Chapin and Prugh asked Wooden for his thoughts on Gilbert, they got this somewhat cryptic quote out of the coach (ellipsis in original):
I personally hardly know Sam Gilbert....I think he's a person who's trying to be helpful in every way that he can. I sometimes feel that in his interest to be helpful it's in direct contrast with what I would like to have him to do be helpful. I think he means very well and, for the most part, he has attached himself to the minority-race players. I really don't want to get involved in saying much about that, to be honest with you.
The groundwork done by Chapin and Prugh was enough to land Gilbert a mention in Time in February 1974, but it wasn't until three years after Wooden's retirement in 1975 that the name "Sam Gilbert" truly received enough play to guarantee it would never fade away entirely where UCLA was concerned.
"Don't ---- with me!"
In 1978 former UCLA great Bill Walton was the subject of a book by Jack Scott entitled Bill Walton: On the Road with the Portland Trailblazers. Scott was ideally situated to publish this kind of narrative: He and his wife lived with Walton. In the book Scott quoted Walton as saying:
"I hate to say anything that may hurt UCLA, but I can't be quiet when I see what the NCAA is doing to Jerry Tarkanian only because he has a reputation for giving a second chance to many black athletes other coaches have branded as troublemakers. The NCAA is working night and day trying to get Jerry, but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA!"
Almost 30 years later this quote, minus the references to Tarkanian, would furnish the lede for Dan Wetzel's re-introduction of Sam Gilbert to a new generation of college basketball fans. But Bill Walton contained more on the subject of Gilbert than just Walton's quote. It also depicted with manifest relish an encounter between Scott and Gilbert, one where the former comes across as a rather implausible mix of Philip Marlowe, Bob Woodward, and John Feinstein:
Sam immediately bombarded me with a long tirade of threats and curses. "Mr. Scott," he began. "Don't ---- with me! Don't ---- with me! Take my word for it."
"Let's skip the bull----, Sam," I began. "I want to ask you a few questions about the 'help' you give to many UCLA athletes.
"I have a copy of a letter before me that was sent to you by a UCLA basketball star after he signed a lucrative pro basketball contract. The letter states the athlete was paying over $4,500 back to you that you had given him while he played basketball for UCLA."
Threats and curses were now replaced by a subdued, nervous voice. "Are you going to use that letter?" Sam politely asked. "UCLA would have to return four NCAA championships. What I did is a total violation of NCAA rules."...
"Sam, my concern right now is to make sure that what I do eventually write is the truth. The copy of the letter I had could have been a fake." I thanked Sam for confirming the authenticity of the letter.
Whether Scott, who passed away in 2000, actually sounded this much like J.J. Gittes in real time remains unknown. But the letter that Scott claimed he had in his possession drew instant attention. "UCLA Finds Itself Accused of Bending Rules," declared the LA Times on June 28, 1978. Gilbert called Scott's claims about a letter "a gross falsehood." In a follow-up two days later the LAT quoted Wooden as saying, "We never wanted anything to do with a player that you had to buy, and we never did....I have a complete clear feeling about that." Wooden added: "When you're successful the NCAA likes to investigate you, and they investigated us while I was at UCLA....And I know that Sam was investigated by the NCAA and nothing came of it."
The last line of the LAT's blurb that day read:
An NCAA spokesman said Thursday that allegations in Scott's book have been turned over to its enforcement department for study.
Both the press and the NCAA had been presented with conflicting accounts of UCLA basketball. And while Scott's letter never did materialize (or at least it hasn't yet), within a few years both the LA Times and the Committee on Infractions would be siding with much of the rest of the Scott/Walton version of events.
"Thank you for possibly saving my life"
On December 8, 1981, the NCAA announced it was placing UCLA on probation for two years, citing among other infractions Gilbert's co-signature on a promissory note that allowed a player to buy a car. It was big news, of course, but eight weeks later, on January 31, 1982, the LA Times in effect dropped the proverbial other shoe:
NCAA Missed the Iceberg in Westwood
After the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced last Dec. 8 that UCLA's basketball team had been placed on two years' probation, Chancellor Charles E. Young said at a press conference that a joint investigation by the NCAA and the university could not have been "more intensive."
