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 a survey of his life through age 79, marbling it with the homiletic precepts behind the 10 NCAA titles UCLA won between 1964 and 1975, using Wooden's own philosophy as a kind of prod. One of those sayings seemed particularly apt. "Avoid the peaks and the valleys," he had told his teams, urging them neither to exult in victory nor sulk in defeat. He made a point of calling timeouts late in all those championship games, to remind his players to keep their emotional keel. My piece ended with this impertinence: "Before this extraordinary life gets played out, before the buzzer sounds, won't someone please call timeout to remind him? He has taught so many of us such wonderful lessons. He has one more lesson, his own, to study up on."
I might as well have taken that issue of Sports Illustrated, rolled it up, brandished it sternly and said, "Goodness gracious sakes alive, man-get over it!"
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, Cori Nicholson, had been conceived, and even in his grief Wooden couldn't miss the pertinence of another of his favorite sayings: "God never closes one door without opening another."
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, They Call Me Coach, "but could have." All they lacked were luck and timing. In 1952, on the eve of the conference title game, Don Bragg, the team's leading scorer, broke his toe on a box of foot powder as he left the shower. The only player in Wooden's first 15 years in Westwood to stick as a pro, Willie Naulls, happened to play between 1953 and '56, precisely when Bill Russell reigned at the University of San Francisco. No sooner had Russell left than UCLA's football team became enmeshed in a conference-wide pay-for-play scandal, with the three years' probation applying to all sports. Then came Cal and its Hall of Fame coach, Pete Newell; though Wooden had defeated him seven times in a row, beginning in 1957 the Golden Bears turned the tables, eventually taking eight straight from the Bruins and a pair of NCAA titles along the way.
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 per se was never the yardstick, even as the Bruins reached that doorstep. As Doug McIntosh, the backup center on the 1964 team, told Sports Illustrated: "The word 'win' never escaped his lips. Literally. He just asked us to play to our potential."
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 Pete Blackman, a recent Bruin captain and fellow poetry aficionado. It included a lengthy lamentation on the shortcomings of his team, but ended with these lines:
I want to say-yes, I'll foretellEventually, this team will jellAnd when they do they will be greatA championship will be their fate.With every starter coming back,Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack,And Fred and Freddie and then some moreWe could be champs in Sixty-Four.
"Freddie" was Freddie Goss, who wound up sitting out the 1963-64 season as a redshirt. The "some more" turned out to be two small-town sophomores, McIntosh, a white kid from Lily, Ky., and Kenny Washington, the black product of segregated schools in Beaufort, S.C., and a household headed by a Marine sergeant who revered Booker T. Washington. Each was perfectly suited for the role of coming off the bench, and seemed to save his finest contributions for the biggest games. And then there were Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack and Fred.
To be sure, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Jack Hirsch had been high school players of distinction in their respective hometowns -- Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley town of Van Nuys. But all were apparently one-dimensional: Hazzard, a passer; Goodrich, a shooter; and Hirsch, a defender. Goodrich accepted a scholarship as a high school junior when, at 5-8 and 120 pounds, he correctly intuited that he wasn't likely to get an offer much better than UCLA's. At first he was wary of Hazzard, who had the ball most of the time -- the ball, after all, being what Goodrich needed in order to do what he did best. Goodrich also needed the regular pat on the back; with Hazzard, Wooden told me, his eyes atwinkle, the application had to come "lower and harder." But as a stern hand brought forth Hazzard's best, Goodrich soon realized that, if he moved to an open spot, Hazzard would find him, for Hazzard loved to deliver the ball as much as Goodrich loved to launch it. "I defy you to find two finer guards who ever played on the same team," says Hirsch. "They averaged 43 a game between them. Some teams today don't even score 40 points, and we had no shot clock or three-pointer."
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."
As for Fred Slaughter and Keith Erickson, neither came on a full basketball scholarship, but that was a reflection of their great versatility, not meager potential. Slaughter had been a 9.9 sprinter in high school in Topeka with his choice of colleges at which to run. He ultimately accepted the Bruins' offer of a scholarship split between track and basketball. Erickson had grown up just down the freeway, in El Segundo, but wouldn't see a Bruins basketball game until he played in one. No other school had offered him a ride for basketball, and UCLA's deal was for half hoops, half baseball -- though volleyball, which he learned on the beach and would play in the Tokyo Olympics, was the sport that had taught him how to use his astonishing jumping ability.
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 Woody Sauldsberry, who was Hazzard's distant cousin. Meanwhile Hazzard recommended Washington, who played pick-up ball in Philly while spending summers visiting a sister. Washington had arrived in L.A. unseen by any UCLA coach -- and two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than advertised -- after cowering in the back of a Greyhound bus for three days.
