He had a way of taking off near the foul line and sailing up to the basket "as smooth and pretty as a bird." Or he would drive in for a layup with such determination that his momentum would carry him into the fifth row of the school band at the end of the court. He bounced off the floor so often that people called him the India Rubber Man.
That was John Wooden 35 or 40 years ago. Today he is known mainly as the coach at UCLA—the lucky man who won the Lew Alcindor recruiting sweepstakes and thus practically sewed up three straight NCAA championships for the Bruins. And that in a way is a shame. So obscured is he by the telephone-pole shadow cast by his center that only the few fanatics who keep the Encyclopedia of Basketball out on their coffee tables seem to know there is a niche—maybe even a whole room—reserved for John Wooden in the sport's Hall of Fame.
Wooden was an outstanding professional player for six years. Before that he was a consensus All-America guard at Purdue for three straight seasons. And before that he starred on one of the finest high school teams ever to play in Indiana. As a coach, he has had only one losing season, his first. His UCLA teams won two national titles before Alcindor, and they are likely to win some more after he leaves.
Away from games, the former India Rubber Man is a soft-spoken gentleman with a trace of homespun Hoosier in his voice, a human Poor Richard's Almanack who has inspirational sayings filed in a loose-leaf notebook, taped to his pencil box, framed on his walls, tucked away in his wallet: "Make each day your masterpiece." "Build a shelter for a rainy day." "It's better to go too far with a boy than not far enough."
January 6, 1969
Somewhere between "Be true to yourself" and "It's the little things that count," a visitor begins to think it is all just a giant put-on. Nobody could be that square. But Wooden is real all right, sitting there in his office overlooking UCLA's new basketball palace, Pauley Pavilion. He can thumb quickly through a notebook and find his drill-by-drill plan for a practice 17 years ago or he can flip through another one and find a short essay on how the world today maybe could use a few more squares. His Pyramid of Success chart ("industriousness," "loyalty," "self-control" are some of its building blocks) hangs on the wall near his desk; he once talked about it on his local TV show and was buried under 7,000 requests for copies.
When Wooden gets off a small joke or receives a compliment, he does not flash a white-neon smile, he ducks his head and grins sheepishly. It is easy to imagine him as a deacon of his church or a kindly grandfather, both of which he is. Not so easy to imagine, but real nevertheless, is the intensely competitive John Wooden of the Bruin bench whose angry, sometimes scathing comments can melt a referee's whistle in mid-tweet. He sits there wielding a rolled-up program and, like most members of his ulcerated profession, suffers while an entire year's work, or maybe more, is compressed into an hour-and-a-half game.
"I've seen him so mad that I've been afraid he'd pop that big blood vessel in his forehead," says a Pacific Coast official, "but I've never heard him curse."
"Dadburn it, you saw him double dribble down there!" hollers Wooden, now about as soft-spoken as an electric guitar. "Goodness gracious sakes alive! Everybody in the place saw that."
Eddie Powell, a former assistant who moved with him from Indiana State to UCLA in 1948, learned some psychological tricks from the past master.
"Usually sometime during the first half he would choose one incident, a close call, and jump all over the referee," said Powell. "Just chew him out in a gentlemanly manner, if there is such a thing. But let him know that there was that side of Wooden. During the half he'd seek out the referee and apologize to him. He'd say, 'I know I should have known it was a close call. I was wrong. It's just a job and you're doing the best you can.'
"And then they'd part, with Wooden walking away meek as you please. In the second half, if another close call arose, chances are the referee'd call the play in Wooden's favor."
To make his full-court press as effective as possible, Wooden wants referees to be acutely aware of the rule that gives a team only 10 seconds to get the ball across the mid-court line. Sometimes he carries a stopwatch to the bench. He will not say a word about it and probably will not check it, but he will make certain that the officials notice it.
Wooden insists he knows what he is doing when he yells about calls. Often it is to show his players he is fighting for them. Of course, much depends on the personality of each official.
"I would think that any referee who does not command the respect of John Wooden can expect to be tested," said Al Lightner, until his retirement one of the toughest West Coast officials. "Personally, I never had any trouble at all with Wooden. I understand some referees have had trouble."
Lightner understands correctly, but Wooden feels his reputation as a ref-baiter is "definitely undeserved."
"No official, no player has ever heard me use a word of profanity," he says. "I don't stand up and do anything to excite the crowd. That's one of the worst things coaches can do. You've never seen me throw a chair or a towel, or jump up and go down the floor yelling.