But interviews with more than 45 people connected with UCLA basketball, many of them former Bruin players and coaches, showed that the nine infractions the NCAA listed were insignificant when compared with many others dating back to the Lew Alcindor-led championship teams of the mid-1960s.
The LAT's two-part series, written by Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg, painted a picture of Gilbert wrapping the program in a suffocating embrace. "Some players got money to purchase cars their freshman year," Littwin and Greenberg reported, "by selling four years' worth of season tickets through Gilbert for as much as $1,000 a year, according to a former UCLA head coach." Gilbert was also said to have helped out players with pregnant girlfriends. "According to some [former players], Gilbert arranged and paid for abortions for their girlfriends. Gilbert told the Times in 1978 that he had admitted as much to an NCAA investigator." ("I'm Sam Gilbert," he told the LAT in 1978. "I'm not part of that athletic department. I'm not under their rules.")
Additionally the LAT stated that three former recruits who had all been high school seniors in 1978--Darryl Mitchell, Greg Goorjian, and Michael Johnson, none of whom ended up in Westwood--had told NCAA investigators that they'd been offered cars by Gilbert as inducements to come to UCLA. (Though one of the players qualified this by saying that three other schools made him the same offer.)
A surprising number of former UCLA players offered Littwin and Greenberg on-the-record quotes. For example David Greenwood told the reporters, "Everyone knew what was going on. Nobody was so naive. It was common knowledge in the whole town. We just felt it wasn't an isolated incident. It was going on at all the universities." Marques Johnson added, "At the time you're going through it...stereos, some got cars....You felt it was a two-way thing. You were getting things for free or at great discounts [ellipses in original]."
But if Gilbert's involvement with the Bruins was extensive and occasionally a little salacious, it was also, in Littwin and Greenberg's telling, clearly bounded in both its duration and its character. The initial connection between Gilbert and the program was, incredibly, established through the initiative of the UCLA athletic department itself. After the 1967 season Alcindor was making noises about a possible transfer to Michigan, while Lucius Allen was mulling a transfer to Kansas. Gilbert was called in to talk to the two players, and while Abdul-Jabbar would later state that the contractor's intercession had no impact on his eventual decision to stay, Allen did credit Gilbert with persuading him to remain in Westwood. Thus the 1967-68 season effectively marked the beginning of Gilbert's reign of favors.
The other finding reported by Littwin and Greenberg was that Gilbert didn't concern himself with trying to entice recruits until the brief (1977-79) head coaching tenure of Gary Cunningham. Longtime Gilbert friend Larry Farmer, who served as an assistant under Cunningham and would become the UCLA head coach himself in 1981, said Gilbert probably pitched in with recruiting "because we were struggling so much. They [Gilbert and Cunningham] cared about each other a great deal. They had a warm relationship." (It's interesting to note how capaciously "struggling" was defined in post-Wooden Westwood. Cunningham went 50-8, with all eight losses coming by four points or less.)
Indeed the LAT's series made clear that after Wooden's retirement in 1975 Gilbert's involvement was not only more insistent than ever before, it also posed a formidable obstacle for the two head coaches that didn't have prior relationships with Gilbert: Gene Bartow (1975-77) and Larry Brown (1979-81). In the series a "former head coach," likely either Bartow or Brown, was quoted as saying of Gilbert's role, "It was unwhippable by me. It would have been unwhippable by Dean Smith or Bobby Knight....I knew I didn't have full control. If you've got a guy on the side, a guy players can get cash, cars, clothes from, who's he (the player) going to go to? Who's he going to listen to?" Years later, not long after Gilbert had died, Brown would say, "I feared this guy would tear down the program if I fought him, so I tried to tolerate him....I was honestly afraid what he would do, and I didn't want to exclude any booster. But it got very ugly and so uncomfortable....He didn't want anyone questioning what he did."
