Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Wizard of Westwood and the Search for a Multi-Dimensional John Wooden

The basketball world has been mourning one of its true giants of the 20th century, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, who passed away a week ago in Los Angeles.

Since Wooden retired in 1975 following his remarkable run of 10 national championships in 12 years, I feel as though the image of the man has become simplistic. Wooden has inevitably been portrayed as the wise, puritanical grandfather of the sports world - there to dispense pithy guidelines for life as well as sport, in the form of aphorism, pyramid, or book upon book.

I am interested in a fuller portrait of the man - a more multi-dimensional view of Wooden as a human being - and I've been pleased to find several thorough and enlightening takes amidst the flood of the coverage in the wake of the coach's death.

But, for the fullest picture, over the last week I read the 1973 book The Wizard of Westwood: Coach John Wooden and His UCLA Bruins (by Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, who covered the UCLA program in the Wooden era for the Los Angeles Times), which is still considered to be the most definitive biographical take on Wooden (indeed, one recent Wooden remembrance which will go unnamed seemed to be a paraphrasing of a section of this 37-year-old book).

The use of "The Wizard of Westwood" as a Wooden nickname actually stems from this book. It is a moniker which Wooden never liked, probably in part because of the controversy stirred up by the book.

Yes, there are plenty of quotes and vignettes in The Wizard of Westwood which could be considered unflattering to Wooden and the UCLA program, but if I had to compare it to another book, I'd say it's fairly similar to The Jordan Rules (by Sam Smith).

First and foremost in both books, it was welcome to see the protagonists portrayed as human beings, with human strengths and weaknesses, rather than as deities to be worshiped. Wooden and Jordan were ultimately portrayed in a quite positive light in the big picture of these respective books, despite the flaws revealed in the details along the way. An admiration for Wooden clearly shines through in a full reading of The Wizard of Westwood.

Make no mistake, in Chapin and Prugh's portrayal, Wooden the man is filled with every bit as much decency and rectitude as the common image suggests. There is no argument against the idea that Wooden was a good man and a great coach. It's in Wooden's relations with his players and the UCLA basketball program as a whole that things become more complex, and the authors do a fine job of exploring questions from all angles.

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After a intro section, The Wizard of Westwood is broken into three main sections:
1. A recounting of Wooden's early years in Indiana, including his time as a superstar player of his day, as well as his days as a young coach at a couple high schools and Indiana State.
2. An extensive and engaging season-by-season narrative of Wooden's UCLA years from 1948-49 all the way up to 1972-73.
3. Portraits of four men who were key influences on Wooden's UCLA years in disparate ways, followed by reflections of a cross-section of three former Wooden players from UCLA.

A couple things stood out to me in general. One was that I was surprised at how much pressure Wooden was continually under to keep winning even in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American sports history. There is a famous story which postdates the book, in which a fan congratulates Wooden after his final championship in 1975 by saying, "Great win coach, this makes up for letting us down last year". Note that UCLA had lost to N.C. State in double OT in the 1974 national semis after a run of seven straight national championships. The burden of high expectations year after year clearly comes through in the book.

Second, a recurring question about Wooden throughout the late-60s and 70s was whether he had trouble relating to his players, especially as his old-fashioned morals increasingly diverged with the social upheaval of that era.

It's a bit startling in the initial pages of the book to read about a couple times when the 1971 season seemed to be slipping away, with Wooden scolding his team in moralistic terms in time-out huddles, saying things like "You're nothing but a bunch of All-American woman chasers and hopheads!" and "It's not your fault but you've given in to a permissive society. You've lost the conference race and a chance at a national championship."

After that intro section, The Wizard of Westwood settles into the engaging sections of biography on Wooden and his UCLA teams, and then the book really picks up in intrigue once it hits the section on the four key men of his UCLA era. They were:

- Pete Newell: Best known in recent years for his summer "Big Man Camps" frequented by all kinds of prominent players, Newell was Wooden's "bitter nemesis" while coaching at Cal in the '50s. Before Wooden established his dynasty, Newell's Cal Bears beat UCLA 8 straight times in the late '50s. Wooden is quoted in the book saying, "I believe [Newell] helped me become a better coach."

- Jerry Norman: Norman was a figure I had not previously heard of, an assistant coach who was hugely influential in the development of the UCLA dynasty for two key reasons. One was recruiting, something that Wooden hated. When Norman arrived in 1957, the UCLA recruiting budget was $150. Norman overhauled the recruiting efforts in a major way, and was the lead recruiter for UCLA's championship teams of the '60s before leaving to become a stockbroker in 1968.

Two was convincing Wooden to institute a full-court 2-2-1 zone press which was instrumental in UCLA's first national championship in 1964, when the Bruins didn't start a player over 6-5. Prior to this, Wooden, with his fast-breaking teams, was known primarily as an offensive specialist.

