The basketball perspective? It’s a hot streak. A lot of guys have ridden the comet like this. Mostly All-Stars or even Hall of Famers, but we’re still talking seven games, five of which have been against opponents that today have losing records. This is not about basketball. Jeremy Lin has transcended sports.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Lin is humble and genuine and entered the league with the Warriors last season just wanting to be one of the guys, even if it was an unrealistric goal even then. He was a local product, an Asian-American in the Bay Area and the focus of such an immediate buzz, no matter how many wrongly try to portray February 2012 as some moment of discovery, that Golden State had to call a press conference to introduce an undrafted rookie who would need to improve just to crack the rotation. You don’t have to root for the Knicks to root for Lin.
Welcome to a world where a guy with a Harvard economics degree is considered an underdog.
Lin could retire tomorrow and have made more of a mark in a couple weeks — in New York, in NBA history — than most do in years. Talk about perspective.
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.
LOS ANGELES – As expected, the passing of famed UCLA coach and basketball icon John Wooden has produced a wide range of emotions amongst the natives here in Southern California.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant is no different, having spent all of his adult life in this town being reminded of Wooden and his legacy by so many inside and outside of the Lakers organization.
Bryant spoke briefly about Wooden and their unique relationship after the Lakers wrapped up practice Saturday at their facility in El Segundo.
“Well, I mean, to say he was a great coach I think doesn’t do it any justice,” Bryant said. “I think his legacy speaks for itself. The personal experience that I’ve had with him was the first time ‑‑ I saw him once at a UCLA basketball game when I was really young and we spoke briefly, and then we spoke at length at Chick Hearn‘s funeral. We spoke for about 25, 30 minutes.
“I think if you talk to any of his players, players that played for him, I think the thing that’s consistent is that he made them better people, you know. I think that would be a true mark of his legacy. The winning and all that stuff, that’s stuff that we all know about.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has a framed picture of Wooden on his desk back in Boston. It’s his own tribute to a coaching legend that he holds in the highest regard.
“He was the best coach ever, him and Red Auerbach are the two guys that we talk about, the gods, and there are two of them,” Rivers said. “So the fact that I got to meet him and he actually knew my name, to me blew me away on its own right. I don’t ask for a lot of autographs, and he was one that I wanted, and he was as gracious as we thought he would be. You know, to have those two on your desk, I don’t think you need to further your collection. You know, those are the two best.
“Tough, sad loss, really, for all of us. But with Wooden, I think he’s one of the rare superstars that stood out more about him as a person than he did as a coach or anything. And that’s rare, when you say that about any star in any business.”
Bryant and Rivers weren’t the only ones asked about and prepared to speak about Wooden. Lakers coach Phil Jackson also shared his thoughts:
You know, I guess of the 150,000 people that are reciting John’s legendary fame, I just stand in awe of the guy. I think as a young basketball player growing up and watching the ’62 Bruins, the ’63 Bruins, the era that I came out of high school and watching this team, this pesky team of 6’5″ guys, Keith Erickson and Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich roll out a great record and play the incredible defense that they played with the speed that they played at, I think that that was my first awareness of John Wooden.”
“You know, obviously one of his Final Four games was against my colleague, Tex Winter. They had great a rivalry going. Tex always tells the story that his team was ahead by four points going into the last stretch of the ballgame, and there was a blizzard out in Kansas. The game’s in Kansas City which was close to Manhattan, Kansas, where he was coaching at Kansas State, and then the UCLA girls showed up and the cheerleaders led his team on, the Bruins, on to victory. He said, I think the referees got enamored with the Bruins cheerleaders, all those beautiful California girls.”
So that’s a 40‑year ago, 50‑year ago vision in a man who was eventually ‑‑ went on to win nine more championships in a number of years. He did it then with unbelievable talent, talent started coming in his direction with obviously Lew Alcindor ‑ Kareem Abdul‑Jabbar ‑ and a myriad of other players that came in there. But that first initial group won has always kind of a special place as to his activity, how he prepared his teams, their defensive mindset, and the things that he really believed in basketball as a coach.
You can expect the testimonials and reflections to continue to flow about Wooden, one of the greatest teachers, coaches and men to grace us all with his presence.