Walton, Russell, or Kareem?

March 12, 2000
ENCINO, Calif. - There is a museum quality to John Wooden's first-floor condo in a gated community here.

The living room, hallway and den are decked with pictures from his 10 national championship teams at UCLA, plaques, letters, books and artwork, as well as photos of his late wife, Nell, two children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

But the most intriguing treasures are pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.

They are Wooden's heroes. 

"I think those two people have much in common," Wooden said. "And what they have in common is a consideration for others. I think Abraham Lincoln - my favorite American - was considerate of all people, regardless of race or religion. And Mother Theresa, she made the statement, 'A life not lived for others is not a life.' That depicts her.

"Lincoln had the ability to say so much in so few words, such things as, 'There's nothing stronger than gentleness,' or, 'The best thing a father can do for his children is love them,' or, 'Most anybody can stand adversity, but to test a person's character, give them power.'"

Wooden is 89 years old. He needs a cane and his fragile knees make sitting down and standing up difficult. But like his heroes, the Wizard of Westwood is still a giant to many.

It's during this time of year, when teams begin the quest for a national championship, that we are reminded of Wooden's greatness, his 10 titles in 12 years and his awesome legacy.

Different rules

In Wooden's day, players didn't leave school early for the NBA draft.

"Yes," Wooden said. "But there's a lot more talent out there. Look at Duke. Look at the players they lost last year. They're still top five. The good schools are going to be able to attract outstanding talent."

But it is unlikely anyone will be able to put together the combination of talent and experience the Bruins had during Wooden's 1964-to-1975 run. And it may be a while before anyone can coach two four-year centers like Lewis Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton.

The 7-1 Alcindor, who went to Power Memorial High School and is still the best high school prospect to come out of New York City, led the Bruins to three national championships from '67 to '69.Walton led the Bruins to titles in '72 and '73 and an NCAA-record 88 consecutive victories.

"Walton was different than Lewis," Wooden said. "I think Lewis' size had more to do with his ability. Both centers had quickness and each one was intelligent.

"I've said, when healthy, if you took all the centers who have played and picked out 10 fundamentals and graded each fundamental on a 1-to-10 basis, when you added them up, I thinkBill Walton healthy would rate No. 1 of any center I've seen. I think he would grade higher than (Wilt) Chamberlain or (Bill) Russell.

"And yet, Alcindor was more valuable. Lewis forced opponents to change their game at each end of the court more than Bill did."

Life with Lewis

After all these years, Wooden said he still feels he has to correct some misconceptions about the recruitment of Alcindor.

"I never recruited Alcindor," he said. "After we won our first national championship in 1964, I was speaking at a coaching clinic in Valley Forge, Pa., that spring. Lewis' coach, Jack Donohue, called me and said he and his star young man had watched our game on television and Lewis had said, 'UCLA is one of the five schools I want to visit next year.' He told me he wanted to come to Valley Forge to talk with me about him. I never corresponded with him before then.

"He asked me not to contact him. I told him, 'I never initiate contact with out-of-state prospects. I want them to have an interest in us.'

"So next year, he arranged for Lewis to make an official visit. I only asked one thing - if we could be the last of the five schools.

"His senior year, we repeated, so that solidified his interest. That April, when he visited, I told him, 'You're going to play the first game in Pauley Pavilion, the nicest place on the coast.' ... I don't think we ever would have gotten him without that.

"When he left, he said, 'I'm coming. You can count on it.'

"Funny things happened in relationship to that. Some time after, I got a call from Lewis, and he told me coach Donohue had just gotten the Holy Cross job and asked him to visit.

"He asked me if I thought he should. I said, 'Of course you should.'

"But I worried about that because, you know, if he had asked to be released and go with his coach, I'd have understood that.

But did he ever visit Alcindor in New York?

"I visited with his mother and father at their request. They had gone to coach Donohue and said, 'We've met a lot of coaches but we haven't met the coach for whom he's going to play.' So, I went to New York.

"A lot of people say I had Jackie Robinson meet him. He never met Jackie Robinson until he was out here. And they asked me about Dr. Ralph Bunche, who was the head of the United Nations. I never talked to Dr. Bunche about talking to Lewis. He did that on his own. I would never call the Secretary of the United Nations to have him recruit Lewis for us."

Alcindor, who averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds at UCLA, played during a turbulent time for African-Americans.

"I think I learned more about man's inhumanity to man from Lewis - his name is Kareem, but I still call him Lewis - than any other player I've ever had," Wooden said. "People made terrible remarks in his presence. I'm not sure, in his position, I would have taken it the way he did."

The next seven-footer

Like Alcindor, Walton was cerebral but strayed from the mainstream, partially because it's hard to fit in with the gang when you're a seven-footer.

"Bill Walton was always very bright," Wooden said. "He was just the opposite of Lewis. He was very outgoing. Not quite as outgoing as you might think because of his speech impediment. Now, when he got into broadcasting, he worked to overcome that.

"He was in that anti-establishment phase at UCLA. He was active with groups, taking over the administration building at one time, getting petitions to impeach Nixon. I told him I don't care what your politics are, what your religion is. I just hope you have one. Don't be close-minded about it. But if you believe in something, stand up for it. I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican, Catholic or Protestant; be open-minded."  Bruin bests

Wooden said he has always tried to be open-minded, and in a strange way, that is also why he is still takes more pride in his '64, '70 and '75 championship teams than the other seven.

In '64, UCLA won with a small team that started 6-1 Gail Goodrich, 6-3 Walt Hazzard, 6-3 JackHirsch, 6-5 Fred Slaughter and 6-5 Keith Erickson. Using their quickness, the Bruins went 30-0, winning by an average of 19.4 points.

