If death had granted him a moment's reprieve to convey the sentiment,
Coaching colleagues and former players had pleaded with him to re-engage with the game, to no avail, until 1989, when a number of them prepared to stage what the 12-steppers call an intervention. Of course it seemed outrageous for anyone to dispense advice to John Wooden. That spring I nonetheless joined in, writing
I might as well have taken that issue of
Fourteen years had passed between then and a blindingly bright San Fernando Valley morning in September 2003. Wooden was 93 now. I had fetched him at his Encino condominium and drove him to Vip's, his usual breakfast place, for our first extended talk since my exercise in presumptuousness. This time I came with a different mission, albeit not a fully disclosed one. The fig leaf was the impending 40th anniversary of UCLA's 1964 NCAA championship, Wooden's first, which the Bruins won, astonishingly, without a starter taller than 6-foot-5, and without losing a game all season. In fact, my assignment was as much to fill the notebook for an obituary that could be put on ice.
We didn't talk explicitly about my earlier scold job. He had long since come out of his wallow; so dedicated a lifelong learner hardly needed help with his homework. ("It's what you learn after you know it all that counts," read a sign on his office wall.) To be sure, the condo remained a shrine to Nell's life, taste and spirit. He pointed out a wedding anniversary gift from their children, a black-and-white shot of Johnny, then 16, beaming at the camera, with 15-year-old Nell, "the only girl I ever went with," looking up at him in adoration. Every month on the 21st, the day of Nell's death, he would write her a letter and add it to a stack secured by a yellow ribbon. But in time he had struck precisely the kind of balance he once preached, honoring Nell and their life together, yet also speaking, teaching, weighing in on the controversies afflicting the game and turning up for the occasional Final Four. Nell had died almost precisely when his first great-granddaughter,
One day during Wooden's blue period, when she was three, Cori had tugged at her great-grandfather and pointed at the sky. "See that airplane, Papa? I'm going to take that airplane and fly all the way to heaven and get Mama and bring her back, so Papa won't be lonely anymore." At 11 Cori had asked her great-grandfather to agree to live another five years, so he might chauffeur her to the DMV for her driver's test. Now, he told me with unconcealable pride, she was a college freshman.
It always discomfited Wooden to compare teams, much less players. On that fall morning he could count more great-grandchildren, 11, than NCAA titles. Each shone like a trophy in his eyes. "I love all my great-grandchildren," he said as we made our way from Vip's to the parking lot. "But there is something special about the first."
When UCLA hired John Wooden as its basketball coach in 1948, the school's all-time record stood at 291-291. Yet the Bruins had enjoyed only three winning seasons in the 21 years before his arrival, so their accomplishments that first season, beating Cal for the league title despite having lost three starters and being picked to finish last, delighted the campus. Over the next 14 seasons that satisfaction broadened: The Bruins won eight division or conference championships and racked up winning records every time out. Still, Wooden was 55, 16 years into his tenure at UCLA, before a team of his won an NCAA crown. The first three times his Bruins qualified for the NCAA tournament they didn't get out of the first round. Today, the message boards and talk show hosts would have taken him down a decade before he could have bagged his first.
Wooden believes that "six or seven" of those early teams might have won national championships -- "not should have," he wrote in his autobiography,
Yet just as Wooden the widower would eventually learn to embrace life again through his great-grandchildren, Wooden the coach steadily became more and more open to change. For all his apparent inflexibility -- it's called the Pyramid, not the Tarpaper Shack, of Success, after all -- he came to question his methods. He sat in on a psychology class on campus. From studying Newell he learned the virtues of patience and simplicity. He concluded that he didn't want yes-men as assistants, and sometimes even courted conflict with players because he believed a worthwhile lesson might emerge from the clash. He asked other coaches to scout his team and share their judgments. And he would spend each offseason poring over the meticulous records he kept of his practices, wondering what he might do differently.
In the spring of 1960, after a 14-12 season that would turn out to be his worst at UCLA, Wooden reassessed everything. He concluded that his teams tended to fade late in the season, and wondered if he worked them too hard. Moreover, when circumstances forced him to substitute, he sensed that the reserves didn't mesh well with the starters. A single tweak to his practice plan -- he began rotating reserves into the first five more often during scrimmages -- solved both problems. Two years later the Bruins reached the national semifinals, where they suffered a two-point loss to the eventual champions, Cincinnati, after a last-minute charging call so controversial that more than 300 letters of sympathy poured into the Bruins' basketball office.
Preposterous as it may now sound, winning
The great lesson from the Cincinnati game, Wooden told me, was simply this: "I learned we could play with the best."
