The Wizard And the Giant

January 13, 2014

DESPITE ALL THE MONEY that John Wooden's basketball team was generating for UCLA, his salary was just $17,000 in 1968. To supplement this income he ran several youth basketball camps around Los Angeles. In many ways he enjoyed working more at the camps than at Westwood. "When I have my summer basketball school out at Palisades High, they're eager to know how to do things," he said. "The college players are more blasé."

The campus culture in which Wooden operated didn't just encourage students to question authority. It urged them to topple authority. With his old-fashioned Midwestern values, the 57-year-old Wooden was the very embodiment of the establishment. He and his players occupied the same space but lived in different worlds. "I really respected him, but I don't know that like was in the equation," said Bruins swingman Kenny Heitz. "We had a bunch of guys who had really good relationships with our fathers. Wooden became that old guy we couldn't please."

Wooden faced a Catch-22: If he stuck to his ways, he appeared out of touch; if he bent, he was a hypocrite. Lew Alcindor posed an especially touchy problem. The junior's size alone (7'2") warranted a different set of standards. From airplanes to buses to hotel rooms, Alcindor needed special accommodations. Plus—and more to the point—he was really, really good. If Wooden was going to bend for anyone, it would be for his star center.

For example, UCLA had a rule that if a player was late for the team flight, he had to find his own way to the game. However, the school's radio announcer, Fred Hessler, recalled that when Alcindor was late for one flight to the Northwest, athletic director J.D. Morgan called UCLA's sports publicist and told him to go to Alcindor's apartment and take him to the airport. "J.D. realized these [arenas] were sold out because of seeing [Alcindor]," Hessler said. "He was going to see that our star attraction got there."

But where the coach saw a necessary accommodation, his players saw a double standard. "Wooden had this dress code for a team meal, and then one day Lew and [star guard] Lucius [Allen] showed up in jeans, and he didn't say anything," Heitz said. When forward Lynn Shackelford was asked by a writer from Sport magazine what would happen if a player were late for curfew, he replied, "It all depends on how you're playing. It's been a lot looser since the big man arrived."

Before Alcindor, the pregame menu had always been precise: steak, potato, melba toast, celery, milk. "Somewhere along the way, out of 11 players, you'd see eight glasses of milk and three Cokes," guard Don Saffer said. "They were for Lucius, [starting point guard] Mike [Warren] and Lew. The rest of us didn't want milk, but that's the way it was."

When the players complained—and this being the '60s, they felt free to do just that—Wooden conceded their point. "Two of his teammates made some remarks to a reporter that I gave [Alcindor] special privileges," Wooden said in 1998. "Breakfast, for example. He got a couple of glasses of orange juice and they'd get one. True. Then they said I let him room alone while they always had to room with someone else. But you don't find two king-size beds in the same room.... I told one of these players, You're lucky he's here. I wouldn't have you if he wasn't here."

Nobody was more realistic about special treatment than the guys at the top of the pecking order. "We black players knew that as a unit we had a lot of power," Warren said. "Before the season, Coach Wooden told Alcindor and me that our hair had grown a little too long last year and suggested that we cut it closer this year. We didn't, and nothing happened."

Partly this was the coach's nod to progress. "I'm not as strict as I used to be," Wooden conceded in the summer of '68, "but society isn't as strict, either." The challenge for Wooden would grow steeper as the culture became even more permissive. That included the arrival of a new element in campus social life: drugs. Marijuana had been virtually unheard of at UCLA just a few years before, but in a flash it was everywhere. Alcindor was introduced to pot by a fellow student at Power Memorial High in New York City. He didn't feel much effect the first couple of times he smoked, but after church on Easter Sunday, 1965, he went to a friend's house and together they pounded the pipe so hard that Alcindor nearly coughed his lungs out. He felt high, really high, and he liked it.

It wasn't until he got to UCLA that Alcindor experimented with LSD. After a few trips, however, he decided he didn't really like it and stopped. Still, acid was all around him. One day a pair of students who had taken LSD came upon him and thought he was a hallucination. Alcindor found it hilarious, one of the few times he didn't mind strangers becoming fixated on his height.