"I don't say, 'You're a homer!' I'll say, 'Don't be a homer! I'll say, 'See 'em the same at both ends!' I'll say, 'Watch the traveling,' or some such, but no profanity and not personal.
"The thing I may be ashamed of more than anything else is having talked to opposing players. Not calling them names, but saying something like 'Keep your hands off of him' or 'Don't be a butcher' or something of that type."
Walt Hazzard, the high scorer and imaginative passer who sparked Wooden's first NCAA title team in 1963-64, is a great admirer of Wooden's needling. "He is one of the best bench jockeys in the world. He has an 'antiseptic needle'—clean but biting. I've seen opposing players left shaking their heads, but there was nothing they could say."
Wooden is not exactly the most popular figure within the coaching fraternity. What man with his winning record would be? asks Ted Owens of Kansas. "I know that after finishing second in the Big Eight last season I was a lot more popular than I was the previous two years when I won the title. But Wooden is highly respected by his fellow coaches."
At the coaches' national convention Wooden is not the hotel lobby raconteur regaling a circle of admirers with funny stories. He does not socialize much because he does not drink and he is shy. Says a West Coast rival: "He's the sort of guy who goes to the conventions with his wife and they sit in the lobby and watch you come rolling in."
When he says he does not much believe in scouting opponents, some other coaches feel he is trying to show them up. And they observe his gentlemanly manner and hear his fund of homilies, then react angrily when their players get zapped by his needle. A few believe he is a sanctimonious hypocrite and privately call him "Saint John."
There are those among his ex-players who think sainthood or knighthood would be perfectly suitable. Eddie Sheldrake, a fine little backcourt man on Wooden's first teams at Westwood, had a wife and children while he was still in school. Shortly after graduation, his father died. Not long after that his wife became critically ill with cancer and finally died. Wooden and his wife, Nell, stayed at Sheldrake's side and helped raise $4,000 to pay the medical bills.
"He was as good as a dad could be," said Sheldrake, who had to fight back tears as he told the story.
"The finest man I've ever met," says another ex-player, Ron Pearson.
"The true man comes out on the bench," says a Midwest coach. "He's a vicious——."
"No regrets if you can answer to yourself," Wooden likes to say.
John Robert Wooden grew up on a farm eight miles from Martinsville, Ind. His father, Joshua, who never had much money or good fortune, was a pretty good pitcher and built a diamond among the wheat, corn and alfalfa. To this day baseball, not basketball, is Wooden's favorite sport. But there also was a hoop nailed up in the hayloft, and he and his older brother, Maurice, played there with any kind of ball they could find.
John attended the four-room Center-ton grade school, where he was the star athlete. Centerton's principal, Earl Warriner, was one of the important influences on his life. Once, when John was being recalcitrant, Warriner, who also coached basketball, allowed his high scorer to sit out an entire losing game. "After it was over," said Wooden, "he put an arm on my shoulder and said 'Johnny, we could have won with you in there, but winning just isn't that important.' "
Warriner is now 73, retired and living on a farm in Indiana. UCLA was to play in a doubleheader at Chicago Stadium a few years ago, and he wrote John for tickets, sending along a blank check. Back with the tickets came the check and in the space for the amount was written, "Friendship far too valuable to be measured in dollars."
Wooden's dad lost the farm because of some bad investments and the Woodens moved into Martinsville in 1924, at about the same time the red brick high school gym was built on South Main St. The population of the town was 5,200 and the gym held, as noted at the time in Ripley's Believe It or Not, 5,520. John Bob soon made the transition from hayseed to sharp dude, Central Indiana version. Hanging around with his buddies at Wick's Candy Kitchen, he wore his letterman's sweater and a green hat Maurice had brought home from Franklin College. He usually had a toothpick in his mouth.
John Bob always worked hard—digging sewers one summer—and he was a good student, but, as longtime-friend Floyd Burns remembered, "He always had time for basketball, baseball and Nellie Riley." Nell played the trumpet in the school band and John, as a sophomore starter in 1926, got "n the habit of winking at her before each game. He's still doing it more than 40 years later.
It was not easy making the Martinsville High team, which had won a state title not long before Wooden arrived. The team, in fact, went all the way to the state finals before losing to Marion 30-23 in his sophomore year. Wooden did not score, but he was the second leading scorer in the 16-team finals the next year. Playing on the final day, Martinsville won the championship by beating Muncie 26-23, and Wooden hit 10 points. In 1928 the same two teams reached the finals again, and Martinsville led 12-11 with 30 seconds to go before it was defeated by the most amazing shot Wooden has ever seen.
