Remembering John Wooden

John Wooden was a legend.

That’s a word that’s thrown around a lot these days, particularly in the realm of sports. Most sports legends aren’t. But he was.

Wooden died at the age of 99 in June, 35 years after retiring as the most successful (and many would say best) basketball coach of all time. During the final 12-year stretch of his career, his UCLA teams won 10 national championships, a record unlikely ever to be broken.

At one point, his teams won 88 games in a row, another record. He did all of this while remaining a moral beacon for the rest of us.

He was a deeply religious, non-swearing coach who saw to it that his players graduated. He said things like: “Nothing will work unless you do,” and “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And he lived that way.

Well, except for Sam Gilbert.

When Wooden went to UCLA in 1948, the basketball program was a shabby mess, lacking in facilities, players, and success. His pay was so meager that he had to take a day job as a dispatcher at a dairy.

Over the next 15 years he built that program into respectability and then into excellence. But he didn’t win a national championship until 1964, when some really good players began to show up. Interestingly enough, that’s about the time that Sam Gilbert showed up.

Gilbert was a Los Angeles contractor who had attended UCLA and was an avid basketball fan.

He had a lot of money and he really liked basketball. When he became involved in the basketball program as a booster, UCLA players began to dress better. Wooden didn’t seem to notice. (He was seen averting his eyes as he passed his young stars in their fur coats and jewelry on the team bus.) And the championships just kept rolling in.

When Lew Alcindor, a 7′ 3″ center of phenomenal talent, became disenchanted with Los Angeles during his sophomore year and considered transferring, he was taken to Gilbert, or “Papa Sam,” as he was called. Sam made things all better and Alcindor–later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar–went on to two more championships.

Gilbert is reported to have lavished clothes, cars, and cash on his young charges, and they responded with championship after championship. When they graduated, he served as their agent.

The joke was that Bill Walton, the superb center who followed Alcindor, had to take a pay cut when he turned professional.

Some rivals claimed that the UCLA program was the most corrupt in the nation. If only Wooden had known.

Although he did seem to be disturbed by Gilbert’s relationship to the team. He went to his athletic director, J.D. Morgan, and asked him to keep Gilbert away. Morgan, who had taken his job at about the same time Gilbert appeared on the scene, said he’d take care of it. To make a long story short, he didn’t. And the championships kept rolling in.

Wooden retired in 1975 after winning his tenth championship and the championships stopped.

Oddly enough, despite the Gilbert rumors, the NCAA never came after the UCLA program during Wooden’s time. Wooden remained the Saint of Westwood.

I’m not saying Wooden was a bad guy. He wasn’t one of those coaches who exploit players and abandon them when they’re no longer of use to them.

I’m saying he looked the other way. That was his crime.

I’m saying that big-time college athletics was such a cesspool that even a fine man like Wooden couldn’t escape without getting stains on his white suit.

And if you root for a top college team and think all those tall “scholar-athletes” are drawn to it for the school’s English department, I’ve got news for you:

Santa Claus is dead and the Easter Bunny is on life-support.

Wooden’s career is the proof.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.