Bartow experienced that same trepidation before Brown did. In a remarkable 1991 letter to the NCAA, the former UCLA head coach thanked the organization for "possibly saving my life." At the time he wrote the letter, Bartow had just learned that back in 1976 an NCAA staffer had wanted to investigate UCLA but had been overruled. Writing to then-assistant executive director for enforcement David Berst, Bartow said, "I would assume it was you or Walter Byers who did not let the investigator delve into the UCLA program." He then added, "I believe Sam Gilbert was Mafia-related and was capable of hurting people. I think, had the NCAA come in hard while I was at UCLA, (Gilbert and others associated with the program) would have felt I had reported them, and I would have been in danger. Sam was a most unusual person, and he violated many rules knowingly. Without question, he put out some front-end money (to recruits) in a few cases, and I think that could have been proven."
Keep Gilbert, I'll take Alcindor and no three-point line
Today the invocation of Gilbert's role during the UCLA dynasty comprises a readily accessible badge of gravitas for basketball writers, a handy emblem that shows you weren't simply gulled by the Wooden mystique. Moreover such invocations usually surface in March and April, timing that harbors within itself a reproach: I know you're really interested in this March Madness thing, but just keep in mind that even Coach Wooden had a skeleton in his closet. In this respect a March 2003 piece by William C. Rhoden of the New York Times is representative: "What we didn't know then was that the Wizard of Westwood had a helper. His name was Sam Gilbert."
The Gilbert era does indeed present a well nigh irresistible tale, one that has the added value of being true. Simply put, the majority of Wooden-era UCLA national championship teams had their amateur status vaporized by Gilbert (and, of course, by the players themselves), and thus the Bruins were ineligible to compete in, much less win, the NCAA tournament. That's a big story right there, one that needs no further embellishment.
But, alas, there has been embellishment:
Apparently a team capturing ten titles in 12 years, putting together undefeated season after undefeated season, recruiting high school All-Americans from all over the country to sit on the bench, yet never having them transfer or declare hardship wasn't enough for it to dawn on anyone at the NCAA that, gee, maybe they're cheating?
There's a lot that needs help here, even leaving aside the fact that UCLA had already won three national championships in four seasons before Gilbert first met with Alcindor and Allen in 1967. Take for example the reference to Wooden-era UCLA players "never" declaring hardship. Actually the NBA's hardship rule, which allowed players who'd been out of high school for less than four years to enter the draft if they could prove financial need, only came into being in 1971 after Spencer Haywood had taken the NBA all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Thus "declaring hardship" was not an option for players on seven of UCLA's ten national championship teams.
A larger problem with this paragraph, though, is its unstated assumption that UCLA's historic success must itself be evidence of an equally historic--and putatively ill-gotten--level of talent. But if the incorrigibly self-interested draft decisions made by NBA franchises are any guide, this assumption is faulty.
Granted, the Bruins were indeed way more talented than any other program at that time.
The wizard of talent
Most NBA first-round picks, 1964-1977
North Carolina 6
(I've included two drafts that took place after Wooden's retirement because his last team, in 1975, benefited greatly from the presence of Richard Washington and Marques Johnson, who went on to be first-round picks in 1976 and 1977, respectively.)
So writers are correct when they say that Wooden, who arrived at UCLA in 1948, didn't start winning national championships until the talent in Westwood improved. But Sam Gilbert had nothing to do with that. The first great and perhaps catalytic coalescence of talent at UCLA--the Walt Hazzard/Gail Goodrich/Keith Erickson teams of the mid-1960s--occurred pre-Gilbert. (Not that the Bruins were necessarily choirboys before Gilbert came along. Veterans of the 1964 national championship team have told of receiving ten bucks per rebound from boosters.)