"On a center jump their center tipped the ball back to himself," he said. "In those days it was legal. He pivoted and let loose an underhand scoop shot that had the highest arch I have ever seen. The ball seemed to disappear in the rafters. It came straight down through the hoop, not even swishing the net."
Wooden made the All-State team for the third straight year. Six boys from that 1928 team went to six different colleges and were starters as sophomores. Little has changed in Martinsville since those days. Farmers come to town in summer and sell tomatoes, corn and peaches from their ancient pickup trucks parked around the square. The Town House Cafeteria has pictures on the walls of Wooden and the famous Artesian basketball teams. For a long time a crew cut in Martinsville was known as a "Johnny Wooden."
"About three or four years ago," said Town House proprietor Bill Poe, "he gave the commencement address at the high school, and before he talked, he walked in here to eat. It was early and he asked me how Aunt Edna Hyah was—she was a friend of John's mother.
"I said she had just come back from the hospital that day. He said, I think I'll drop by and say hello.' So instead of going down to the Elks Club to renew old acquaintances, John went by and talked to an old lady who was a friend of his mother's. Then he went to the gym and gave his talk. John Wooden is a yard wide."
Kansas and most of the Big Ten schools invaded Martinsville to try to recruit Wooden, but Purdue got him because of its engineering school and its fine coach, Ward (Piggy) Lambert, an early advocate of the fast break. Wooden soon switched to a liberal arts major. He not only made All-America three times, he led the Boilermakers to two conference championships and won the Big Ten medal for excellence in scholarship and athletics. A "floor guard," as opposed to the "back guard" who rarely got to shoot, he played at 5'10½" and 183 pounds, and was so slashing and daring that sometimes school officials stationed two men behind the basket to catch him after his wild drives. In a game against Indiana he was knocked to the floor near the free-throw line. Before he could get up, a rebound came to him and, still sitting down, he made the shot that won the game.
"He had a way of stalling the game by fantastic dribbling," said teammate Dutch Fehring, now intramural director at Stanford. "He would dribble from backcourt to forecourt, all around, and nobody could get that ball away."
Sportscaster Tom Harmon, who won the Heisman Trophy as a Michigan halfback, was a schoolboy in Gary, Ind. in the early 1930s, and used to go down to Lafayette to watch Purdue. "Wooden to the kids of my era was what Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Lew Alcindor is today," he said. "He was king, the idol of any kid who had a basketball. In Indiana that was every kid."
It all sounds glorious, yet college was no lark for Wooden. To pay for his meals he waited on tables at his fraternity house. He produced the Purdue basketball programs and split the proceeds with the high school boys who sold them for him (he kept the advertising income). On the annual train ride to Chicago for the Purdue-Chicago football game at Soldier Field he raced up and down the aisles, selling sandwiches. He called it "my annual walk to Chicago."
Wooden played some semipro and pro ball right after being graduated in the depths of the Depression and managed to save $909 and a nickel—he remembers the exact figure. Two days before he was to marry Nellie Riley, the bank where he had his savings failed to open (the directors later went to prison). He had to scurry around and borrow $200 to pay for the wedding and a one-day honeymoon in romantic downtown Indianapolis. Buying a car was impossible, so some relatives drove them to Dayton, Ky., where Wooden's first coaching job was waiting.
While coaching at high schools in Dayton and South Bend, Ind. he continued his part-time pro career, most of the time earning $50 a game playing floor guard for Kautsky of Indianapolis. Once he made 138 consecutive free throws in competition. Those were the disorganized pre-NBA days, with games in places like Kokomo, Oshkosh and Sheboygan when anything could and did happen, such as the time in Detroit when the Kautskys had a 10-or 12-point lead with two minutes to go. They played at least three or four minutes more, but the timer insisted there were still two minutes left.
"We finally got the idea," said Wooden, "so we went back to the center jump and each time they'd throw the ball up we'd stand there and not move. They would take the tipoff and go down and score and bring it back to the center jump. When they made the basket that put 'em ahead, why the game was over."
The center jump after each basket finally went out before his last pro season in 1938 and Wooden, described by a fellow pro as "fast as the wind, quicker than a cat and the best ball handler and dribbler I have ever seen," enjoyed his highest-scoring season. But an old leg injury forced him to quit.
