Entries in John Wooden (3)


Kareem: ‘America has to start talking’

By Art Spander

LOS ANGELES — He was called The Big Fellow. A description both accurate and incomplete. We learned there was so much more to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than just his physical presence, as imposing as it was.

Beyond the 7-foot-2 basketball player was the student. And the author. And perhaps most important of all in a time of sporting strife, sideline anthem sit-downs, spectator disenchantment, the thinker.   

Abdul-Jabbar was honored the other night, presented the Roy Firestone Award by Westcoast Sports Associates, a group of young professionals who with proceeds from their annual dinner — this was the 22nd — fund athletic activities for underprivileged kids.

Firestone, the longtime TV sports interviewer, was the original recipient, in 1996, and is now the event’s host.

The idea is to recognize a sports figure who has been involved in charitable work. The list includes Jim Brown, Arnold Palmer, Joe Montana, Hank Aaron and Steve Young. That Abdul-Jabbar, so private for so long, was willing to accept surprised some.

Maybe at 70 he has mellowed a bit. Maybe he realizes with his reputation beyond the basketball court, winner a year ago of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, there come obligations, a sky hook version of noblesse oblige.  

The way it works with the award is that a well-prepared Firestone and the honoree sit facing each other center stage, Firestone probing, the subject responding.

“We promised not to get into politics,” said Firestone as the program concluded, “but beside the obvious, what can we do as a people to come together — not just taking a knee like Colin Kaepernick — come together again as a country?”

Abdul-Jabbar never hesitated. “People say what this is all about,” he said. “It’s all about talking to your fellow Americans, no matter what they look like, or their ethnic background or religious background, their socioeconomic background. Talk, and we can discuss the problems we have to solve. But until we start talking to each other, nothing’s going to happen.

“This is the greatest country in the world. We can solve any problems.”

The all-time NBA scoring champion, a six-time MVP, a man who was among the leaders of the black boycott of the American team in the 1968 Olympics, sounding very much like a politician — and drawing an ovation from an audience ready to head home.

The years pass quickly. In the mind’s eye it is 1971, and Kareem still was being called Lew Alcindor, although “Jabbar” (no Abdul) was on the back of his jersey with Milwaukee.

That was some Bucks team, ’70-’71, Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Lucius Allen and of course Kareem, who was in his second season. It would play — and beat, four games to one — the San Francisco Warriors in the second round of playoffs on the way to the championship.

Because a flower show was being held at Milwaukee Arena, the Bucks' home games that playoff were at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was the Warriors beat man for the San Francisco Chronicle then, and on an off-day I interviewed Kareem, who was grudgingly cooperative.

“He’s naturally shy,” Firestone told me some 45 years later. Having seen photos of Kareem, who then was Lew, in elementary school, a head taller than any of his classmates, I understood. He hoped to blend in — to do the impossible and be like everyone else.

Now he is proud to stand tall, literally and metaphorically. The insults — his coach at Power Memorial High in New York called him the “N” word to motivate him — and the slights no longer matter. As his college coach, John Wooden, told him, forgive.

“At a certain point, Coach Wooden got through to me,” said Abdul-Jabbar, whose latest book of the six he has written, Coach Wooden and Me, released in June, deals with the relationship between an old coach and a younger athlete.

They ended up having more in common than either would have imagined. Maybe that also is true for all of society.


RealClearSports: The Great Fight Ends for John Wooden

By Art Spander

The discipline is about to begin up in heaven. St. Peter will learn how to wear his socks and tie his shoes. Or else.

John Wooden's arrived, and if there's one thing John never could accept, it was ignoring fundamentals, whether dealing with the proper method of shooting free throws or the proper method of getting into one's footwear.

Read the full story here.

© RealClearSports 2010

RealClearSports: Wooden Wins a Big One, No. 99

By Art Spander

He couldn't win the big one. That was the criticism of John Wooden. Fifty years ago.

Times change. Perceptions change. Integrity never changes.

Couldn't win the big one.

