Commentary

Wooden's wizardry was for the ages

In the wake of John Wooden's passing, William Nack remembers the magic and the might of the Wizard of Westwood, the greatest coach in the history of sports.

Updated: June 5, 2010, 12:23 AM ET
By William Nack | ESPN.com

Editor's note: John Wooden died on June 4, 2010, at the age of 99 in Los Angeles, Calif.

No one had the vaguest notion of the magical era that was about to begin, not even a hint that it had already begun. Not the players, not the writers and certainly not the coach himself. All John Wooden wanted to do, in his 16th season as the head basketball coach at UCLA, was win his first NCAA title.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoAfter his 10th and final NCAA championship -- this one over Kentucky on March 31, 1975 -- Wooden wore the spoils of victory.

Yet, on this evening of March 21, 1964, in the old and creaky Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., the dawn of the age of John Wooden -- a 12-year stretch that ran without precedent and ended without parallel in the long annals of college sports -- was just breaking.

Undefeated UCLA had just knocked off the local heroes, Kansas State, 90-84 in the Final Four. The Bruins might have been 29-0 as they charged toward the championship game against Duke, but no one really gave them much of a chance, not against the large and vaunted Blue Devils. No UCLA starter was taller than 6-foot-5. Duke had one truly All-American guard (Jeff Mullins) and two players who were 6-10, and excelled at both ends of the court.

Duke was heavily favored. But Dick Wade of The Kansas City Star wrote what many pundits were thinking, hedging his bet: "If you are silly enough to apply logic to basketball, there's no way for UCLA to beat Duke. The Blue Devils simply have too much -- height, rebounding, shooting ability and defense. But UCLA isn't a logical team. It beats the law of averages with the intangible and the unbelievable."

The Bruins also had Wooden, a 53-year-old Indiana transplant who, after years of trying in vain to win a basketball title, was just beginning to emerge as the man who would be christened the "Wizard of Westwood," a Basketball Hall of Fame coach.

Wooden already was remembered as the finest college basketball player of his era, a Hall of Fame guard from Purdue whose devotion to practicing the game's fundamentals and whose appetite for the rigors of physical conditioning fell somewhere between the merely zealous and the outright fanatical.

He brought that very same fanaticism with him to California. He sought creative high school kids who loved to run, kids with gamblers' instincts who were extremely quick and not afraid to take risks, kids who could run and shoot and jump out of the gym.

In 1964, he had just such a bunch of young men, wide-eyed lilliputians whom he had molded in his own image and likeness, from the ball-hawking Walt Hazzard to the cobra-quick gunner Gail Goodrich. Wooden also had been smart and flexible enough that year to take the urgent suggestion of his fiery assistant, Jerry Norman, and use a full-court zone press to panic opponents and drive rival coaches insane.

What Wooden ended up with was a swarming monster with five heads and 10 squeaky feet. They attacked relentlessly. Hands up, they swarmed like gnats and stole inbounds passes. They dived for loose balls. They hit the boards and fast-broke off the outlet pass. They ran and pressed and intercepted cross-court passes. They hunted and chased and harassed. They scored baskets in bunches.

They already had shown their stuff by dismembering then-No. 3 Michigan in December, and one rival coach, Illinois' Harry Combes, had sat in the stands that night and watched the performance in awe: "UCLA was absolutely the very best basketball team I've ever seen. They were flawless the full 40 minutes."

In their balanced study of Wooden, "The Wizard of Westwood," authors Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh described this orchestrated chaos as a perfect melding of talent and tactics. On the subject of Wooden's full-court press, according to Chapin and Prugh, rival California coach Pete Newell said, "It's like a hammer just waiting to fall on your head. … You worry about it all week -- and what you're going to do against it."

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoWooden won with big men such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton, but he won without a dominating center, too.

Duke had no answer for it. Indeed, on national television, with Duke leading 30-27 and less than eight minutes before halftime, Wooden let the hammer fall, calling for the 2-2-1 zone press. It was like he had hit a switch. The Bruins became a full-court blur. Under constant pressure, trapped here and smothered there, the Blue Devils simply fell apart. In a panic, they repeatedly threw the ball away. Goodrich and Kenny Washington tossed in jumpers from the outside.