- J.D. Morgan: Morgan was the hard-driving athletic director who came on board in 1963 and vastly increased the athletics budget. Morgan was able to increase staffing, taking administrative duties off of Wooden's plate while adding full-time assistants to help with recruiting and scouting, allowing Wooden to focus on coaching. Pauley Pavilion was also completed under Morgan's watch. When opened in 1965, Pauley was a true state-of-the-art arena.

- Sam Gilbert: Controversial figure Gilbert was first introduced to the world in depth by The Wizard of Westwood in 1973. I already knew about Gilbert's role in lavishing the UCLA players of this era with gifts and money, which has been well-documented. But until reading this book, I hadn't known that Gilbert was possibly even more influential as a mentor and confidant. One quote says, "A source close to the team said, 'Most players are much closer to Gilbert than Wooden.'" The opening vignette on Gilbert describes his offices and how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) could be found there writing papers on some Sunday nights.

Willie Naulls was Wooden's first All-American at UCLA, in the mid-50s, and he was instrumental in steering players to Gilbert. Naulls is quoted in the book saying,
    "[Sam]'s very close to them. He's stabilized a lot of them. When they really have problems, most of them have either come to me and I've sent them to Sam, or they've gone directly to Sam.
    ...
    When a boy leaves home for the first time, his coach becomes a father figure, a guy you should be able to go to with your problems and your questions. With Wooden, you don't feel you can do this."
In his autobiography Giant Steps, Kareem called Gilbert "a very valuable and influential friend to me.... We talked for hours about the things that really mattered: racism, socialism, the human condition, sex."

What's also noted repeatedly in the book is that Gilbert was particularly involved in mentoring UCLA's black players. Wooden himself is quoted in the book as saying, "I think he means very well, and for the most part, he has attached himself to the minority-race players. I really don't want to get involved in saying much about that, to be honest with you."

Wooden's ability to relate to black players was an issue which had already been aired publicly. A Sports Illustrated story from November, 1970 delved into the topic. Mike Warren, starting guard in the Alcindor years, was quoted as saying:
    "His relationships with blacks have no meaning. The coaching staff was seriously interested only in us playing, studying and keeping out of trouble. Our individual progress in terms of maturing as black men was of no concern. It's all superficial, the same kind of dialogue every day."

    At the end of his sophomore year, Warren was called in by Wooden and confronted about his dating a white girl. Wooden told Warren he had received threatening phone calls and that Warren was doing the wrong thing.

    "I would discourage anybody from interracial dating," says Wooden today. "I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society, too. It's asking for trouble. But I've never told a player who he could or couldn't date."

    "He didn't stop me," smiles Warren. "But, man, how about telling me my life is in danger? How's that for a hint?"
It's important to note that Wooden's perceived inability to relate to black players was a product of rapidly changing times rather than racism. As ex-player Freddie Goss said in the book, "It's an age thing mainly, not a racial thing."

Indeed, Wooden's on-court record on racial issues was progressive all the way through his coaching career. At Indiana State in 1948, he pulled his team out of a postseason tournament in Kansas City because his lone black player would not have been allowed to play. As The Wizard of Westwood says:
    "Wooden, despite the talk about lack of relating, has escaped most of the racial problems that have plagued many other coaches throughout the nation. He has had black players at South Bend Central [H.S., in the '30s], at Indiana State, and almost from the start at UCLA - at a time, in fact, when practically no Pacific Coast Conference teams played blacks."
As Curtis Rowe, a star on the early '70s championship teams said, "Coach Wooden sees basketball players. He doesn't see color."

In The Breaks of the Game, widely considered to be the best basketball book ever written, David Halberstam devoted a handful of pages to Wooden, and described this particular issue like so:
    "To some of these modern young men, black children of the California ghettos in the rising consciousness of the fifties and sixties, Wooden occasionally seemed to be a bit of an old lady, a little conservative. Indeed, some of the blacks resented him just a little, thinking him reluctant to deal with them as whole men. It was Martinsville, Indiana, of the twenties talking to Watts of the seventies."
Perhaps Fred Slaughter, a black ex-player who was center of UCLA's first national championship team in 1964, summed up the full picture best in The Wizard of Westwood:
    "There is no perfect place for a black athlete, but if a black kid wants to get his game together for the pros, this is the best place to come. Coach Wooden is a product of his experience and background and he relates to the blacks as well as his background lets him. That's better than most.

    I don't believe he has ever been openly prejudiced or discriminatory; he just doesn't understand the black man in terms of social values, needs, and moods. I believe he matured quite a bit in this area, though, during Kareem Jabbar's years here."
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Ah yes, Kareem, known as Lew Alcindor while at UCLA, was a unique case all onto himself. The book says that "he was never close but had a cordial relationship" with Wooden while at UCLA. After speaking with the press minimally at UCLA, Alcindor wrote an extraordinary three-part autobiographical series which appeared in Sports Illustrated as he entered the NBA in late 1969. Notably, one of the stories was entitled "UCLA Was A Mistake". Here are links to all three stories, which are truly fascinating snapshots of the black athlete in the late '60s and highly recommended:

- Part I: My Story
- Part II: UCLA Was A Mistake
- Part III: A Year of Turmoil and Decision

First of all, it's worth noting that the "UCLA Was A Mistake" story has a subhead of "The basketball was fine, says Lew, but campus conditions almost impelled him to quit school." He notes in the story, and was quoted elsewhere saying, that he would have gone to Michigan if he could do it over again, and considered transferring there at one point.