Wooden's 11 years as a high school coach, nine at South Bend Central, were very successful (218 wins, 42 losses), especially since he also had to coach baseball and tennis, teach English and serve as comptroller and athletic director. Then, as now, his practices were organized down to the last dribble and he was a fanatic on fitness. ("They may beat me on ability," he had said at Purdue, "but they'll never beat me on condition.") World War II ended Wooden's high school coaching career.
He was a Navy officer, helping to get pilots in shape for combat flying. When he got out in 1946 there was no house to go back to. Wooden had been unable to keep the payments up and lost it. He immediately got all his jobs back at South Bend Central, but some of his friends were not so fairly treated and he became disenchanted with the school system. When the job at Indiana State Teachers College in Terre Haute opened, he took it, bringing along a load of former Central High players just getting out of the service themselves. With 14 freshmen and one sophomore that first year, Indiana State had an 18-7 record. The same cast improved that to 29-7 the next year.
As long as he had taken the reluctant step from high school to college coaching, Wooden figured he might as well go to a major university; both Minnesota and UCLA were after him. Minnesota offered more money, but the Gopher officials were delayed somewhere by a snowstorm on decision day and did not call when they said they would. Wooden accepted the UCLA job and an hour later Minnesota got him on the phone—too late.
Wooden was not a big hit at Southern California cocktail parties. Most of the time he stood ill at ease in a corner holding a glass of something like sarsaparilla while Assistant Eddie Powell rounded up people to come meet him. It was not that Wooden lacked confidence. On a spring evening in 1948 he told a UCLA banquet: "The fast break is my system and we'll win 50% of our games by outrunning the other team in the last five minutes."
It was no exaggeration. Most West Coast teams played slowly and deliberately and several times against league opponents, Powell swears, UCLA actually had five-on-zero fast breaks.
"Wooden's success is based on upsetting the tempo and style of his opponent," says a rival coach. "He does it by running, running and running some more. He mixes that up by hawking, by grabbing, by slapping and by hand-waving defense. His clubs dote on harassing the man with the ball."
Foes hated to visit the old UCLA gymnasium, a small place that steamed when packed with people, and was known, not without reason, as the B.O. Barn. Wooden insisted that if he was turning up the heat, as some people claimed, he was doing more damage to his running clubs. "I wanted a better place to play," he says, "but it didn't displease me that the other teams dreaded to come in there."
Despite numerous division and league championships, UCLA really was not a national power during Wooden's first 13 years there. He had a fine center, Willie Naulls, in the mid-'50s, but that era was dominated by the University of San Francisco and Bill Russell. Then Cal, coached by Pete Newell, came up to frustrate the Bruins. Newell's teams beat Wooden's the last eight times they met.
The thrust into the national spotlight came in the early '60s with the arrival of some gifted athletes, notably Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, and the introduction of the full-court zone press, known as the "Glue Factory," the first major change in college basketball in a number of years.
The Glue Factory opened for business in the 1963-64 season, and the Bruins had just the right manpower—five fast, cocky players: Hazzard, Goodrich. Fred Slaughter, Jack Hirsch and Keith Erickson. Not one of them was taller than 6'5", but they full-court pressed and fast broke their way to a 30-0 season and the NCAA championship.
Although Hazzard was gone. UCLA ran to a second straight title in 1965 and, after a lull in 1966 when the wondrous Alcindor was a freshman, won two more, climaxed last season by a victory over Houston in the semifinals that was one of the finest demonstrations of speed, power and finesse in the history of college basketball. That is four national championships in five years, and this season Wooden's team has Alcindor back for one more fling, plus plenty of other talented players. Wooden's only problem seems to be keeping up the morale of the stars sitting on the bench.
Although Wooden will not say anything about it except to close friends, the impression one gets after spending some time with him is that he has not particularly enjoyed the Alcindor years, that he can hardly wait to get back to the racehorse basketball he loves to coach. There is also the feeling that were it not for the fact that his children and grandchildren live in California, he would like to be a Hoosier again. He goes better with sycamores than palm trees.
Not long ago his old friends from Indiana, Floyd Burns and his wife, were passing through L.A. and gave Wooden a surprise call. After dinner and a campus tour, he showed them UCLA's new arena, silent and empty except for Wooden, Nell and the other couple. They all sat down in the plush theater seats and gazed at the gleaming floor and the four NCAA championship banners hanging far above.
"John," said Burns, "it sure is a long way from Martinsville to all this."
"Yes, Floyd, it is," said the India Rubber Man.