Wooden's recruiting haul in his final dozen seasons was majestic, to be sure, but that haul, unlike UCLA's won-loss record, has at least been approximated in subsequent years by programs like Duke, North Carolina, and, yes, UCLA. (The Bruins' 2008 team--Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, et al.--was arguably as talented as a significant minority of Wooden's national championship teams.) If we expand our definition of "NBA first-round pick" to something that will work seamlessly across the decades, something like "one of the first 30 players chosen in a given year," we find that UCLA put 15 players among the top 30 picks in the 14 drafts spanning 1964 and 1977. That's an amazing figure, certainly, but one that's not nearly as drop-dead outlandish as the "Gee, maybe they're cheating" school would suggest.
Take Duke. Between 1996 and 2009 the Blue Devils landed 13 players among the top 30, a figure that requires two further qualifications. First, that number would of course be 14 had the NBA not experienced a moment of inexplicable league-wide senility in the 2002 draft, when Carlos Boozer fell to the second round. (By the same token North Carolina will have put 13 players among the top 30 picks between 1997 and 2010 when Ed Davis hears his name called later this month.) Second, all those Duke prospects had to compete for a finite number of draft slots against a coterie of international players that didn't even exist as rivals for the Bruins in the drafts of the 1960s and '70s.
In short, as amazing as it may sound, it's possible to recruit about as well as Wooden-era UCLA and not win ten titles in 12 years. Far more extreme than the talent Wooden had at his disposal was the success he achieved with that talent in a sport where championships are awarded to the winner of a single-elimination tournament.
Some have sought to explain that success after-the-fact by saying simply, "Sam Gilbert." I recommend starting instead with, "Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, and no three-point line." A quarter-century after the three-point shot's debut, it's hard for us to have a proper conception of just how dominant Alcindor, Walton, and their ilk could be in the sport as it was then constituted. But let's try. The first game ever played in Pauley Pavilion, on November 27, 1965, pitted Alcindor's freshman team against the varsity, coached by Wooden and ranked number one in the nation in the preseason. The freshmen won 75-60, as Alcindor scored 31 points, pulled down 21 rebounds, and blocked seven shots. Maybe the most impressive aspect of Wooden's career is not that the coach won ten national championships but that he won half of them without either Alcindor or Walton.
Saying simply that UCLA cheated and leaving it at that requires papering over the difference between the NCAA's foundational insistence upon amateurism and the foundational assumption of fairness that undergirds any contest, be it professional or amateur. By violating eligibility rules that had long been in place, a generation of Bruin players did cheat, and thus a goodly number of their championships would have been vacated had the NCAA been endowed with both perfect knowledge and the political courage to confront a program led by an esteemed legend like Wooden. At the same time I doubt that non-amateur UCLA truly gained any tangible advantage over their opponents expressly because Sam Gilbert had showered gifts on players who didn't know who he was until they arrived in Westwood. Gilbert made Wooden's teams ineligible, not better.
The lone exception may have been the presence of Lucius Allen on the 1967-68 team. In this single instance, by persuading Allen not to transfer, maybe Gilbert really did help Wooden. Yet even here the coda is too often left unstated. In 1968 Allen was arrested for possession of marijuana and as a result he missed the entire 1968-69 season. And without Allen UCLA went 29-1 and won their fifth national title.
I do have to wonder how much help Wooden really needed from Gilbert.
Sam Gilbert died on November 21, 1987, and rated a brief notice in the LA Times.
Controversial UCLA Booster Succumbs After Long Illness
...Gilbert owned Sam Gilbert and Associates, a construction company which built more than 500 homes in the West Los Angeles and Laurel Canyon areas, as well as the Trident Building on Olympic Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Center.
Gilbert attended Hollywood High School and UCLA. He served in the OSS in World War II. He was an inventor and he had a brief career as an amateur boxer.
In the days before the Internet, things like obituaries didn't circulate as quickly as they do now. Four days after his death Gilbert was indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami on charges of money laundering.
