Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pearls of wisdom from the Wizard of Westwood

Like many, I was saddened to learn of John Wooden's passing yesterday at age 99. I had an opportunity to interview the legendary UCLA basketball coach ten years ago before the Bruins played Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. I found him to be gracious and kind, a real gentleman. The following is the column that resulted from our conversation. I hope it gives you some feel for the impact he had on those who played for him - an impact felt well beyond the rectangular box of the basketball court.


Not a day goes by when one of his former players doesn't call. Some, like Bill Walton, phone two, three times a week. Occasionally, the conversations are about the good, old days when the UCLA Bruins were the Yankees of college basketball. But usually the callers are more interested in John Wooden's health or in seeking his advice about life.

The calls always bring a smile to Wooden's 89-year-old face because the enduring friendships he has with the men he once taught are what's most important to him - far overshadowing the unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, the 885 coaching victories and the 88-game win streak.

One of his players recently summed up the admiration Wooden's former players have for him with this verse:
I found love once, 'Twas not pretend, He was my coach, He is my friend.

"I love to talk with them and hear from them," Wooden said by phone from his Encino, Calif. townhouse earlier this week. "I love to hear about what's going on in their lives."

They are what he misses most about coaching - his players and the practices that often were as much about being a good person as they were about being a good basketball player.

"That's where the friendships are formed and the real lessons are taught," Wooden said. "The practices during the week were the journey, and to me the journey is better than the end."

Tomorrow afternoon, the program that Wooden built will play the Orangemen for the second time ever and the first time in Syracuse. A crowd close to 30,000 is expected to show up at the Carrier Dome. Most will be there because the Orangemen are enjoying a special season with Final Four potential.

But some will come because of the UCLA mystique. Though the Bruins are struggling, there's still a link to the past, to the 1960s and '70s, when the bespectacled, professorial Wooden sat courtside at Pauley Pavilion with that rolled up program in his hands, and a twinkle in his eye; to a time when John Wooden was college basketball.

He still attends every home game he can, but he doesn't go on the road, nor does he watch much television. Wooden still loves the basketball. He just doesn't love what's being done to it, especially on the professional level.

A hoops purist, he has no use for the selfish, individualistic style of play often found in the NBA. He hates how officials have allowed the game to become so physical.
Wooden said if he wanted to watch large men tussle, "I'll go to a pro wrestling match because that's what post play in the pros has become. And if I want showmanship, I'll go see the Globetrotters."

Don't get him wrong. Wooden marvels at the athleticism of today's players.

"It's remarkable," he said. "But the athleticism has become so great, it hurts team play."

And team play was the hallmark of Wooden's teams. Part of the genius of his coaching was that he convinced some of the greatest players of all-time, players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, to sacrifice individual stats for the greater good.

"I wanted them to be team players, to always be conscious of the pass first, and defense," he said.

An All-American at Purdue during the Depression, Wooden believes the best pure basketball he ever saw was played by the old New York Wrens in the 1930s. That team included Pop Gates, who later played for Les Harrison's Rochester Seagrams, the forerunners of the NBA's Rochester Royals.

"They were one of the first all-black teams and I played against them when I was playing professionally in Indiana," Wooden said. "They had so many great players, but the thing that impressed me most was how they played together. It was the most beautiful basketball I've seen."

UCLA basketball under Wooden was a thing of beauty, too. He doesn't have a favorite team among the ones he coached, but he believes his first title team, the smallish, overachieving 1964 squad, "came the closest to maximizing its potential."

He said he hasn't seen the Orangemen play this season, but he's impressed with what he's read and heard about them. He has run into Jim Boeheim at numerous clinics and Final Fours through the years. In fact, Boeheim was an assistant on the Syracuse team that reached the NCAA semifinals in 1975 - Wooden's final season.

"I think Jim's done an excellent job," he said. "To have your team on the doorstep of the national championship several times is quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, people tend to judge you on titles, and I believe that's totally unfair."

The storied basketball programs - UCLA and Syracuse have 2,981 victories between them - didn't meet until last season, with the Bruins romping, 93-69, in front of Wooden in Pauley Pavilion. Coming off their first two losses of the season this week, and with memories of last year's whupping still fresh in their minds, the Orangemen are expected to be fired up.

Wooden said that could be good or bad.

"You want to have a little incentive," he said. "But you don't want to have too much incentive. It can hurt you. I always tried to keep my teams on an even keel. I never wanted them too high or too low."

That even-keeled approach was a rousing success by any measure. It resulted in 10 nationals championships, 885 victories, 88 consecutive wins and an air-tight bond between a coach and scores of players that grows stronger with time.

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