Wooden was in his formative years at UCLA, a team competent enough in the old Pacific Coast Conference and its successor, the AAWU. But in the tournament, there was USF with Bill Russell, or Santa Clara with Ken Sears, and the Bruins were eliminated.

Then they began to eliminate everybody else. Starting in 1964, UCLA won all the big ones, won 88 games in a row, won seven NCAA championships in a row, and John Wooden earned a reputation he's never lost as the finest college basketball coach in history.

The great man, the "Wizard of Westwood'' -- a phrase Wooden still dislikes; it came from the title of a book by Dwight Chapin and the late Jeff Prugh -- turns 99 today, October 14. Ninety-nine, one short of a century.

Sadly, he is looking his age, frail, fighting through one ailment after another, the sort of problems not uncommon to those who make it to their ninth decade.

Delightfully, he never acts his age. He hates being pushed in a wheelchair. Doesn't want to be fussed over.

"I'm embarrassed not being able to get around,'' he said a while back. "I don't like it.''

Who does? In our minds, it's always yesterday, always a time of youth, when we never imagined what the future would be, never dreamed those old guys would be us.

The India Rubber Man someone called Wooden. He was the All-America from Purdue in the early 1930s. He would hit the floor and bounce up. Then he would hit a basket.

He became an English teacher and a coach. No, he became The Coach. After serving as a naval lieutenant in World War II.

UCLA hired him from Indiana State in 1948. He headed west and almost headed back to Indiana. Life in southern California, call it the "Hollywood Effect,'' was unsettling. Wooden considered leaving not long after he arrived.

But he still was there when I entered in 1956, a freshman on the school paper, the Daily Bruin, sent to interview Wooden in less than elegant campus surroundings, a spartan office in a wooden bungalow maybe 150 yards from an antiquated gym so small (2,500 seats) and so closed-in it was, in a word-play on the Tennessee Williams drama, nicknamed "The Sweatbox Named Perspire.''

Wooden was polite if impatient. Businesslike. Efficient. The Pyramid of Success, now marketed, was attached to the wall. He had his ideas. When he would get his players, Walt Hazzard (Mahdi Abdul-Rahman) and Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, the ideas were brilliant.

Twenty-seven years, 10 NCAA titles, 620 wins, 147 defeats. UCLA finally got its building, Pauley Pavilion, in 1965, and Wooden finally got an office worthy of his status. But deep down, he was still the no-nonsense guy from Middle America.

For many years, Wooden has lived in an unpretentious San Fernando Valley condominium that is more museum than residence. Memories, homilies and most of all awards are on virtually every inch of the walls, atop every desk, table or trophy cabinet.

There is a letter from Richard Nixon, a bobblehead doll of Tommy Lasorda, a Yankees cap from Derek Jeter, a photo montage of John Stockton, of whom Wooden wistfully noted, "Was the last player in the NBA to wear shorts, not bloomers.''

He has books about Mother Teresa, a Medal of Freedom award from George W. Bush, a football autographed by Don Shula and, of course, photos of the UCLA teams he coached to titles before retiring in 1975.

"Nell arranged those pictures in the Pyramid of Success,'' explained Wooden, alluding to his wife, who died in 1985. "I didn't like that, but I wasn't going to change anything she did.''

Nell Riley was the only girl John Wooden of Martinsville, Indiana ever dated. There's a framed photo, leaning against a wall, of the two of them, John 16, Nell 16. The love of his life, to whom he still writes a letter the 21st of every month.

Her name is alongside his on the basketball floor at Pauley. It was the only way he would allow the court to be dedicated, to both of them.

Wooden is a baseball fan. He would come to UCLA games when they still played at a utilitarian facility on the land where Pauley was erected and harass the opponents, a classic "bench jockey,'' insulting but never obscene. Wooden can talk about Babe Ruth. Or about Barry Bonds.

John Wooden knew. John Wooden knows. In 99 years, he hasn't missed much. Including winning the big one.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009