Second, his views on Wooden were complex, and fairly consistent with the conclusions of The Wizard of Westwood: Great basketball coach, good man, but sometimes had trouble relating to players. As he wrote in the third installment:
    [T]his fine man, this superb coach, this honest and decent individual, had a terrible blind spot. He had this morality thing going; you had to be "morally" right to play. From that attitude came a serious inability on his part to get along with "problem" players. If they didn't go to church every Sunday and study for three hours a night and arrive 15 minutes early to practice and nod agreement with every inspiring word the coach said, they were not morally fit to play—and they found themselves on the second team.... Whenever Coach Wooden had to deal with somebody a little different from the norm, he blew the case.

    Because Coach Wooden had this thing about players being "morally" ready for play, he sometimes harmed good people. The perfect kind of player for a coach like John Wooden was Lynn Shackleford. Shack was the All-American boy. He studied hard. He belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He took instruction and advice and criticism beautifully. So he started almost every game.

    On the other hand, [Edgar Lacey] was very much his own man. He did his own thing, and he did not alter his personality to suit whatever coach he was playing for. Sometimes he hit the books and sometimes he didn't. He would never become anybody's "boy," in the sense that Shack became Coach Wooden's "boy." So he found himself fighting for a starting position, while Shack got his automatically. And who was Lace fighting? Mike Lynn, somebody else who did not fit Coach Wooden's Midwestern idea of morality. Mike had to alternate at starting forward with Lace. And so help me, if I'm any judge of ballplayers at all, both Lace and Mike were better than Lynn Shackleford, despite the fact that Shack was one of the fine college players."
Alcindor does go on from there to relate a story about a player named Bill Sweek, who did not fit Wooden's morality mold, and challenged the coach about his double standards in 1969. Alcindor relayed that "Now, if you want to know how big a man John Wooden is, I want you to consider this: he is 59 years old, not an age at which people find it easy to change, and his whole view of life goes back to rustic Indiana, 1935, and Sunday school and motherhood and Fourth of July parades. But John Wooden learned something from Bill Sweek.... [H]e made us understand that he had listened and he had found out something. He made it clear that he was going to try to understand better the Bill Sweeks of this world."

One main thing that's interesting to me about The Wizard of Westwood is the irony of Wooden, in his later years, being considered a sage in terms of advice for living a good life, though his players did not seem to have any off-court relationship with him while at UCLA.

Yet, what's equally interesting is that his players have seemed to appreciate Wooden's philosophical lessons more and more as their lives have gone on. Athletic director J.D. Morgan was quoted in the book saying "I don't know if he relates to his players as well as some other coaches, but his teams have performed magnificently for him over the years. And the older they get, the more appreciative they are and the more they praise him." Indeed, I've read numerous quotes from ex-players over the last week to this effect.

Kareem is a perfect study in this regard. In his 1983 book Giant Steps, he went a bit further in his praise for Wooden. In his 1989 book Kareem, he went much further, saying this:
    "My relationship with him has been one of the most significant of my life.... Over the years, as I have moved further and further away from our time together, I have gotten a better view of the largeness of this man and his impact on me, the way one can see the full outlines of a mountain from a greater distance. It is a rare experience to meet a person who affirms the positive values you were introduced to in childhood.... You wonder if such values work and then you encounter an individual like John Wooden and see the success he's had as a person, not just in terms of wins and losses, but as a man trying to live his life with some balance and honor, and then you know it's possible. He was the real thing. His example in my life continues to be bright and shining."
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All things considered, I found The Wizard of Westwood to be a fascinating and full exploration of John Wooden, timed when he was at his height of his powers after a seventh straight national championship in 1973. I highly recommend it if you can track down a copy. I'm surprised that it has been out of print for so long - seems like it's well overdue for a reprint.

Considering the most tumultuous player-coach relationships of Wooden's career - with The Walton Gang in 1973-74 - occurred after the publishing of The Wizard of Westwood, perhaps it's time for an updated book on the UCLA dynasty altogether, maybe a sweeping David Maraniss history focusing on the three disparate, singular men at the heart of the dynasty: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and, of course, John Wooden.

6 Comments:

At 1:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you read The Jordan Rules? Jordan does not come off looking good at all. He is portrayed as being petty, mean-spirited, egotistical, callous and pretty immoral. The only positive is that he was obviously a transcendent b-ball player, which everyone already knew.

 
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At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. This book was way ahead of the curve and deserves to be read today.

 
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