Commentary

Wooden was Yankees fan, Torre man

Legendary UCLA hoops coach, who died Friday, admired the Bombers' former manager

Updated: June 5, 2010, 2:22 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

John Wooden loved a winner, especially a winner who won the right way. So when the rest of America was hoping a procession of Joe Hardys would beat those damn Yankees, Wooden was rooting for the Yanks to keep parading under a ticker-tape rain.

Start with the fact baseball was Wooden's favorite sport. He was a hell of a shortstop at Purdue, at least until a fastball crashed against his throwing shoulder and reduced his strong right arm to a puddle of goo.

Wooden turned to basketball, but no, he never did turn away from baseball.

In fact, many of our phone conversations over the years had far more to do with the dynastic New York Yankees than the dynastic UCLA Bruins. Wooden saw similarities in the two programs, his and Joe Torre's. That made him the biggest Yankees fan Encino, Calif., has ever known.

Wooden grew up in Indiana and built his coaching legend in Westwood. Outside of his fondness for Madison Square Garden, he didn't share any special bond with New York. Wooden didn't even show up at Power Memorial to recruit the son of a city cop, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden and Kareem Abdul Jabar
AP PhotoJohn Wooden won three NCAA titles with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who arrived at UCLA from New York's Power Memorial Academy.

"I didn't recruit him because I didn't recruit out-of-state players unless they contacted me," Wooden once told me. "But after Lewis signed, he wanted me to come to New York. His father worked until midnight, so I remember having dinner with the family at 1 in the morning."

Wooden brought Alcindor to the Garden to play in the 1968 Holiday Festival with St. John's, and Lou Carnesecca recalled Friday that the joint was jumping. During handshakes after UCLA's 74-56 victory, Wooden thanked Carnesecca for playing the Bruins straight up, for refusing to bleed the clock like so many overmatched foes had.

"In the first half, one of our centers took a hook shot and [Alcindor] knocked it out onto Eighth Avenue," Carnesecca said. "John Wooden's teams played solid defense and offense, they were well prepared, and there were no tricks out there. He gave the game stature and credibility and class."

Wooden left college basketball with 10 national championships and four 30-0 seasons. He settled into a second life as a fan, as a wise man, as a sentinel overseeing a sports landscape that desperately needed his moral compass all the way up to the time of his death Friday at the age of 99.

I started calling him in March of 1995, before the Bruins won their first national title since Wooden's last, in 1975. Over time, we'd talk about the pressure UCLA coaches felt in Wooden's wake, the trend of kids leaving school early for the NBA and, of course, his deep appreciation for Torre, Derek Jeter and all pinstriped things.

Wooden always came across as a fiercely proud man, and one who wasn't afraid to criticize those he felt deserved it. He even took a little jab at Jeter.

Here are some snapshots of those conversations, filling out the portrait of an American icon.

MARCH 20, 1995

On the burdens of coaching in the post-Wooden era at UCLA: "If you let the past, the alumni or the media affect you in any way, you're a weak person. The only pressure that should amount to a hill of beans is the pressure you put on yourself.

"All the succeeding coaches should've been delighted to inherit a program at the top. Let them experience my first 17 years at UCLA when we practiced on the third floor of an old gymnasium with no private dressing rooms, with gymnastics practice on the side, wrestling practice on the end, trampolines on the other side.

"Today's coaches have it tough? I don't buy that at all. They have more assistants, more of everything. Do today's coaches go to a restaurant near the hotel to get a pregame meal a little cheaper than the hotel offers?

"Coaches have problems today, but are they more difficult than those during the anti-establishment period, the Vietnam War, the student body's use of marijuana? ... You have to adjust to the problems of your era, but be consistent."

OCT. 27, 2000

On whether Joe Torre should retire after beating the New York Mets in the World Series for his fourth title in five years: "People are telling Joe to go out on top. But you can go out on top without your last team winning a championship.

"I saw some of myself in Joe. I was more like him than I was like [Bobby] Valentine, and that's not a criticism of Bobby. Vince Lombardi did it a different way, too. But I have a great admiration for Joe Torre. He doesn't do it for individual glory. He stays calm and in the background.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre
AP Photo/Kathy Willens"I have a great admiration for Joe Torre," John Wooden said. "He doesn't do it for individual glory. He stays calm and in the background."

"He's handled that job so well. He's really defused [George] Steinbrenner in a way other managers haven't."

NOV. 2, 2001

On the Yankees' dramatic World Series victories over the Diamondbacks in the Bronx: "I know people around the country are saying, 'I hope [the Yankees] get beat,' because they want someone else to finally win. I think it's better to have a very professional group be an example to everyone and encourage other teams to try to catch them.

"[Winning without showmanship] is why I like them and I'm not a big fan of professional basketball. I'm very critical of showmanship. Sometimes I'll see a guy make a tackle in football with his team way behind on the scoreboard and he'll act like he just won the Super Bowl. The Yankees never behave that way. They never panic, either, and that's why they always have a chance to make these comebacks.

"That comes right from Torre's demeanor. There's a certain serenity about him, and I feel that's where there are similarities. When my players got behind, they were never in a hurry to catch up."

On whether Derek Jeter reminded him of one of his point guards: "Jeter's like Mike Warren. Same demeanor, and as smart a player as I've ever seen. A lot of players might have the ability to make that shovel pass to [Jorge] Posada, but a lot of them wouldn't be thinking ahead enough to do it."

On the shortstop's lunar landing to punctuate his Mr. November homer: "I was a little surprised Jeter did it. Joe DiMaggio would've just rounded the bases and touched the plate."

APRIL 5, 2004

On high school stars jumping straight to the NBA: "Skipping college is a vast mistake for the vast majority. You can't blame LeBron James for going directly to the pros; he's an exception. But so many other kids are missing out on the most enjoyable time of their lives, time to be with others of their own age and interests. ... Those are years you never get back."

OCT. 15, 2007

On his successor at UCLA, Gene Bartow, who lasted two seasons before leaving for the University of Alabama-Birmingham: "I really liked Gene, but he let one fella on the radio get to him. It got to the point if Gene wasn't going to be hearing the show, he'd have someone tape it for him. It was ridiculous."

On Steinbrenner's threat to fire Torre: "It's hard to understand why they would replace Joe. We all know Steinbrenner is about one thing: winning the World Series. But to think about removing Joe Torre? Goodness sakes.

"It's just unbelievable that [Steinbrenner] would think about not renewing his contract. ... I'd ask Steinbrenner, 'Who do you think you can get to do a better job than Joe's done?' I'd ask him, Who knows your personnel better than Joe?'

"With the comeback his team made this year, I think Joe did a better job than he did when they won the World Series. They've made some bad decisions on some of the pitchers they got, [Jason] Giambi hasn't come through, and [Hideki] Matsui struggled at times, but Joe held everything together with his demeanor.

"I think [Joe] McCarthy's one of the greatest managers in history, and I'd put Joe Torre right there with him."

• • •

John Wooden would never put himself with McCarthy, Torre, Lombardi or anyone else. In fact, he never defined himself with wins and losses. He wasn't a coaching titan as much as he was a loving husband and father.

In my March 20, 1995 conversation with Wooden, I reminded him that the following day would mark the anniversary of his first championship in 1964. I asked him if he would be thinking of that breakthrough victory over Duke.

"On March 21, 10 years ago," Wooden said, "I lost my dear wife, Nellie. On the same date many years before, our first child was born.

"This is what I'll be thinking about tomorrow."

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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