John Robert Wooden

Posted by Scott Howard-Cooper

LOS ANGELES – It will be interesting to see how the Lakers and the NBA pay tribute to John Wooden before Game 2 on Sunday evening. He wasn’t a pro basketball guy, but he was a towering figure in the history of the sport and extraordinarily popular in Southern California, so they will do something.

That’s one of the great things about Wooden. He touched people with grace, humility, devotion and kindness in a way that transcended typical boundaries, just as his personality will do the impossible and overshadow incredible professional achievement. It’s possible that at least four of his greatest players (Walt Hazzard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Marques Johnson) will be in attendance at Game 2 along with good friend Bill Sharman and former peer Tex Winter. Anyone asked will drop whatever they are doing to honor Coach.

Bill Plaschke made a great point in the Los Angeles Times coverage of the passing. Wooden may have been the greatest sportsman to walk a sideline. If anything, the comment isn’t strong enough. For success as a player followed by a dominating run as a coach, for character, for impact on others, the argument can easily be made that Wooden is the greatest sportsman on either side of the line in sports in the United States.

A few other observations as the basketball world celebrates a legend:

*The UCLA dynasty of 10 championships in 12 years is even more impressive with the perspective of time. The Bruins didn’t have to navigate the size of the tournament field that exists now and they had a huge advantage with smart, powerful athletic director J.D. Morgan working behind the scenes to ensure the best draw possible, but title after title after title in the late-60s and early-70s when racial tensions were high, campus protests were common and often violent and the world seemed to be coming apart at the hinges. Wooden had several strong-minded players who lived the conflicts, yet the team held together and mostly remained a cohesive program.

*Wooden was devilishly fun – there hasn’t been enough said about his wonderful sense of humor. This gentle man could deploy a serious needle. Many years after his retirement from the school located in a moneyed section of Los Angeles, Coach was speaking to a class on sports and society at rival USC with Joe Jares, who eloquently covered Wooden’s dominating years for Sports Illustrated. There was a siren off in the distance of the urban campus. “You hear a lot of that USC, don’t you?” Wooden said.

*He won championships every way. He won playing fast with smallball, he won with dominating centers, he won when his best player was a forward. Very different circumstances, same outcome.

*Wooden worked hard to avoid getting caught in the debate of his greatest team or greatest player. Try choosing between Walton or Kareem at center, for example. But he did make a few historically noteworthy IDs during a visit for a book I did on the 100 greatest games in program history. The top performance was not Walton making 21 of 22 shots against Memphis State in the 1973 title game or Abdul-Jabbar scoring 56 points in his varsity debut, but Gail Goodrich hitting Michigan for 42 in the ’65 championship contest. And the most- devastating loss was the double-overtime classic against David Thompson and North Carolina State in the ’74 semifinals. “Because I thought we were a better team than they were and we didn’t play like the better team.”

*I mentioned to Bill Dwyre, my boss at the L.A. Times then and a Wooden friend, that I was surprised Wooden declared his votes after years of deferring. Dwyre agreed, but had an explanation. Wooden was getting up there in the years, he knew he might not be around much longer, and he wanted some thoughts recorded for history. That was in 2001.

*Wooden never picked a favorite player. But Jamaal Wilkes, later to become the 1975 Rookie of the Year with Golden State and four-time NBA champion with the Warriors and Lakers, would be, at worst, very close to the top. Wooden once said that if athletics, academics and citizenship were all taken into account, Wilkes might have been the best of his Bruins.

One Comment

  1. stan deacon says:

    what a phenomenal man he was, we were blessed to have him around for 99 years, all of them with his wits intact