The next season UCLA suffered seven defeats by a total of 21 points. Wooden nonetheless sensed an imminent turn in the program's fortunes. That January, on the flight home from two close losses at Washington, he whipped off some doggerel for
To be sure,
Hirsch himself was a player unlike any Wooden had encountered, on or off the court. He had grown up in Brooklyn, learning the game's subtleties on the playgrounds of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His father had become wealthy from a chain of bowling alleys, and when the family moved to the West Coast, Jack brought along a knack, at 6-4, for stealing rebounds from, and improvising shots over, taller players. "I was two or three years ahead of these other guys as far as how the game should be played," says Hirsch, whose dad promised to quit a five-packs-a-day smoking habit if his son played ball at UCLA. "Wooden adapted to me as much as I did to him. Everyone else was afraid of him. But even though he seemed to hold my life in his hands, I knew I could always go back to playing cards. He's admitted his stubbornness kept him from winning sooner, and I was one of the people who opened his eyes because of how crazy I was."
When practice began in October 1963, few of the things UCLA basketball would come to be known for -- the iconic centers; the role of prohibitive favorite; the late-model arena whose rafters would eventually groan from the weight of championship banners -- had yet to arrive. The team had no locker room or showers to call its own. For practices the players scaled three flights of stairs to the two baskets in "the B.O. Barn," the cramped and fetid men's gym on campus, where canvas drapes separated the court from the wrestlers and gymnasts. Chalk drifting over from the pommel horses had to be swept up before practice; two managers pushed the mops while Wooden himself walked in front of them, backward and crouched over, dribbling water out of a bucket as if, he told me, he were "feeding the chickens back on the farm." The B.O. Barn once accommodated 2,400 spectators, but in 1955 fire marshals banned any crowd of more than 1,300. If the program were to pay its way the team had to become vagabonds. So that season the players bussed to their caravanserai of the moment: the L.A. Sports Arena, which was essentially on the USC campus; the Long Beach Arena, 25 miles away; even the gym at a community college in nearby Santa Monica. The team would go undefeated while essentially playing 30 road games.
"It was so hard to recruit with our facilities and entrance requirements," Wooden told me. "It was winning our first one that made the difference. I didn't think we could do it, and found out I was wrong. Perhaps subconsciously I was dwelling too much on negative things."
With their raw athletes, split scholarships and three-ring practices in that hoops hayloft, the 1963-64 Bruins were less a basketball team than a rarified phys-ed class, with Wooden as gym teacher. Certainly not one of the players chose UCLA because he wanted to play for some legendary basketball coach. Wooden was then "Johnny" Wooden, a transplanted Hoosier whose superbly conditioned teams played the pell-mell Midwestern style, but weren't regarded as very sophisticated defensively. Indeed, in the fall of 1963, when a Los Angeles newspaper used the phrase "wizard of Westwood," it was to describe the Bruins' playmaker, Hazzard.
It wasn't so much Wooden who attracted the team's four regulars from beyond Southern California, as the very thing that had pulled young men West throughout American history, whether for land or gold, sunshine or stardom: One way or another an adolescent could sketch the scene in his head and project himself into it. Wooden didn't enjoy recruiting, and only welcomed out-of-state players if someone else initiated the contact. McIntosh would have attended Tennessee, but the coach there, a Purdue alum like Wooden, had suddenly resigned and was happy to hook his recruit up with a fellow Boilermaker. Hazzard arrived thanks to a connection twice removed: From the Philadelphia playgrounds, Naulls knew
Washington emerged into a dreamland, the polar opposite of a Jim Crow Southern town. "At first you say, 'No, it can't be,'" he recalls. "And then you see this university, this microcosm of the world, and say, 'Well, why not?'" Those first couple of years he would write buddies back home, telling them they wouldn't believe what he'd see: guys flooding dormitory floors to slide around on them, and putting matches to their farts, and drinking beer. And this guy Jack Hirsch, who drove his own red Pontiac Grand Prix, and called the coach "John" or "J-Dub" or "Woody" to his face, and swanned into training table one day to announce that "I'm not gonna eat this slop." It sure enough did take all kinds.
"Yes, buses were being burned by the side of the road," Washington says. "But you had faith, because if the whole country were like that you'd still be in chains. And then you'd see this man who practiced what he preached, and that was like beauty. You had structure, a philosophy based on fairness. He was a small-town person, too. The same things his father taught him, my father taught me. I felt like a foster child."
For Slaughter the warm weather had beckoned, as well as a mother who lived nearby and, as he puts it, a desire "to help the basketball team achieve some national recognition. Most people think I came because of John Wooden. Let me be real facetious: I came to help John Wooden." He grins at the audacity.
