Farm boy who put college basketball on map
By Jurek Martin, Financial Times
Published: June 19 2010 02:26 | Last updated: June 19 2010 02:26
John Wooden, 99 when he died in Los Angeles, was, indisputably, the greatest college basketball coach ever. Indeed his record is fit to be compared with any coach in any sport worldwide; if soccer had been his game, his team would be the one to beat in the current World Cup.
As much as anyone, he helped transform collegiate basketball into the US national obsession of early spring, known as March Madness. Office pools bet on it; presidents must make their preferences known. If Japan stops for high school baseball, so does America when the men in baggy shorts get at it.
Wooden was christened the Wizard of Westwood, where the University of California at Los Angeles plays, but his magic had its roots in small-town Indiana. Indeed, for all the glamour associated with Hollywood, and for all the national social turbulence of his glory years, 1964-75, he remained, in essence, a modest, religious Midwestern farm boy.
He would sit at courtside, besuited, short hair parted almost in the middle, tapping a rolled up programme on his chin. He never cursed his own players for underperforming. His worst public profanity was “goodness gracious sakes alive”, though he could be rougher on referees who made bad calls. Jim Murray, the great Los Angeles Times sports journalist, once wrote of him, “John Wooden’s so square he is divisible by four”.
Wooden knew more about the game than anyone else, and had an extraordinary gift for imparting his knowledge. He won with small teams – his first championship side had nobody taller than 6ft 5in. He won with big ones, exemplified by his towering centres, 7ft 2in Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the most prolific scorer in the professional game, and 6ft 11in Bill Walton, the hippie red-head. All of them, black, white, radical or not, hung on his every homily: many, including his two great stars, trooped to his hospital bed to say a final farewell.
His records at UCLA are unapproachable – 10 national championships in 12 years (no other coach can boast more than four in a lifetime), four undefeated seasons (the next best is one) and 88 consecutive games won (the previous record was 60, the highest since is 45).
John Robert Wooden was born in 1910, on a farm near Martinsville, Indiana, the state where basketball is a religion. He was a star on his high-school team and married a classmate, Nell Riley, a cornet player in the band, and his wife for 53 years. He was also an excellent student, with a particular love for poetry instilled by his father.
He combined both at Purdue University, also in Indiana. At 5ft 10in, he was the playmaking guard on its national championship team in 1932, named player of the year. He then taught English and coached sports around Midwestern high schools and colleges, interrupted by military service during 1943-46.
In 1948, the University of Minnesota wanted him as basketball coach but a storm knocked out his phone line for a critical few hours and it was UCLA that made him the first firm offer – $6,000 a year to coach in a dilapidated gym shared with the gymnastic and wrestling teams. He plied his trade diligently, but west coast glamour in the 1950s rested with the University of San Francisco. With its dominating centre, Bill Russell, it brought off the 60-game winning streak and lifted two national titles.
That all changed with his first national triumph in 1964, an upset win achieved with a defensive scheme, the zone press, that befuddled Duke University, the heavy favourite. As Bill Nack wrote in an elegy for the ESPN sports cable network, Wooden sent out on court “a swarming monster with five heads and 10 squeaky feet”. His subsequent successes helped put college basketball on the American map just as televised sports were truly coming of age. UCLA became like the New York Yankees of baseball, the exemplar of excellence, loved and hated in equal measure. Whenever they were on the small screen, millions watched.
The game was not played in a social vacuum, certainly not in the 1960s and 1970s. It became, increasingly, a black inner-city sport, more flamboyant and spectacular, less structured and tactical. Wooden recruited high-school talent from all over but his coaching approach never changed; he taught discipline, fitness, speed and teamwork and discouraged individual highlights. When Walton, truculent and very spectacular, turned up for practice wearing his red hair long, he was ordered to get it cut or play elsewhere (he got on his bike to a barber’s forthwith). He would not allow his players to take part in anti-Vietnam War protests if it meant missing practice. If it didn’t, yet they thought the cause just, that was fine.
He bonded with them in subtle ways. He introduced Lew Alcindor to the works of the black poet Langston Hughes and encouraged his subsequent conversion to Islam. In his autobiography, Abdul-Jabbar, almost as square as his coach, remembers first meeting the man who recruited him from far away New York in Wooden’s closet-sized office. “He surely did look like he belonged in a one-room schoolhouse. He was calm, in no hurry to impress me with his knowledge or his power. He called me Lewis and that decision endeared him to me even more.” Yet Walton always suspected that behind the surface calm lurked “a caged tiger”.
He was known for his aphorisms, often banal but never challenged because they brought success. The most quintessential reads, “Talent is God-given: be humble. Fame is man-given: be grateful. Conceit is self-given: be careful.” John Wooden, who had left monthly love letters to his wife on her pillow since her death in 1985, is survived by a son and daughter.
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