Today Gilbert's widow, Rose, teaches English at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, where she was recently named the city's 2010 Citizen of the Year. She's 91, and has been on staff at the school since 1961. In the LA Times' 1982 series, former UCLA All-American David Greenwood said: "She (Rose) virtually taught me how to write so we wouldn't be put in those remedial writing classes. If that's a violation, then to hell with the NCAA."
Maybe the strangest aspect of the entire Gilbert saga is the interminable speculation it's spawned over whether Wooden "knew." I confess this speculation baffles me. Of course Wooden knew. He confronted Wicks and Rowe about their clothes as early as 1969. He knew, and he didn't like it. Wooden tried to do something about it, but he failed. He wasn't clueless, nor was he disingenuous, but he was, in this instance, ineffective.
His was a shared failure. With the possible exception of Gary Cunningham, every UCLA head coach from the late 1960s to the early 1980s told his players to stay away from Sam Gilbert. The LA Times' 1982 series noted that on "several occasions the late athletic director, J.D. Morgan, called Gilbert into his office, concerned that Gilbert might have overstepped NCAA boundaries." Gene Bartow told his players to stay away from Gilbert. Larry Brown tried to keep them away. Finally in August of 1981 Larry Farmer again told the players not to have any contact with Sam Gilbert. By then the NCAA had already notified UCLA that the Bruins and their most notorious fan were under investigation. Anyway Farmer saw that his players had, at last, lost interest in Gilbert. Mark Eaton was reportedly one of the last Bruins to seek out the company of "Papa Sam."
Granted if you were a rival head coach in the 1960s and '70s it would have required the soul of a saint not to have been at least a little irked at the disparity between Wooden's success and legend on the one hand and the sordid reality of Gilbert on the other. Moreover if you were being investigated by an NCAA that had ignored UCLA, as Jerry Tarkanian was being investigated, you would likely be more than irked. Indeed it's as if the sub-rosa tinge that still adheres to Gilbert's name has itself been taken as proof of vast and untold influence held by UCLA's most famous booster. From there it's only a short discursive hop to equating Wooden with John Calipari or Pete Carroll.
Gilbert's involvement with UCLA was thorough enough, goodness knows, and in this instance the booster outlasted the coach. In fact Wooden's retirement seemed to create a vacuum that Gilbert happily rushed to fill. But it requires a teachably ironic brand of tunnel vision to categorize John Wooden and today's most-asterisked coaches as one and the same. It's the NCAA that should see no difference between those two categories, not us. The NCAA's legitimacy depends upon the consistency with which it dispenses justice, and for better or worse Wooden was the head coach at a program where the players happily flung off their amateur standing.
Then again writers who spend much of their waking hours complaining about the NCAA should of all people appreciate a crucial distinction here. The greatest ratiocinative gift with which we are endowed by our creator is that we're not the NCAA. Unencumbered by crude instruments like sanctions and postseason bans, we non-NCAA types are free to state the obvious, that Wooden was Wooden and asterisks are asterisks.
When we fault coaches today for looking the other way with regard to their most talented and fully-entourage-equipped recruits, we more specifically allege that those coaches placed personal gain and expedience above principle, that they feigned ignorance of the entourage's doings in order to get the player. Wooden, by contrast, plainly viewed Gilbert as anything but an expedience and, anyway, Wooden himself had assembled the entourage to which Gilbert attached himself so doggedly. The coach saw the booster correctly as a hindrance and indeed a threat, but at the end of the day Wooden couldn't keep his players away from the man.
"Maybe I had tunnel vision," Wooden said of Gilbert in 1982. "I still don't think he's had any great impact on the basketball program." Actually Gilbert had an enormous impact. He robbed Wooden of the full measure of credit due for an extraordinary triumph that would have happened anyway.
Previously: John Wooden's Century, 1910-2010.
John's more succinct on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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