Saturday, June 5, 2010

Coach John Wooden, 1910-2010

It is one of the strange facts of life on this planet that Richard Llewellyn, creator of the John R. Wooden Award, one of a few awards given annually to the top college basketball player (and thus a hardwood equivalent of football's Heisman Trophy), died at the age of 93, just hours before Wooden himself passed away at the age of 99.

The man who summed up his life by titling his autobiography They Call Me Coach, a designation he considered sacred, last coached a basketball game 35 years ago. Think about how long ago 1975 was:

Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Willis Reed and Oscar Robertson had retired a yeaer earlier. The Golden State Warriors, led by Rick Barry, won their only NBA Championship since moving from Philadelphia in 1962. Julius Erving was still in the ABA. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were just about to enter high school. Michael Jordan was 13. Shaquille O'Neal was 3. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Yao Ming? Not yet born. The NCAA Tournament, last won by Wooden's UCLA that season, had just been expanded from 24 to 32 teams. ESPN hadn't been invented. The words "March Madness" could be applied either to baseball's spring training or a late snowstorm. And Dick Vitale was head coach at the University of Detroit (now Detroit Mercy).

A long time has passed. So many people, pretty much everyone my age and younger, know Wooden only as a heavily (and rightly) honored name, the name of a coach who led the University of California at Los Angeles to 10 National Championships in 12 seasons, from 1964 to 1975 -- including 7 in a row. That included winning streaks of 88 and 47, 2 of the 3 longest streaks in college basketball history. (The University of Connecticut women's team has a shot at surpassing 88 early next season. We'll see.)

Think about that. Ten National Championships. (UCLA also won in 1995 under Jim Harrick.) The next closest school, through its entire history, is Kentucky with 7. The next closest coaches are Adolph Rupp of Kentucky (1948 to 1958) and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke (1991 to 2010, so far) with 4.

Since such a long time has passed since he was the central figure in the game of college basketball, many people might not know what all the fuss was about. I'd like to think that those who are wondering would have pleased Coach Wooden. He wanted people to be curious.

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Woodenisms:

  • Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.
  • Young people need models, not critics.
  • Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be thankful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.
  • Don’t beat yourself. That’s the worst kind of defeat you’ll ever suffer.
  • It takes time to create excellence. If it could be done quickly, more people would do it.
  • Be quick, but don't hurry.
  • If you don't have the time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?
  • Never mistake activity for achievement.
  • If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team.
  • Passion is momentary. Love is enduring.

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Five things everyone should know about John Wooden.

5. By the standards of his day, he was a great basketball player. He was a 3-time All-American at Purdue University, helping them win what was later retroactively decided to be the 1932 National Championship. He did play professional basketball in those pre-NBA days, for the Indianapolis Kautskys -- apparently owned by a man named Kautsky, this later became the NBA team known as the Indianapolis Jets and, after taking on some 1948 Gold Medalists, the Indianapolis Olympians, before folding in 1953. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1960. In 1972, he became the first man elected to it as both a player and a coach.

4. He was a racial traiblazer. In 1947, he was the head coach at Indiana State University, the school later floor-managed to the NCAA Championship Game by Bird. That season, just days before Jackie Robinson reintegrated Major League Baseball and mere months after the reintegration of professional football, the ISU Sycamores won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title, and received an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball National Tournament in Kansas City.

But one of Wooden's players was Clarence Walker, a black man, and, knowing that he wouldn't be permitted to use Walker in segregated Kansas City, Wooden refused the invitation.

A year later, the NAIB changed their policy to allow black players. Indiana State again won their league, and this team Wooden took them to the tournament, losing the final to Louisville. A year later, Wooden was hired as head coach at UCLA, where he coached such great players as Walt Hazzard, Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks and Richard Washington.

3. Alcindor, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had so much affection for Coach Wooden that he was one of only two people he told that they could continue to call him "Lew" or "Lewis." The other was his father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr.

2. Lew/Kareem was the greatest player in the history of college basketball, and became one of the top ten players in the NBA's history. Bill Walton wasn't so lucky, though his injury-plaged pro career did include 2 NBA Championships.

But, even more so than Lew/Kareem, Walton was a complicated young man who sometimes tested Wooden's patience. In his memoir Nothing But Net, Walton described Wooden as a man with a superb eye for detail, to the point where he could see if you weren't wearing your socks properly. Walton couldn't believe that this old man (he was 60 at the time) was teaching college men how to put their socks on. Walton thought this was beneath them. John Wooden had a way of teaching young men that nothing is beneath you.

Walton very much wanted to grow his hair long, in the spirit of the Sixties' antiwar movement. Wooden put up with a certain amount of length, but no more; wouldn't let his players grow beards; wouldn't let them wear headbands (Walton would go to all these extremes as a pro, though he toned it down shortly thereafter, possibly having gotten it out of his system); and was unhappy that Walton and the other players had sent a letter to President Richard Nixon as Watergate was heating up, demanding that he resign. Wooden wasn't upset that they had exercised their freedom of speech in this way. He was upset that they had sent the letter on official UCLA stationery, because the University, as a State institution, could not take such a position.

But Wooden knew how to handle young men. When Walton reminded Wooden that he was an adult, and no man could legally stop him from growing a beard, Wooden told him, "If that's the way you feel, William, then you're right. I can't stop you. Go ahead and grow your beard. I'm going to miss you."

Translation: "I can't stop you from growing a beard, but I can stop my players from growing them. You can have a beard, or you can play basketball on my team. But you can't do both. You have the right to choose, just as I have the right to set rules for my team." Walton may have been a little crazy, but he wasn't stupid: He knew Wooden was right. He shaved the beard.

1. I never met him. I never saw him in person. I was too young to ever watch on television a game he coached. And I don't usually want Los Angeles-area teams to win their games. And yet, this man moved me to the point where I had to write a blog entry saluting him.
He didn't quite make it to the age of 100. There are a few people who deserve to do so. But he also deserved to be free of his health difficulties, and to be reunited with his wife Nell.

I once saw Coach Wooden as a guest on The Charlie Rose Show. In his 90s, his memory was still sharp enough to recite from a favorite poem, "Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray. Its last two stanzas are worth repeating here, in the Coach's memory:

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.

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