Two and a half minutes into the press, UCLA had scored 16 unanswered points and led 43-30. The game, in the wake of that burst, was all but over. Duke never recovered, and UCLA gave Wooden his first national title, the wrapping on a 30-0 season.

Wooden, typically, warned his charges after the game: "Don't let this change you. You are champions and must act like champions."

Let history note that this was the night the Wizard was born.

Beginning that year, the start of a magical 12-season run through history, Wooden's deftly assembled Bruins became the most formidable power in college sports. He suited up some of the finest athletes ever to play the game, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton, and they took him where no coach had ever been before or has ever been since. In that dozen years, he won 10 national titles (including seven in a row), ran up a record of 335 victories against just 22 losses and finished a record four seasons undefeated at 30-0. No college coach has ever so dominated a major sport.

Today, he is widely perceived as the greatest coach in the history of sports, whether amateur or professional. Even now, all these many years after he coached his final basketball game in 1975, his records at UCLA remain so unassailable, his legend and name so transcendent as a teacher and coach, that he lives quite without peer in our collective memory.

Unlike the Boston Celtics' Red Auerbach, whose teams won 11 NBA titles in 13 years, Wooden worked through the usual four-year revolving door at UCLA, winning with vastly different players at different stages of his run -- sometimes with a dominating center, sometimes without -- always exploiting his strengths while camouflaging his weaknesses.

In today's era of preening, millionaire coaches, of all those Gucci suits strutting up and down the lines, screaming at the officials, shouting profanities at their players, one relishes the abiding image of Wooden folded neatly into his courtside seat -- his gray hair parted nearly down the middle, his rolled-up program in his hand, his blue eyes sparkling as he beholds yet another barn-burner before him.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoWooden and his wife, Nell, exchanged OK signs before every game.

The man always looked as if he had just stepped from a 19th-century daguerreotype, a dapper transplant from a bygone time; and in a way, he had. Born Oct. 14, 1910, on a farm demarcated by the string bean and corn rows surrounding Martinsville, Ind., Wooden grew up alternately toiling the fields with three brothers and playing pick-up basketball games out back, throwing elbows and pitching a ball of rags into a tomato basket in an old barn. He came of age moving to the halftime rhythms of a world built around the bucolic verities of family, loyalty and hard work.

Wooden grew up to be the best high school basketball player in Indiana. He led Martinsville to the state championship in 1927 and was the idol of every boy in the state when he took the Boilermakers to the national championship in 1932. For years after he graduated from Purdue, Wooden coached basketball -- both high school and college -- around the Midwest, and it looked as if he were going to stay there forever, until, on a fateful day in 1948, a terrible storm blew down the telephone lines connecting Minnesota and his home in Indiana, where he was coaching at a teachers college.

He was waiting by his phone for the break of a lifetime -- the anticipated offer to coach the Gophers in what was then the basketball hotbed of the Big Ten -- but, alas, the University of Minnesota Athletic Department dithered just an hour too long. When Gophers officials finally made the call to offer him the job, they could not make a connection. Meanwhile, UCLA's coach recruiters also were after him, and their call got through. They made their pitch to the 37-year-old coach, and John Robert Wooden did not hesitate.

So, the fates of two basketball programs -- indeed, the very history of the sport in college -- turned literally over a downed wire somewhere in Minnesota.

Wooden never looked back. It took him 16 years, but ultimately, he turned UCLA into the winningest college basketball program in history. Along with his high school sweetheart, Nell Riley, by then his wife, and a trunk-load of very conservative suits and ties, Wooden fetched with him to Southern California a set of old-fashioned values, Midwest variety, which frowned upon the use of profanity and alcohol in the course of one's daily life and, in basketball, exalted physical conditioning, fundamentals and teamwork.

Always the teacher, he at times sounded almost professorial when expounding on his principles; he told Chapin and Prugh: "A thorough proficiency in the fundamentals enables each player to adjust quickly and counteract whatever the opposing player might throw at him. That way, we can execute something without thinking too long about how we're going to do it. … My feeling is that if we execute soundly -- exactly the way we're supposed to -- they'll have a rough time stopping us. We're an easy team to scout, but we're not easy to stop."

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoAfter the 1972-73 season, Wooden was named the AP's coach of the year for the fifth time.

