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June 7, 2010
John Wooden's Century
1910-2010

by John Gasaway

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If UCLA is your team and you were following college basketball in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you are the most fortunate fan in the history of major American team sports.

Between November 1966 and March 1973, John Wooden's teams went 205-5, posting a .976 winning percentage. The 1972 team, to pick an example fairly at random, went 30-0, averaging 95 points a game and allowing 64. Wooden won seven consecutive national championships. To equal this achievement today, Mike Krzyzewski will need to successfully defend his championship every year through 2016.

1.
Wooden won his last game as head coach on March 31, 1975, when UCLA defeated Kentucky 92-85 in the national championship game at the San Diego Sports Arena.

You might think someone who'd already won nine national championships would regard his tenth as simply more of the same, but actually it was an important moment for the coach. The year before, the Bruins had lost to David Thompson and North Carolina State in double-overtime in the national semifinals. And while Wooden's teams would be remembered for their almost outlandish degree of dominance, this 1975 edition--with no Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton in sight--had been anything but dominant in the tournament, needing overtime to beat Michigan in the first round, winning by just three points against Montana in the second round, and again going into overtime against Louisville in the Final Four.

Yet here were the Bruins, once again cutting down the nets. Wooden later recounted what happened next:

One of our most visible boosters suddenly appeared beside me on the floor as we awaited the awards ceremony. He grabbed my hand, shaking it warmly, and yelled in my ear over the roar of the crowd: "It was a great victory, John." Then he added, "After you let us down last year."

It's a story often told about Wooden, of course, but popular anecdotes earn that distinction for a reason. This one paints a picture of today's impossibly demanding fan already appearing on the scene 35 years ago, unsatisfied even with a coach who delivered an incomprehensible ten national titles in the span of just 12 seasons.

In this telling Wooden got out of the game just in time, before the arrival of huge sums of TV money, before the outsized shoe contracts (Wooden simply polled his players each year on which brand they preferred), before AAU coaches became gatekeepers to top recruits, and before college coaches were being strong-armed into paying $295 for "programs" with recruits' phone numbers. Apres Wooden, le deluge.

There is indeed one seismic difference between Wooden's era and ours. That difference is of course the deluge of money that has washed through the sport over the last couple decades, to wit: CBS and Turner Broadcasting will pay the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to broadcast the men's tournament over the next 14 years. Meanwhile Wooden, it is often pointed out, never made more than $35,000 in salary as head coach at UCLA.

But we do the past a disservice if we view it simply as a simpler time. The past always appears simpler. We weren't there as adults.

Wooden's contemporaries, on the other hand, thought they were living through a time of unprecedented turmoil and dissension. The notion that the late 1960s and early 1970s would someday be looked upon as some sort of quaint and serene idyll would have filled them with amazement. In this sense it's worth noting that, just ten days after Wooden's last game in 1975, former UCLA great Bill Walton made headlines in a wholly non-basketball context:

Scotts Refuse Hearst Questions
Jack Scott and his wife Micki emerged from hiding Wednesday and said they would not cooperate in the search for fugitive heiress Patricia Hearst.

They refused to answer questions on the whereabouts of Miss Hearst and bitterly denounced the FBI and the U.S. government.

"We have done nothing wrong. We are not fugitives," Mrs. Scott told a news conference at Glide Memorial Church, a liberal Methodist church here. Her husband and basketball star Bill Walton were also present.

Wooden operated in an era much different than ours. But we'd do well to remember that his era had its own challenges.

2.
So for me a true appreciation of John Wooden requires that I first rescue the poor man from mere nostalgia.

So, sometimes, when the Madness of March gets to be too much--too many players trying to make SportsCenter, too few players trying to make assists, too many coaches trying to be homeys, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men--I like to go see Coach Wooden. I visit him in his little condo in Encino, 20 minutes northwest of L.A., and hear him say things like "Gracious sakes alive!" and tell stories about teaching "Lewis" the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Wanton, indiscriminate, undifferentiated, unleavened nostalgia.

You know, we live in an age of sand-castle loyalty. Of dissolvable love. Of best friends forever, at least until next week's episode. When I'm sure that nothing lasts anymore, and nothing means anything anymore, and nobody stays true anymore, there's one place I can always go to prove myself wrong. Coach Wooden's house. The Wizard of Westwood turned 99 in October, and inside his little condo in Encino, California, love holds steady, loyalty stays true, and a shrinking little man in a wheelchair stands taller than ever.

I'm not saying the man didn't live a long time. A brief look at Wooden's near-contemporaries attests to just how many eras he did see come and go. The coach was older than Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Evita Peron, Wernher Von Braun, Jonas Salk, Francis Crick, Daniel Boorstin, Arthur Schlesinger, C. Wright Mills, Camus, Dylan Thomas, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, Mary McCarthy, Walter Cronkite, Pauline Kael, Jackson Pollock, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holliday, Jean Harlow, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, Montgomery Clift, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, Veronica Lake, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Sid Gillman, Sammy Baugh, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Byron Nelson, and Sam Snead.

When Wooden was born Harriet Tubman, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Rasputin, Tolstoy, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Henry Adams, Henry James, Booker T. Washington, Joseph Pulitzer, Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, and J.P. Morgan were all still alive.

I'm just not as eager as some to volunteer my own era as so very debased. More to the point I think Wooden commands our attention for what he did and the way he did it. The timing was beyond his control.