"We all came by accident," says Hirsch, whose father, failing to hold up his end of the bargain, died of lung cancer at the end of the championship season. "But we had great quickness, great hands, great communication, great chemistry."
Chemical reactions only occur with an admixture of different elements. Wooden recited for me the spiel he always gave his players: "I'm not going to like you all the same. You won't like me or each other all the same either. Nor will I treat you all the same." In the fall of 1963 it must have been an easy sell, for with a quick glance around, the players could see that they weren't even remotely the same.
"We used to talk about how we were the All-American team, such a group of guys from diverse backgrounds, yet on the court were a perfect mesh," Slaughter says. "Two black, two white, one Jewish, who after games would go in our separate directions. But game time, practice time, ride-the-bus time, we were pretty well-matched. We liked to protect each other. We liked to do our jobs. And we just enjoyed playing for the man."
On the road all wore grey slacks and navy blue blazers, and none regarded doing so as a restraint on his personal freedom. Five years later
Several times a year Wooden made it a point to poll his players, asking them who they thought should be starting. He did this to test his own judgment, and to have something with which he might shoo away a parent disgruntled over his son's playing time. Wooden had never before, and would never again, find such unanimity on this question as he did during the 1963-64 season.
Shortly after he announced his retirement in 1975, in the aftermath of his final title, Wooden confided to a young alumnus that he had blundered badly early in his career by cavorting with yes men. "Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you," he said. Wooden didn't mention any names, but he was tipping his hat to one smart, argumentative assistant coach in particular.
Like his boss, Norman had been influenced by UCLA's nemesis, Pete Newell, who had recently retired. Newell believed that a team controlling the tempo controlled the game. Accordingly, over the 1962-63 season, the Bruins had looked to push the pace at every opportunity. In their next-to-last game, a 51-45 defeat of Stanford for the conference title, they'd used a full-court man-to-man press to that end. But how could the Bruins have forced almost 20 turnovers and scored only 51 points?
After a loss to Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Norman caucused with his boss. He argued that, imposing as it might be, a full-court man-to-man forces an offense to advance the ball with the dribble, which chews up time. If UCLA really wanted to send gas to a game's engine -- to hasten changes in possession and shorten each possession itself -- the team needed not a man press, but a zone press, with the kinds of traps that only a foolish dribbler would try to slalom through. Opponents would have to advance the ball upcourt by passing it, and human nature being what it is, those passes would eventually become lobs and crosscourts, hurried and careless. UCLA's quick hands, long arms and sprinters' speed would lead to deflections and interceptions, and soon the ball would be headed the other way. The Bruins would score, and the way they'd score, suddenly and as a result of their opponents' turnovers, would sow, as Wooden later put it, "disharmony and disunity."
There was more. Force a turnover as a result of a zone press, Norman intuited, and the five Bruins would be spread across the breadth and length of the floor, the better to take advantage of Hazzard's skill in transition. Size may be an advantage in basketball, but it dissipates when spread over the court. And if the Bruins took a lead with a flurry of baskets, their opponents would fall behind, and to catch up would have to adopt a faster tempo -- playing right into UCLA's hands. "I laid out the rationale," says Norman, who had used a 2-2-1 zone press successfully with his Brubabe freshmen. "We had no size, and we played in a conference where teams liked to walk the ball up the floor. The idea wasn't to steal the ball, remember. That would be an ancillary benefit. It was to increase tempo."
Wooden was skeptical. Yes, he had used the zone press effectively early in his coaching career, and in his first college job, at Indiana State. But in Terre Haute he had enjoyed a nucleus of his former players at South Bend Central High, just home from World War II and unusually mature. Today's collegiate players, Wooden feared, would be too skilled and poised to be flummoxed by a zone press.
It wasn't Norman who ultimately won Wooden over so much as the presence of Erickson, whose lateral quickness, sense of timing and gambler's sangfroid made him the perfect safetyman at the back of the 2-2-1. Cal coach
Wooden would eventually conclude that he had erred in not using a zone press earlier in his career. "When I came to UCLA I expected to use it more often, and a number of years I had the personnel for it," he told me. Between 1957 and '59 he had coached
The zone press, Wooden came to realize, had additional virtues. It built morale and promoted cohesion. And just as a lumbering team was vulnerable to it, a bunch of big galoots couldn't really make it work. So your team is short.