In fact, said the head of a leading scouting service in the early 1970s, very few teams asked for scouting reports on the Wooden-coached Bruins.

"One reason is that everything they do is so predictable," the scout said.

Wooden's Indiana upbringing might have been simplicity itself, but he was a perplexing figure whose real nature was a source of endless commentary and debate. The late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray articulated the most widely held view of the man in the single most famous line ever written about him: "John Wooden's so square he's divisible by four."

The closest he ever came to profanity was his oft-heard exclamation, "Goodness gracious sakes alive!" Before every game, as part of his routine, he turned to where Nell was sitting behind the bench and winked at her. During games, he sat and tapped on the floor or tugged nervously on his socks, his program rolled in his hands.

Even when his team was down, he usually was the very picture of calm, exuding a confidence his players could feel. In the undefeated season of 1964, center Fred Slaughter recalled, he glanced more than once at the unruffled man on the bench as the wheels appeared to come off and the team fell behind: "I remember a couple of times looking over at him, with his legs crossed and program rolled up, and I'd think, 'Hey, if he's not worried, I'm not worried.'"

Yet, players also spoke of the inferno that burned at the core of the man, an inner fire and ferocity that his aura of tranquility and calm seemed to camouflage.

Rival coaches suspected a dichotomy.

"There is no way he can be as he seems," Texas coach Abe Lemons said in "The Wizard of Westwood." "… sitting on the bench with a rolled-up program, gently tapping it on his other hand or chin, legs crossed, as if he was watching a ballet."

Bill Walton has talked about the darker hues of Wooden's nature.

"There is the perception of John Wooden that he is this saint-like creature and so calm," Walton told ESPN's "SportsCentury." "But there is also the side of coach Wooden that he is this caged tiger."

Players felt the fury in numerous huddles. In 1971, down eleven points to Long Beach State in the Western Regional in Salt Lake City, with a vein bulging on his head as he pounded the program in his hands, Wooden was heard yelling: "You're nothing but a bunch of All-American women-chasers and hopheads!"

Of course, the players chased and hopped right back into the game, beat Long Beach State and won the NCAA championship again, UCLA's fifth in a row, keeping alive what turned out to be the longest winning streak in college basketball history: 88 consecutive victories that embraced two 30-0 seasons, both featuring "Wild Bill" Walton as he crashed the boards, tipped in rebounds and launched the fast break.

Just as remarkable as the records themselves is the fact that Wooden compiled them in the late 1960s and early '70s, a time of widespread social ferment marked by student protests and the open challenging of authority figures, coaches included.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoThe L.A. Times' Jim Murray wrote that Wooden was 'so square he's divisble by four.' But he found ways to relate to his players.

It often was a struggle -- Walton might have been the world's tallest hippie -- but somehow, Wooden successfully tiptoed the line between the demanding, autocratic coach and benign father figure. In "The Wizard of Westwood," Chapin and Prugh quoted Kareem Abdul Jabbar as saying of Wooden: "He had to change at a time when things were changing very fast. He has adjusted to the times, and, to me, that's the mark of a real thoroughbred."

Wooden used to memorize and recite poetry, but he once said he had no use for the modern poets. Yet Wooden, no fool, went out of his way to learn the verses of at least one modern poet, Langston Hughes, who was black.

"John Wooden … used to recite Hughes' poetry by heart, which helped foster a bond between us," Jabbar wrote in "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance," a book about his life in basketball.

When Wooden graduated from grade school, his father, Joshua, gave him seven rules to live by. Among them: "Make each day your masterpiece."

John Wooden did that for many years, crafting one small masterpiece after another. In fact, he came to express so rare a genius as a coach and teacher that he stood quite alone above his peers. Upon his retirement, he left a raft of unbreakable records, those two niches in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the memories of teams that played basketball as it was meant to be played: with a formless beauty as close to improvised dance as one will ever see on a court.

In the end, he left a pillow covered with monthly love letters written to his late wife, who died in 1985, and walls covered with framed copies of his famous "Pyramid of Success" as well as various favored sayings. One said, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." Another, uttered in a huddle in the midst of a desperate game, was, "Be quick, but don't hurry."

Here's a final one to remember him by:

"Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be grateful. Conceit is self-given; be careful."

William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a wide variety of sports and on a wide range of subjects. He is the author of three books: "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."

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