Alcindor was able to keep his drug use on the down-low, but Allen was not so lucky. At the end of his sophomore season, in the spring of 1967, he was pulled over for speeding, and the police found a small bag of marijuana in his pocket and another in his glove compartment. UCLA booster Sam Gilbert bailed Allen out of jail and found him a criminal lawyer, who got the charges dropped because of insufficient evidence. Since it was the off-season Allen was not suspended from the team, and he never spoke to Wooden about the arrest.

If Wooden had any inkling his players were using drugs, he certainly would not have approved. But he also believed their private lives were their own business. The only times he insinuated himself were when their behavior threatened to disrupt his machine. That concern prompted him to call Warren to his office one day for an uncomfortable conversation. Wooden had received a call from a white man whose daughter was dating Warren. The man made it clear that if Wooden didn't keep Warren away from the girl, then he would. "He didn't stop me," Warren said of Wooden, "but, man, how about telling me my life is in danger? How's that for a hint?"

Wooden had no personal objection to interracial dating, but he worried about the reactions of those who did, which could disrupt the delicate balance of his program. "I would discourage anybody from interracial dating," he said. "I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society too. It's asking for trouble, but I've never told a player who he could or couldn't date."

IN THE '68 NCAA tournament semifinals, the Bruins avenged their only loss of the season, humiliating top-ranked Houston 101--69. The win sent UCLA into an anticlimactic meeting with fourth-ranked North Carolina, a 78--55 romp in which Alcindor had 34 points. Tar Heels coach Dean Smith called those Bruins "the greatest basketball team of all time."

Now that the tournament was over and he had his second consecutive NCAA title, Alcindor could show his true colors—literally. He emerged from the UCLA locker room in an African robe with red, orange and yellow stripes and swirls. The giant garment, which he called his "dignity robe," hung just below his knees. When Wooden saw what Alcindor was wearing, he smiled.

Besides Warren's graduation, the Bruins suffered a second crushing departure that spring: Allen was arrested a second time, on two felony counts of possession of marijuana. There was no way UCLA could keep him on the team, especially since he was lagging on his academics. He dropped out of school without saying goodbye to Wooden.

With both Allen and Warren gone, UCLA was shorthanded in the backcourt. On the flip side, Wooden was getting ready to coach perhaps the best frontcourt in college basketball history. Alcindor, Heitz and Lynn Shackelford were back, and they were being joined by three elite sophomores: Steve Patterson and Curtis Rowe, who had anchored the undefeated UCLA freshman team, and Sidney Wicks, a former all-city player at Alexander Hamilton High in L.A. who had spent a year shoring up his academics at Santa Monica City College.

Socially, Alcindor was entering his own season of adjustment. He had lost his two best friends on the team in Allen and Edgar Lacey, who had quit in late January 1968 after being benched. But instead of sulking and withdrawing as he usually did, Alcindor broadened his horizons. Wicks and Rowe were the only other blacks on the team. Not only were they two years younger, but they were also boisterous and flamboyant—very different from Alcindor. So he spent more time with teammates Mike Lynn and Bill Sweek and with Bob Marcucci, a white student manager. Alcindor had become an aficionado of martial arts after studying his freshman year with an accomplished instructor turned movie actor from Hong Kong named Bruce Lee, and he shared his love of kung fu movies with his white buddies. "We spent time going to movies and jazz clubs," said Marcucci. "It was cool."

Even outsiders noticed this more content, more open-minded Alcindor. "The face lights up in a ready smile," Jeff Prugh wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "The demeanor is cool, but cordial. The feelings surface more quickly and are expressed sometimes good humoredly." In part this was natural maturation, but there was another reason Alcindor evinced a sense of inner peace. Over the summer he had converted to Islam.

Alcindor had first become intrigued by Islam during his freshman year at UCLA, when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Like Malcolm, Alcindor eschewed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, whose U.S.-bred version of Islam included rants about white devils and exhortations to violent retribution. Alcindor was drawn to Islam's traditional Eastern-based doctrines, which he called "the real Islam."