On occasion, of course, Wooden most certainly did sound like he was from a different era entirely. I don't want to understate the innate fastidiousness of a man who could write a sentence like: "Many building custodians across the country would tell you that UCLA left the shower and dressing room the cleanest of any team." Nor should we gloss over the Calvinist impulses of a coach who, in the closing seconds of the 1968 national championship game, could tell his players: "I don't want any jumping around, no dancing on the floor or acting like fools. No excessive jubilation, no spectacle."

But he was a curious amalgam, this dour Hoosier who fretted yearly about teaching new players the proper way to wear socks, yet also coached an up-tempo brand of ball that granted his players unusually wide leeway for improvisation. Not to mention it would be a mistake to paint Wooden as merely a reactionary in black high-tops. In fact such a caricature misses one of his defining virtues: his willingness to change what he was doing and his readiness to applaud change in his sport. From his perch as a retired observer he praised the introduction of the shot clock and even found the three-point line invigorating (though he thought the initial 19-foot-nine-inch line was too close, a conclusion the NCAA itself would reach 21 years after the fact).

Last year John Feinstein said this about Wooden:

I'm like anyone else who has been around college hoops: I've heard the stories about Sam Gilbert, who supposedly made sure all the UCLA players were well taken care of during the dynasty days. You know what, I don't care. Elite athletes get taken care of at most schools and, unless it's absolutely blatant, people look the other way. All I know about Wooden is that he won ten national titles in 12 years--to me the most astonishing run in sports history given that he was winning a single-elimination tournament--and is one of a handful of coaches who I KNOW touched his players' lives in ways that went well beyond basketball.

In my dealings with Coach Wooden he was always smart, honest, candid and clearly had great respect and love for the game and for those who played and coached it. He certainly could have traded on his fame to make a LOT more money than he ever did and he opted not to do that. The respect people in the game had (and have) for him went well beyond wins and championships.

I've told this story a number of times in the past but I think it bears repeating. In 1984 I was hanging around late one night in the lobby of the coaches hotel at the Final Four in Seattle. I had seen Coach Wooden in the lobby a little earlier with his wife Nell. She was in a wheelchair, terminally ill and had come to the Final Four, essentially, to say goodbye to old friends. Everyone in basketball knew how sick she was.

Late in the evening, the Woodens said good night to the group they had been talking to and Coach Wooden started pushing his wife's wheelchair across the lobby in the direction of the elevators. I have no idea who started it--but someone began to clap. People looked up from what they were doing and the applause began to build. By the time the Woodens had reached the elevator, everyone in the packed lobby was standing and clapping.

3.
Yes, the coach's words could be recondite. His widely reproduced "pyramid of success" can be seen as little more than a shopping list of self-evidently admirable traits. It is good, surely, to be industrious, friendly, loyal, cooperative, enthusiastic, self-possessed, alert, self-starting, intent, in shape, skilled, team-oriented, poised, confident, and competitive. Understood. Now what?

Now I note that the value of Wooden's pyramid lies not in its content but rather in its backstory. We know that one man really was incredibly industrious, friendly, loyal, cooperative, etc., for decades. Besides, Wooden's admirers sell him short. I've seen literally dozens of aphorisms attributed to Wooden, but not once have I seen this bon mot of his reprinted: "Basketball is not a complicated game, but we coaches complicate it." No one, present company most certainly included, has ever summed up my first assumption toward the game better than Wooden did in those 11 words.

Wooden would be the first to acknowledge that he was a fortunate man. Fortunate to have been coached at Purdue by an innovator like Ward "Piggy" Lambert, who as early as the 1930s was experimenting with an up-tempo "pressing defense with zone principles." Fortunate to have found himself coaching in southern California at the dawn of the 1960s, when the talent produced by area high schools suddenly swelled into a great flood of blue-chippers. It's what he did with those pieces of good fortune that still amazes.

And our amazement, of course, can never be satisfactorily explained by reference to minutiae like X's and O's. If Wooden were another coach, even another Hall of Fame coach, we might talk about the diamond-and-one that UCLA sprang on Houston and Elvin Hayes in the 1968 Final Four, the coach's switch to a low-post offense to accommodate Lew Alcindor, or his shift to a 2-2-1 zone press in 1960 after watching his teams go a mere 46-31 over the previous three seasons. Behind each shrewd tactical move, however, loomed a larger and more foundational quality.

That quality was modesty. I don't mean just personal modesty, though of course Wooden was surely personally modest. (For example he always gave full and unstinting credit for the diamond-and-one to assistant coach Jerry Norman.) I mean modest in the most un-coach-like way possible, the knowledge that none of this really matters: "I always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live."

I've said this before but it bears repeating now:

There's no play in sports that combines athletic skill, tactical intelligence, and an exemplary moral valence the way an assist does in basketball. (An assist even elicits a different sound from a crowd. It's not an explosive cheer like a dunk. It's a note of surprised delight--an "ooohhh"--that says something more adulatory and enduring than: Wow, you jump high!) Baseball fans glimpse rare displays of cross-player teamwork in the turning of a double-play and football fans wax ecstatic when a wide receiver (!) blocks downfield for the good of his teammate. But while it may be a rarity in other sports, this kind of selflessness in motion is the very warp and woof of hoops. At its best, basketball is a symphony of altruists--and no one has ever spoken to this quality better than the conductor emeritus himself, John Wooden.

No other major team sport gives its players so many opportunities to be selfish, but selfishness is death to basketball teams. Perhaps it's no mistake that the most successful basketball coach of all time presented such an unalloyed and unflagging example of selflessness to his players. John Wooden was a modest man who reached the most immodest heights.

Tomorrow: Meet Sam Gilbert, Again.

John's less wordy on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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