At the front of the press Wooden deployed Goodrich, who despite his wraithlike physique had huge hands and a 37-inch sleeve length. Alongside him he placed Slaughter, who was fast enough to sprint back and set up if an opponent broke into the forecourt, but whose broad 235 pounds made breaking the press even more of a challenge. "They had a poor little person trying to throw the ball in, trying to see around me," Slaughter recalls. "And
If Erickson picked off the most passes, the ensuing baskets usually came as a result of the decisions of Hazzard, who lined up alongside Hirsch and, just as Norman envisioned, tended to wind up with the ball in the open floor. "Walt and Gail never called a play for the rest of us," Erickson says. "Much to our chagrin and to their credit. But we were best when we were running, so we didn't really need plays."
The Glue Factory, one wag called the press. Another called it Arranged Chaos. Asked what it was like to face the 2-2-1, USC coach
The Bruins dropped a hint of what was in store just before Christmas, when they took out unbeaten Creighton and muscular
In each of their 30 games, the press delivered at least one game-altering spurt, a period of two or three minutes in which UCLA outscored its opponent by 10 or more points. These "Bruin Blitzes," as they came to be known, usually took place before the end of the first half. In a few instances -- e.g., a 100-88 defeat of Stanford, when Erickson's three steals during an 18-3 stretch pushed the Bruins from three points down to a 77-65 lead -- opponents didn't feel their force until the second half. But always, ultimately, the decisive runs came. "We knew we'd find a way," says Goodrich. Adds reserve forward
Yet their confidence flowed from the coach himself. "A couple of times when we were way down I remember looking over at him with his legs crossed and program rolled up and thinking, 'Hey, if he's not worried, I'm not worried,'" Slaughter recalls. "Coach Wooden had done his job already. He'd gone through our offense and defense 'til they were part of our fabric. Then it was up to us. He sat back and watched how well he'd done his work."
Sometime in February, Slaughter remembers, he picked up an out-of-town paper and read speculation that the Bruins might go undefeated. It hadn't occurred to him. "We were too busy having fun," he says, "and beating the crap out of everyone."
When Hirsch wore a Beatle wig to practice one day, the hair-length-obsessed coach struck the perfect note. "Anything Jack wants to do to try to improve his appearance is OK by me," Wooden said. Says Levin: "It was beautiful. We all laughed. Hirsch laughed and got rid of the wig."
If a lightness persisted around the team, it's because so much seemed so unexpected and sudden. The fans embraced the lark of it, wearing their red "WE TRY HARDER" buttons from Avis Rent-a-Car's popular ad campaign. Just the same, this wasn't a case of a team that would only appreciate what it accomplished with the passage of time. "As it was unfolding," says Levin, "we knew it was something special."
The Bruins would quail their way through the NCAA West Regional. Goodrich bailed them out after they trailed Seattle late in the game, finding Washington for a layup and free throw, then scoring a layup himself off a steal. By the end every starter but Goodrich and Hazzard had fouled out, with Hazzard receiving one of Wooden's low-and-hard administrations. The next night UCLA fell behind San Francisco early, trailing by 13 during the first half. The Blitz came like the cavalry, "right at the end of the game," Erickson remembers, delivering the Bruins to the Final Four in Kansas City.
There they drew a virtual home team, Kansas State. "They're up five with seven minutes to play," Hirsch recalls, "and their best player takes a 15-footer. The ball is in the net to put us down seven, and somehow comes out. I grab the ball, throw it down to Gail for a layup, and we're somehow down three. If that ball goes in, with no shot clock ... " He lets you imagine the consequences. "It's as if God said, 'This team is going undefeated.' "
UCLA drew back to 75-75 with four minutes remaining. Just then a stir went through the crowd, as four young women in overcoats scurried to spots behind the baseline at one end of Municipal Auditorium. Legend has it that a Kansas State shot was just then tracing its way to the basket, and it was as if the ball joined everyone else in throwing a glance toward the UCLA song girls, whose plane had been delayed by a blizzard. Once again a K-State shot had gone in, then out. This time the Blitz had been more modest, 11 points in three minutes. But it proved to be enough to carry UCLA home, 90-84, and set up a date with Duke.
Like Hirsch, Wooden knew that, as superbly as his team had performed all season, fate seemed to be playing an ever-larger role. "Somehow we keep our poise and get out of the jams we get ourselves into," he said on the eve of the final. "Now we have to do it one more time."
In the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, the wise Serb, was reiterating his "is
Logic fled the arena late in the first half, shortly after UCLA found itself trailing 30-27 and Erickson had just picked up his third foul. Here came the Blitz by which all others would be measured. Three times Hirsch stole the ball. Goodrich scored eight points. Washington, playing before his Marine dad for the first time, knocked down two jumpers, and Erickson shook off those fouls to block several shots. Twice Duke called timeouts, but neither could stay the unraveling. By the time the stretch had ended -- after one Blue Devil turned to Slaughter and said, "Hey, can you guys slow down?" -- UCLA had scored 16 unbroken points in slightly more than two and a half minutes to take a 43-30 lead. Off the bench, McIntosh and Washington would combine for 23 rebounds. Duke's two big men, roused from their procrustean beds, would collect only 10 between them. UCLA had forced 29 turnovers and coasted, 98-83. "Don't let it change you," Wooden told his players in the locker room. "You are champions and must act like champions."