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 Herbert Warren Wind would describe Wooden as an anachronism, "an island of James Whitcomb Riley in a sea of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern and Jerry Rubin," but these were prelapsarian days. None of these Bruins lay down in rush-hour traffic on Wilshire Boulevard to protest war in Southeast Asia. There were only hints of worldly complications to come, when twice Wooden cancelled practice: once during a severe smog alert, and again on the day of Kennedy's assassination, after leading the team in a silent prayer. Indeed, Hazzard and Goodrich, Army ROTCers both, carried the colors during LBJ's visit to campus a few months later. "Off the court the group wasn't the closest in the world," Wooden remembered, naming the non-starting regulars, the roommates McIntosh and Washington, as the only two everybody really liked. "But they worked together as well as any team possibly could have."
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.
Jerry Norman had played on two of Wooden's early Bruin teams, and he had the kind of contrarian spirit that both drives coaches nuts and steals their hearts. He was an instigator, but instigators are initiators -- and in athletics it's the initiators who tend to seize the main chance. "A profane youngster," Wooden called Norman in They Call Me Coach. "Jerry gave me fits. I don't believe I ever had a boy more strong-willed, more sure of himself, and more outspoken." Wooden kicked him off the team for two weeks during the 1950-51 season. Yet after Norman did turns in the service and as a coach for Wooden's brother Maurice, the principal at West Covina High, his old college coach brought him back, first to run the freshman team and then, in 1959, to serve as a full-time varsity assistant. "I guess I wanted a rebel," Wooden wrote, "someone who would stand up to me."
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 Rene Herrerias would liken him to "a 6-5 Bill Russell," and Wooden came to call Erickson the finest athlete he had ever coached.
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 Rafer Johnson, the Olympic decathlon champion-to-be, and kicked himself for not recognizing in him another ideal backliner for the 2-2-1. "I tried it for a while and gave up on it," he added, reproaching himself. "And as a coach, you know, you preach patience."
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. God never closes one door without opening another.
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 please, don't try to throw a long pass. While I was running and jumping at the front of the press, Keith was running and jumping at the back."
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 Forrest Twogood responded with a question of his own. "Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days? That's how it feels."
The Bruins dropped a hint of what was in store just before Christmas, when they took out unbeaten Creighton and muscular Paul Silas. But it would be six days later, against No. 2 Michigan in the L.A. Classic, that UCLA conclusively demonstrated how speed could trump size. The Wolverines called their frontline of Bill Buntin, Oliver Darden and Larry Tregoning "the Anvil Chorus," and Cazzie Russell was an All-America and future collegiate Player of the Year. Hirsch nonetheless locked Russell up, Slaughter shut down the 6-7 Buntin, and the Bruins won 98-80. Harry Combes, coach of the Illinois team the Bruins would beat the next night for the tournament title, called it "the best performance in a single game I've ever seen by a college team." Nonetheless, it wasn't until January, after Georgia Tech pinned a loss on Kentucky and the Bruins rang up 121 points against Washington State, that UCLA ascended to No. 1 in the polls. A team unmentioned in SI's preseason Top 20 suddenly found itself lording over the sport -- a sport that would regard UCLA's success with skepticism for the rest of the season.
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 Rich Levin, one of five end-of-the-benchers who called themselves the Mop-Up Squad: "No doubt about it, we became very cocky. Wooden didn't really like it. He warned us about it."
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."
So did Alexander Nikolic, the Yugoslav national coach, who spent more than three months that season pinballing around the country, watching college teams and taking notes. He would appear and reappear around the Bruins like a Hitchcock character. Perhaps only a visitor from Tito's polyglot state could recognize the cohesive strength the Bruins drew from their motley composition. All along Nikolic predicted a championship. "Is small team," he said after a couple of wins over Washington ran the record to 21-0. "But is best I see. Because is team. All five." He held up the five fingers of one hand. "Team!"
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 team!" incantation for anyone who would listen. Not many did. "There is no way for UCLA to beat Duke," wrote Dick Wade of the Kansas City Star on the eve of the game. "The Blue Devils simply have too much -- height, shooting ability, rebounding ability and defense." (The first of those four, as UCLA demonstrated all year, brings its own problems. Duke coach Vic Bubas had asked the Muehlebach to supply seven-foot beds for his 6-10 frontliners, Hack Tison and Jay Buckley, but the request went unfulfilled.) At least Wade had been smart enough to preface his prediction with this: "If you're silly enough to apply logic to basketball."
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 Billy Collins, someone whose vocation Wooden worshiped, urges others to cultivate the kind of attitude that would make the phrase "continuing education" a redundancy. "Experience," Collins likes to say, "holds its graduation at the grave."
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, Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Besides, death hadn't exactly rushed to claim him. During World War II, after being conscripted to serve in the Pacific on the U.S.S. Franklin, he had ruptured his appendix and had his orders cancelled; the Purdue fraternity brother who replaced him was killed in a kamikaze attack. Years later, after being delayed en route to a speaking engagement in North Carolina, he had just missed finding himself on a plane that crashed upon leaving Atlanta. The coach of the '64 champs outlived his student manager, and it was the team leader, Walt Hazzard, who suffered the stroke in middle age.
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 Pomp and Circumstance.