A Winning Friendship

Review: 'Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court' by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

John Wooden in 2000 / Getty Images


Games have clear winners and losers, for the most part. Predetermined durations. Well-established markers of excellence. Easily understood paths to success. Life, instead, has just its muddle of unclarity, uncertainty, and unease. And so the temptation of arm-chair philosophers and the ambitious authors of self-help books: If we could somehow reinterpret life as a game, subject to the same patterns as sports, then wealth, health, and happiness would lie only a sudden-death touchdown away. A walk-off home run. A buzzer-beating basket. An overtime goal.

Perhaps that's why nearly all sports coaches imagine themselves as something more, preparing their players for the great game of life while guiding them through athletics. The slogans that adorn locker-room walls help the players long after their sports careers are over, those coaches insist: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, for example (a Ben Franklinism). Or the dogged It's not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up. Or the perennial spelling lesson There is no "I" in "Team."

Most of this is nonsense. All of it is calorie-lite, a boiling down of adult complexity into a thin gruel vainly imagined to feed the adolescent hunger for rule-bound certainty. For each ballyhooed example of an adult who found great success after playing high-level sports, athletics offers three examples of adults who spiraled into misery after their sports careers were over. Of all the lines one hears about athletic competition, the most fatuous may be the sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun's pronouncement that "Sports don’t build character; they reveal it." Plenty of bad characters have been good at athletics. Plenty of people who have excelled in sports have gone on to disaster afterward. The commonplaces of team sports need to be understood for what they are: superficial mantras coined by game-winning coaches who've promoted themselves into life-winning gurus.

And then there's John Wooden. The recent small book of reminiscence by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, is only one example of the near-universal esteem in which the UCLA basketball coach was held. Even players with an incentive to set themselves apart from him proved unwilling to do so. Bill Walton immediately grew a beard when he graduated to the NBA, in protest against the clean-shaven look Wooden demanded in college—but despite the adoration given to ostensible rebels in the 1970s, Walton never ceased to speak well of the man he still insists on calling "Coach Wooden," never posed himself as the liberal free-spirit breaking away from (and transcending) the man who had guided him through college.

Similarly, in a book overwhelmingly and over-insistently about race relations, Abdul-Jabbar never puts himself above or beyond the white coach with whom he remained in regular contact for nearly 50 years, from the time he arrived as a freshman at UCLA in 1966 until Wooden's death in 2010 at age 99. And what remains in Abdul-Jabbar's mind are not so much the mottoes that the coach came up with. (Always relatively underpaid by UCLA, Wooden made a fortune in later life as an inspirational speaker for businesses—touting the principles of his "Pyramid of Success," a system of virtuous slogans he came up with for his players.) What Abdul-Jabbar remembers instead are the small conversations and the little acts of the man: his active kindness, his moral seriousness, and his firmness of purpose.

For those who don't remember, there seemed something almost preternatural about the dominance that John Wooden's UCLA team established in the 1963-1964 college basketball season. A successful college player at Purdue and a high-school coach, he was hired in 1946 to be head coach of Indiana State and then, in 1948, to lead UCLA, a generally lackluster basketball school. Over the next 14 years, he proved reasonably successful, leading the team to some conference championships and postseason appearances. It was not, however, the kind of career about which sagas are written.

In 1961 and 1962, he finally had teams ready to compete at the highest national level, and the failure of those talented teams to reach NCAA championships may have been the low point of his career. And then, as the legend is told, assistant coach Jerry Norman persuaded Wooden to use a full-court zone press on defense, and the 1963-1964 season turned into an undefeated romp, 30–0, through to the NCAA championship.

The Wooden everyone knows, the Wooden of epic status, was the coach over the next decade or so. UCLA won 10 national championships in 12 years, including an unprecedented 7 in a row. (No team since has won more than two back-to-back championships.) The one scandal in Wooden's career came from his probably deliberate blindness to the gifts given to players by the wealthy and disreputable team booster, Sam Gilbert. The quality of players available for UCLA certainly increased with Gilbert's involvement, beginning with a New York high-school kid named Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Still, Wooden established UCLA basketball as a national powerhouse before Gilbert became important to the program, and, looking back, he insisted in old age that his conscience was clear when he considered his passive acceptance of the booster's role. From almost any other coach, that line about conscience would seem counterfeit, but the testimony of his players—especially as careful an observer as Abdul-Jabbar—makes one willing to believe that there was something different about Wooden. Something special, and something to be cherished.

As Abdul-Jabbar explains in Coach Wooden and Me, his book "is not just an appreciation of our friendship or an acknowledgment of Coach Wooden’s deep influence on my life. It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren't diminished or lost altogether."

When Abdul-Jabbar returned to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers in 1975, his relationship with Coach Wooden developed into a full friendship—and maybe even something more, after Abdul-Jabbar's parents died and Wooden lost his beloved wife: "I could feel the difference whenever I went to sit with him in his den," Coach Wooden and Me explains. "Before, it had felt like I was visiting a friend. Now it felt like I was coming home."

Even late in Wooden's life—even while writing the book, six years after Wooden’s death—Abdul-Jabbar would find himself surprised by the man's impact on his character. After hearing an anecdote about Wooden's stand against racial bigotry while coaching at Purdue, during a 2008 interview Abdul-Jabbar conducted, he suddenly felt himself on the edge of tears. "I looked at the shrunken ninety-eight-year-old man sitting there . . . and felt a tenderness for him that I had taken for granted," he writes. "I was still learning how deep his influence ran."

Coach Wooden and Me is written in a simple prose that occasionally borders on the simplistic. It meanders, and it's oddly paced, dwelling at length on some episodes while passing quickly over others, without much reason given. But through it all, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes across as a serious, thoughtful, and moral man. A good man. And Coach John Wooden comes across as even more serious, even more thoughtful, even more moral. A great man.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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