While living and working in New York City during the summer of 1968, Alcindor studied at a mosque on 125th Street in Harlem. He immersed himself in the Sunni tradition, as Malcolm had. For two weeks he took instruction each day beginning at 6 a.m. He converted in late August and was given the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means "noble servant of the powerful One."

Alcindor did not tell teammates or coaches about his conversion until December, on a road swing through the Midwest for games against 13th-ranked Ohio State and No. 5 Notre Dame. On the bus ride between Columbus and South Bend, Alcindor started talking religion with Patterson, a born-again Christian who had started a church-based student group. When Patterson said the only way for a man to reach heaven was through Christ, Alcindor asked, "What about all those people in Africa who never heard of Jesus? Are they all going to hell?" Patterson answered that they were, and pretty soon the debate got heated.

Then an amazing thing happened: The conversation cooled into a thoughtful, civil exchange. Soon Patterson and Alcindor were joined by Don Saffer, who was Jewish, and Terry Schofield, who was Catholic. Other players shifted to that part of the bus, where they all discussed the presence of God, the meaning of life, the shared values of differing religions. Wooden moved closer as well. He didn't say much; mostly he listened. Finally Alcindor revealed that he had become a Muslim. Much to his surprise, the players and coaches weren't put off. Instead they were curious and accepting. "I didn't know who the hell Malcolm X was," Sweek said. "I learned a lot through [Lew]."

If anyone was likely to have been put off by Alcindor's conversion, it was Wooden. He was a deacon in his church, never missed a Sunday service and shared Patterson's devotion to Christ. Yet Wooden had no objection to Alcindor's newfound faith. He knew Alcindor would not have made such a profound decision without researching it thoroughly. The coach "was curious to know what Islam was all about," Alcindor said, "and really showed me the utmost respect [for] making my own choices."

That bus ride through a cold Midwestern night did more to fortify the players' bonds than any win could. "It's the most memorable moment of the years I spent at UCLA," Heitz said. For Alcindor, it was the first time his fellow students finally became his teammates. The first time they really felt like brothers.

THE BRUINS won both games on that trip. The Notre Dame game was part of a new nationally televised series that helped stamp UCLA as a brand while also giving visibility to Fighting Irish basketball. From there the Bruins steamrollered nine unranked teams, culminating with a 100--64 laugher over once-mighty Houston at Pauley Pavilion.

As in the past, however, those scores belied rising tensions. Wicks was a primary source. He was playing a lot of minutes, but he couldn't understand why Patterson and Shackelford were starting ahead of him. Unlike so many sophomores, Wicks wasn't intimidated by Wooden. "People say we butted heads," Wicks said. "I like to say we expressed ourselves."

Wicks also made his displeasure known to Shackelford. "He was very frustrated," Shackelford said. "What he didn't realize was that I was a much smarter player in pressure situations." Now a senior, Shackelford had been through this before, and it was wearing him out. The responsibilities of playing for UCLA, the expectations, the grinding, exhausting practices—"It was becoming more of a job," Shackelford said. "My last year wasn't as exciting as it should have been."

Here the Bruins were, undefeated again, ranked No. 1, perfectly positioned to mount a run at an unprecedented third straight NCAA title, and yet everyone was feeling the strain, Wooden most of all. He had an older team now, and the upperclassmen were no longer cowed. (After he retired, Wooden was asked who was harder to coach, black players or white players. He replied, "Seniors.") Saffer's playing time had dwindled so much that he decided to quit the team.

Wooden also had several blistering confrontations with Heitz. When the coach received an anonymous letter that aired some of the team's dirty laundry, he assumed that Heitz had written it and confronted him after a pregame meal. Heitz had not, in fact, written the letter. "I just completely lost it," Heitz said. "I was like, 'You are out of your mind.' I went to my room and I'm thinking, S---, I'm never going to play here again."

Alcindor too was feeling the tension. Before a game against Washington State he came down with a migraine so intense that the doctor wouldn't allow him to warm up until 15 minutes before tip-off. "It's got to be the constant pressure he's under," Wooden said. "He can't even talk to a friend or anybody else and not have to answer questions about what he's going to do about pro basketball."

