Wooden: The Man Who Won Ten Titles

Wooden: The Man Who Won Ten Titles

John Wooden, readers learn in Seth Davis’s Wooden: A Coach’s Life, was a simple man overflowing with complex contrasts and contradictions. His teams embodied these divergences. One of the fascinating paradoxes that most displayed the intimidating dominance of Wooden’s UCLA Bruins of the 1960s came in a blowout loss.

UCLA opened the 1965-66 basketball season as the #1 team in America, defending back-to-back NCAA champions, and dwellers in a new 13,800-seat Pauley Pavilion that replaced a small, sweaty barn that doubled as a basketball arena until a fire marshal said otherwise. In their inaugural game at the state-of-the-art stadium, the Bruins matched up against their freshmen brethren, who featured a seven-foot-two East Coast import named Lew Alcindor. The New Yorker scored 31 points and grabbed 22 rebounds en route to a 75-60 shellacking of the varsity squad by a freshman team that had kindly pulled its starters with five minutes left. The frightening message? The best college basketball team in the country isn’t as good as next year’s team.

For those unaware or uninvited to Kareem’s Pauly Pavilion coming out party, his debut as a varsity player the following season jarred like the San Andreas fault line. “Time after time, Alcindor’s teammates fed him the ball down low, and he calmly dropped the ball in the basket,” Davis writes of the big man’s first varsity basketball game. “With a packed house of 13,800 looking on, Alcindor shot 23 of 32 from the floor and 10 for 14 from the foul line, for a total of 56 points. In the very first outing, he had shattered the school’s single-game scoring record of 42 set by Gail Goodrich in the 1965 NCAA championship game.” The statement game against crosstown rival USC repeated to everyone what the internecine freshman-varsity scrimmage had announced the previous year: UCLA would help themselves to the 1967, 1968, and 1969 NCAA titles. Who’s playing for second?

John Wooden, architect of ten such tournament victories over thirteen seasons, so personified coaching excellence that fans forget that the gentleman behind the glasses played before he taught. Wooden learned how to respond to failure from his father, who, when the purchase of diseased pigs led to a farm foreclosure, didn’t blame the hog seller or the bankers for his misfortune. Excuses, the patriarch passed on to his son, oppress their owners more than the misfortunes they superficially liberated one from. He gleaned in eighth grade, according to Davis, that “the bench was all the motivation a coach ever needed” after defiance resulted not in a tongue-lashing but in a pine-riding. When a hot-headed Wooden quit his high school squad, his coach’s forbearance in allowing his return taught him a lesson in tolerance. Wooden, limited in physical gifts, excelled in the areas he controlled. He ran on fresh fourth-quarter legs, played as a Picasso of dribbling, once hit 136 consecutive foul shots in a proto-NBA, and sacrificed his body for every loose ball. The India Rubber Man remains one of just three players enshrined in Springfield as a coach as well.

Wooden learned the game through his Purdue coach who learned it via a Presbyterian minister who learned it from James Naismith, the man tasked with creating an indoor winter sport to promote the muscular Christianity of the YMCA. Wooden: A Coach’s Life offers that “basketball may have been conceived in Massachusetts, but it was born in Indiana.” Hoosier Wooden’s cardiovascular basketball challenged the plodding game bequeathed by Naismith. When rulemakers did away with the jump ball after each basket in 1936, the game’s creator decried a corruption; the coach of South Bend Central High celebrated an improvement. The innovator would be soon seen as the atavist.    

The greatest coach in college basketball history railed against Walt Hazzard’s no-look passes, avoided long-distance recruiting visits, preferred salt tablets to water for parched players, and largely refrained, perhaps in subconscious deference to ancient collegiate prohibitions, from coaching during games. “To Wooden, the games were just final exams, the coach a proctor,” Davis explains. “Practice was where the real work got done.” A man whose very physiognomy screamed anachronism nevertheless ushered college basketball into its modern age.  

The Wizard of Westwood didn’t like all the magic he unwittingly conjured up. “With each passing year, the NCAA tournament was becoming a bigger deal, and Wooden’s Bruins were the main reason,” Davis writes. “The interest from television had become so high that for the first time, the final weekend games were moved to a Thursday-Saturday schedule because the TV folks believed that not enough people would watch on a Friday night. Wooden, however, still would not allow his players to talk to the press.” He decried expanding the tournament field from twenty-four teams and the edict demanding that coaches open locker rooms of kids to journalists in search of a story. Worse still, television had made coaches characters on a popular seasonal reality-television show.

Over a 99-year life, Wooden excelled through a combination of adherence to principle and flexibility in tactics. The arrival of Alcindor, later reborn as a Muslim as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, illustrates this confusing side of Wooden. A devotee of team basketball, Wooden quickly evolved his approach upon encountering Kareem. Team basketball now meant the team putting the ball in Alcindor’s hands rather sharing it across the floor. For a man who started each day with a five-mile walk, loved one woman for his entire life, and ate breakfast at the same greasy spoon just about every morning, altering routine proved difficult.

The stars changed throughout Wooden’s run of ten championships. The familiar powder-keg-blue-and-gold uniforms, and the gentleman on the bench, remained the same. Wooden thrived during a coaches’ golden age, when smoke-filled rooms seriously deliberated Vince Lombardi as vice presidential timber and Red Auerbach conducted a one-man civil-rights movement on the hardwood. So, in that context, the Pittsburgh Pirates once offering John Wooden the manager’s job doesn’t seem so strange. But like so much else from the 1960s, unless you lived through it John Wooden in a baseball cap doesn’t make any sense. 

That zeitgeist of experimentation against tried and tested approaches, largely bucked by Mr. Middle America in LA, permeated a student rebellion that occurred the same day as the Kent State massacre. UCLA fanatics can debate whether the climax of their run came courtesy of Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton or Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. But the catalyst for the dramatic peak of Wooden: A Coach’s Life came from a no-name teammate of Kareem’s.

Bill Seibert, allowed like all other graduating seniors to deliver a farewell speech at a team banquet in 1970, characterized Wooden as a hypocrite who bent the rules for better players like Kareem and ignored the existence of reserves like the speaker. “Seibert spoke for just under ten minutes, but it seemed a lot longer,” Davis relays of the awkward emperor-has-no-clothes moment. “When he was through, there was a smattering of boos from the audience, but the other UCLA players, including the freshmen, rose in unison and gave him a standing ovation. This was an even bigger rebuff to Wooden than the one Seibert had just dealt–and Wooden took notice. It was one thing for a lone, little-used reserve to voice his bitterness about not playing. But for all of the players to give him a standing ovation gave Seibert’s remarks credibility.”

Given Wooden’s cultivation of a persona antithetical to the winning-isn’t-everything-but-the-only-thing approach, the speech essentially called him a fraud, a label surely unearned by a coach who never earned more than a $32,500 salary. The postseason banquet tradition died that day if not the Wooden mystique of a well-mannered paragon of sportsmanship and champion of the scholar-athlete. 

St. John harshly rode referees and opposing players. He played in a professional game while competing in college. He looked the other way as a local mobster feted UCLA players with cash, clothes, and other comforts. He jealously guarded credit, even in instances when it didn’t rightly belong to him. John Wooden’s greatest sin against his many worshippers was that he wasn’t a saint. He just played one in massive TV studio live from Los Angeles.

Seth Davis’s humanizing book convinces that John Wooden was merely a man. The college basketball record book, and the roster of great basketball players and great people who learned from him, counters that he was a remarkable one.