"At the beginning of the season they were not rated anywhere at all," Wooden said, "and they won with the shortest team that has ever won it. No one over 6-5. They played a very exciting brand of basketball. They brought the zone press into the public eye."

In '70, with Alcindor on to the NBA, Wooden won with what he calls "the team without."

"That team wanted to win so much because they wanted to prove they could win without Alcindor,"Wooden said. "We had more close games that year than we had the previous three seasons. But they would come through."

And then there is Wooden's retirement gift, the '75 championship - a 92-85 victory over Kentucky.

"If you go back to the beginning of the year, we were not rated to be that high because we had lost four starters from the preceeding year. Two of them were superstars - Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. ... Now, did we have talent? You're darned right we had talent. But they were not experienced."

Forwards Richard Washington and David Meyers carried the Bruins over the hump against Kentucky, just 48 hours after Wooden said the championship would be his last game.

"I can't give you the reasons," he said. "I just felt it was time. I had no intention of leaving until just a few minutes before. I thought I would teach for two more years. I don't regret it.

"Do I miss certain things? Oh yes. Do I miss games? No, I don't miss the games. I miss practices. I never thought I was any strategist in games. I'm trying to be honest. But I honestly think my strength was practice and preparation and getting teams to work together."

The Wooden way

When Wooden was building his dynasty, he said he looked for two qualities in recruits.

"From a physical point of view, I looked for quickness - and quickness under control," he said. "If your quickness is under control, that means they've got it up here mentally. Where I would give up some size for quickness, I think most people would give up quickness to get more size.

"The second thing I looked for was unselfishness. Can they work into a team? Over the years, I think we had pretty good chemistry.

"Today, I believe the players have become so tremendous from an athletic standpoint, but I honestly feel as the players have become better athletically, that has hurt team play. They have become so good individually, there's a tendency on the part of coaches to let them go."

Wooden became interested in coaching when he played for Piggie Lambert at Purdue from 1930 to 1932. Wooden was an All-American during his three years and won a national championship in 1932.

"I started accumulating a notebook after my sophomore year in college," he said. "Prior to that, I thought I was going to be a civil engineer. That's the reason I came to Purdue. But I would have had to go civil camp every summer and I couldn't do that. My parents had no financial means to help and I had to work in the summers.

"So I knew, then, I was going to teach, and, in all probability, I was going to coach. When I first came to UCLA, I taught. All coaches did."

Wooden coached UCLA for 27 years, finishing with a 620-147 record. In all, he coached 40 years and was 885-203.

"What surprised me most was our first two titles," Wooden said of UCLA. "At that time, we had no home court. We practiced in an old gym, with gymnastics around the side and wrestling at the end. There was no privacy. There was no private dressing rooms. We didn't play there. We packed up and went someplace else to play our home games."

Making sense of madness

In Wooden's time, the tournament has gone from 26 to 64 teams and expanded from campus sites to the huge domes.

"The tournament is too commercial," he said. "Maybe that's the way things should be. Maybe I'm a small-town country boy and maybe that's the reason I look at it that way.

"I think tickets to the 1975 Final Four in San Diego were $15, $17. Now they're $120. ... I go back to my college coach, who said intercollegiate athletics should be played on a college campus. They were for the students. For that reason, he wouldn't play at Madison Square Garden."

If Wooden had his way, he said he would open the tournament to all Division I teams.

"One of my reasons for this is the enormous amount of income they're getting from it now. I did a survey in 1988 - the year Kansas won. I think Kansas and the other semifinalist got about a million and a quarter. ... I say let them all in. Now, what would that take? One more week. Start it a week early.

"Would there be problems doing it that way? The main problems would be seeding. But they've got problems now. They pick 64. Do they pick the best 64? Oh goodness. It's very subjective."

Can't bear it

Wooden said he's aware of the pressure with the UCLA coaching job and that he's indirectly responsible for it. The school has gone through six coaches since he retired, and each has had to answer to the Wooden legacy.

"I hurt the feelings of Steve Lavin, our present coach and a friend," Wooden said. "I was asked what I thought about him signing a new contract where he was going to make $600,000 to $700,000 a year when I said the most I ever made was $32,500. And I said, 'I'm happy about it. I have nothing against it.'

"Then they asked if ... he is overpaid? I said 'Many of the coaches are overpaid. In my time, when I coached, no coach should ever make more than the president of the university.' I'm not sure they should ever make more than the head of a department.

"Well, this hurt his feelings, that I was saying he was overpaid. I have to be very careful."

As for former players, Wooden said he has always kept track and in touch with them.

"The thing I'm most proud of is almost all my players graduated and almost all of them have done well in whatever professions they entered," he said. "Over 30 lettermen have become attorneys. There are eight ministers, 10 or 11 doctors and dentists, and some actors who have done reasonably well.

And his players have not forgotten him. When Wooden turned 80, UCLA held a reunion of his players. Swen Nater, who was teaching at Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, couldn't make it but sent along an audio tape in which he sang, "Wind Beneath My Wings" to Wooden. Last Christmas, another ex-player wrote him a poem because he knew Wooden loved poetry.

"I'd like to be remembered as a coach who was truly interested in the future of his athletes,"Wooden said. "I like the philosophy of Amos Alonzo Stagg. After one of his more successful years from a win-loss point of view, a reporter asked him, 'Is this your greatest year?'

"He said, 'I won't know for 20 years.'

"Most people don't believe that. But to me, it's like reputation and character. Your reputation is what you're perceived to be and your character is what you are."

By both definitions, Wooden is a champion.

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