Wooden admitted two days later that he got into his guys during halftime of their home game against Oregon on Feb. 22 because he didn't think they were playing with enough passion, even though they would win by 34 points. "I may have to assume that demeanor a little more often, but it's not good to have to verbally lash a team to keep the pressure on it," he said. "You don't talk natural fight into people. That's inborn." The Bruins may have been on their way to making history, but they weren't having a lot of fun doing it.

Wooden hardly recognized what he had wrought. His unparalleled ability to teach the game had coincided with an enormous influx of talent as well as a burgeoning television industry. It was enough to make anyone lose his balance.

One day during Alcindor's senior season, Wooden found himself at the weekly writers' luncheon sitting next to former Bruins guard Freddie Goss, who had just been hired as the coach at UC Riverside. Even though he got the job largely on Wooden's recommendation, Goss said, "He told me point-blank, 'Freddie, this is no life.' He looked at coaching basketball as a way to teach ethics. At some point it became this fast-moving train, and he didn't know how to get off."

Wooden wasn't exactly unhappy; he did like to win, after all. But his program had become a monster, and it was all he could do to keep from being devoured by it. "I can honestly say that I received more criticism after we won a championship than I did before we won one," he said. "That's why I've always said I wish all my really good friends in coaching would win one national championship. And those I don't think highly of, I wish they would win several."

The games were the worst part of it. Wooden lived for practice, but when game night came he could only sit in his seat squirming, clutching his rolled-up program, barking at the referees. Two months after his team won the 1968 title, Wooden admitted to the Daily Bruin that he wasn't sure how much longer he wanted to keep his job. "The last two years have been tremendous from a winning standpoint," he said, "but they have been my most trying years for a number of reasons."

It was all he could do to steal a few quiet moments. Often before practice began, Wooden would ask Marcucci to shag for him while he shot underhanded free throws. "We would chitchat a little bit, but I could see he was thinking about a lot of stuff," Marcucci said. "Now that I look back on it, I'm convinced it was a way for him to mentally get away from the pressure."

BY THE time the Bruins got to Louisville for the final weekend of the 1969 NCAA tournament, they didn't want to win the title so much as get it over with. That sapped them of their competitive edge, and it nearly cost them in their semifinal, against Drake. UCLA ran out to an 11--2 lead, but then the Bruins seemed to relax. Wooden was particularly annoyed with Sweek, whose playing time had dwindled the last few weeks. When Sweek missed a defensive assignment midway through the first half, Wooden benched him. Sweek seethed. "I was a senior," he said. "This was my 89th game. I didn't think I needed a lesson at that point."

The old UCLA would have put the game out of reach, but there was no blitz in sight. In fact, the script was being flipped: Drake was the speedier and more cohesive unit. Sweek sat and watched his senior season teeter on the brink, yet Wooden would not put him back in. The only thing that kept the Bruins in front was John Vallely, the long-range marksman who tossed in a career-high 29 points. But when Vallely fouled out with four minutes left, Wooden had no choice but to send in Sweek.

When the coach summoned him, Sweek removed his warmup shirt slowly and sauntered to the scorer's table with a look of disgust on his face. He wanted Wooden to know just how pissed he was. As it turned out, Wooden didn't think he needed any lesson, either. "Sit down," he barked.

Sweek did not sit down. He headed straight for the locker room. He was through with John Wooden. Back on the court UCLA appeared to stay in control until the Bulldogs erupted for six points in the final 20 seconds, but they came up just short, 85--82. The Bruins' final opponent would be Wooden's alma mater, Purdue. Wooden, however, was not in a celebratory mood. All the pressure, the conflict, the mutinous behavior from his senior class had finally pushed him over the edge.

Wooden was the first member of the team to reach the locker room. He found Sweek naked in the shower, and he lit into his fifth-year senior. "It was madder than I had ever seen him," Sweek said. "The veins in his head were bulging." Wooden's assistants had to restrain him from tackling Sweek in the shower. The players stood agape. "It was tragic and hilarious," Heitz said. "Mostly hilarious. Wooden is yelling at Bill like he wants to fight him. Sweek is going, 'You wanna come fight, old man? You've been messing with my mind for five years!' And the whole team is dying laughing."