Five times during the season the Bruins had scored more than 100 points. Only four times did a team stay within five of them. Over the ensuing months Wooden would field some 700 inquiries from coaches asking how the press worked. He would always call that first title team the one that came "as close to reaching its potential as a team could come," and given his definition of success, that was the highest praise he could deliver. There was indeed something very special about the first.
Today the regulars on that team almost uniformly confess that they didn't then realize the full dimensions of the man they played for. "He was wasted on us," Erickson says. They regarded as silly his preseason lecture about how to put your socks on, and snickered behind his back at the Pyramid of Success. The homilies, the poetry -- "You hear," says Hirsch, "but don't listen."
But nowadays all swear that they routinely dip into his teachings. "He understood that life is about simplicity," Hirsch said before Wooden's death. "Look in his eye today, and a certain peace comes over you."
"If you ever had a need to test him, like I did, you usually found out you were wrong," Slaughter says. "And two things he did made it work. One was that 'Goodness gracious sakes alive' bit. Nobody wanted to hear that. It was worse than what you heard on the street. The other was what coaches miss today: 'You can do it this way, or you can come over and sit by me.' No need to argue, no need to throw chairs. And eventually you'd look around and realize that damned if his way didn't work out."
Says Washington, who shot 11-for-16 in the championship game: "Part of his genius was that he taught preparation, and once you started playing he left you alone. Basketball is a dynamic game, and players have to have the freedom to react, to be allowed not to follow the general rule, because stuff happens.
"This human being grew. He was powerful enough that he didn't have to grow. But to teach people from these multiple cultural backgrounds, and keep this philosophy, so universal and functional, that transcended all differences, and to be able to laugh at yourself and not be judgmental, yet maintain high standards and do critical analysis -- it isn't about basketball. That's not what it's about. It's bigger than that."
"People say he didn't have the horses before us," says Hirsch. "No -- he didn't win because he wasn't a great coach. He was a good coach who filled in all the blanks."
Wooden agreed. "We'd have had a little better chance in earlier years," he told me, "if I'd have known a little more."
Who knew? The Wizard of Westwood was really the Master of the Midcourse Correction. The '64 title team stands as both a summation of everything he had learned to that time, and a grand experiment in the coaching arts he would apply to win nine more championships. Precept after precept was tonged and tempered in the crucible of that season: That the game rewards quickness above all; that, as much as you'd like to, you can't treat every player the same; that victory begins with defense; that it's what you learn after you know it all that counts. Step back to take in the sweep of Wooden's career, and '64 stands as both valedictory and harbinger.
Former U.S. poet laureate
In February 2004 I called Wooden to tell him that editors wanted to use an account of the '64 title team as his obituary. He found the humor in this, as I figured he would. We had talked about death; he brought the subject up, actually, insisting that he had no fear of it, for Nell would be waiting there and then -- "out yonder," he called it, or "th'inevitable hour," quoting one of his favorite poems,
It's hard for anyone, even a skulking sportswriter, to visit the home of a nonagenarian who lives alone, as I did after breakfast that September day, and not ask if there's a chore to do or an errand to run.
"No, nothing, thank you," Wooden said.
I asked him again later, as I prepared to leave.
"You know, actually, if you don't mind ..."
He needed a lift to the post office. It was deep in his small-town, English-teacher bones: If you wrote John Wooden, he wrote back. Some people had figured out how to take advantage of this. They'd pluck stuff off eBay, old Purdue yearbooks and UCLA memorabilia, and send them off for his autograph, often with no return postage, surely sometimes (Wooden suspected) with an eye toward turning around and selling them.
But if you're the kind of man who writes back when written to, even into the final years of your life you gamely lug several heavy padded envelopes to the post office several times a week. While some things about a man are subject to revision, others are immutable. For all his principled malleability, our trip to the post office will stand as a fitting final memory of John Wooden -- one way this man so open to change never changed at all.
He will be buried alongside his beloved wife, Nell. "If I am through learning," goes another of his favorite aphorisms, "I am through."
Now, after taking lessons from the Cori Nicholsons and Pete Newells, the Jack Hirsches and Jerry Normans, he is through. May there be a band graveside to play