Sweek gave as good as he got. "You're right, Coach, and I'm wrong," he said sarcastically. "In fact, you're always right. Edgar Lacey quit, but you were right, and he was wrong. Don Saffer quit, but you were right, and he was wrong. All these problems, and you're just never wrong. Did you ever think the problem was you?"

Finally the assistants pried Wooden away. Sweek was sure he had played his last game for UCLA. When he woke up Friday morning, however, he had not yet been booted from the squad. So he went to breakfast. As the meal was winding down, Wooden said he wanted to speak to the team. He said he had thought about what Sweek had said and conceded his argument had some merit. He told the players how proud he was of them and how much he enjoyed coaching them. At the end Wooden shook hands with Sweek in front of the team. He never apologized—neither did Sweek—but the incident had been put behind them. "That he would try to bring us together and mend this thing, I thought was impressive," Sweek said. "He forgave me and wanted me to be there and play in the final game."

Maybe it was the catharsis of that confrontation. Maybe it was the presence of Alcindor's father, Big Al, playing first trombone in the UCLA band. Maybe it was the fact that there was only one game left. Or maybe it was simply that the Bruins were a great team that had gotten a lousy game out of their system. Whatever the reason, UCLA took the floor with real purpose on Saturday night. Purdue never had a chance. Wooden sicced his best defender, Heitz, on guard Rick Mount, and Heitz held the Boilermakers' star scoreless for more than 18 minutes during the first half. During one stretch Heitz forced Mount to miss 14 consecutive shots.

As the game wound down, the only suspense was whether Alcindor would go through with his plan to dunk in one last gesture of protest against the NCAA basketball rules committee, which forbade dunks. Wooden removed him with just under two minutes to play, before he had the chance. The final score was UCLA 92, Purdue 72.

It was an emphatic valedictory for the young giant. He finished with 37 points and 20 rebounds as he completed his college career with an 88--2 record, both losses coming by a single basket. In becoming the first player to be named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player three times, Alcindor established himself as arguably the greatest player in the history of college basketball. Wooden did the same as a coach. He was now the first coach to win five NCAA titles as well as the only one to capture three in a row.

After all they had been through, the seniors were only beginning to realize that the important things they learned from Wooden had little to do with basketball. "He was able to be flexible enough to change his thinking during the craziness of the '60s," Sweek said. "He was such a morally upright person. He could hear and he would listen. Despite his background, he was willing to change. "

For all that Alcindor had accomplished on the court, his two most vivid memories from his senior season took place on a bus and over breakfast. He never felt particularly close to Wooden, but he understood that Wooden was a major reason why he was leaving Westwood a better man. "He was a teacher above all else," Alcindor said years later, well after he became widely known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He challenged us without taking away our spirit."

The teacher learned a great deal from his students as well. It had been a trying three years, but the Alcindor era was officially over. Maybe now life could return to normal. Maybe Wooden could find a better balance. "I look forward to again coaching to try to win," he said, "rather than trying to avoid being defeated."

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PHOTOPhotograph by APMUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY Alcindor and Wooden were not close, but the cosmopolitan New Yorker and the small-town Midwesterner earned each other's respect. PHOTONEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSECOND HELPING In the spring of '68, just before he converted to Islam, Alcindor (back row, behind Wooden) won his second NCAA title with Warren (holding trophy) and Allen (42). FIVE PHOTOSNEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDALONE IN A CROWD Though he was one of the most dominant college players of all time, off the court Alcindor was wary of others and resentful of the attention he drew because of his height. PHOTORICH CLARKSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDOLD YELLER Contrary to his public image, Wooden was anything but calm during games, when he squirmed in his seat and jumped up to berate referees. PHOTOCURT GUNTHER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDGOODBYE, WESTWOOD Alcindor stood tall on the day he graduated, having led UCLA to three titles. He would soon sign with Milwaukee, where he would become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. PHOTO

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