April 3, 2006
The Bergen County Record
INDIANAPOLIS -- Everywhere Jerry Tarkanian goes at this Final Four, the blue and gold, the magical four letters, the thunderous U-C-L-A chants on the streets, bring Tark back to college basketball's greatest dynasty, back to a name most synonymous with the championship seasons.
Only, it isn't John Wooden.
Or Lew Alcindor.
Or Bill Walton.
"I think about Sam Gilbert," Tark said Sunday afternoon.
And that's the name that causes a roomful of frolicking Bruins boosters and fans to go uneasily quiet. Sam Gilbert, the two dirty little words of the dynasty.
For the record, Tark will go where others genuflecting at the altar of John Wooden will never journey. He'll say the name that amid the hype for tonight's UCLA-Florida national championship game, you're guaranteed to never hear on CBS. The NCAA tournament loves its nostalgia, its mythology and you'll be getting the full force of this farce from the RCA Dome.
"To people, John Wooden is a god," Tark said.
It is a losing proposition to suggest that UCLA's 10 national championships under Wooden were won with anything but the talent of great players and the lessons and leadership of a legendary coach. It just is never talked about -- out in the open, anyway.
It was what it was, though: Sam Gilbert was a Los Angeles construction man who lavished the Wooden-era UCLA players with money, cars, gifts, the run of his mansion, whatever. Anything those players wanted, the dynasty's sugar daddy was reputed to provide it.
"To this day, what blows me away -- what still makes me angry -- is that Sam Gilbert never tried to hide what he was doing," Tark said. "But the NCAA was never going to investigate UCLA. They were the marquee team. They had all of the games on television. But I lived 20 minutes away in Long Beach and I knew what was going on there. The whole country, the NCAA, they all knew what Sam Gilbert was doing at UCLA.
"Hell, he bragged about it to a lot of people. He bragged about it to me. Once, he liked my point guard [Robert Smith] and said, 'Why don't you send him over to UCLA so I can take care of him?' The NCAA was always harassing me, but Sam Gilbert was violating more rules than anyone in America.
"I was told that John Wooden used to always say that he wished Sam would stay away from the program. I was told that he went to [the AD] J.D. Morgan about it, and Morgan told him that he would take care of it. But it went on and on."
These days, Tark is hardly on the UCLA warpath. Truth be told, he loves the Bruins' coach, Ben Howland. As funny as it sounds, Tark will be sitting in Howland's seats for the game tonight.
What's more, Tark's never had a personal problem with Wooden, who always was very nice and very generous with him through the years. His issue isn't with Wooden, but a system that selectively punished cheaters.
This isn't to absolve Tark by means of some great conspiracy to get him. He is a well-deserved and well-decorated NCAA probation loser at Long Beach, UNLV and Fresno State. I covered him for 2½ years in Fresno, had my drag-outs with him, but the years have taught me that some of the most respected names in the sport -- some of the so-called giants -- are the biggest crooks going. Tark always told me, and only in the last few years have I come to agree with him.
Ultimately, Tark thinks that if you want to believe that his four Final Fours and his 1990 national championship are tainted, then you have to take a look at UCLA, too. I always believed that his fight with the NCAA wasn't so much about his own innocence, but the fact that there were competitors of his who had been deemed untouchable and never got popped too.
If you think this is just Tark barking at the moon, trying to justify his own misdeeds, consider a different source, someone whose agenda is beyond reproach. While working with Tark on his memoir "Running Rebel," author Dan Wetzel dug up a Bill Walton quote from a 1978 book, "On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers."
If you ever want to debate that there is a double standard between the chosen programs and those branded as renegade by the NCAA, consider this stunning passage.
"UCLA players were so well taken care of -- far beyond the ground rules of the NCAA -- that even players from poor backgrounds never left UCLA prematurely (for pro basketball) during John Wooden's championship years," Walton said. "If the UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s were subjected to the kind of scrutiny Jerry Tarkanian and his players have been, UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national championships and be on probation for the next 100 years.
"... The NCAA is working night and day trying to get Jerry, but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA."
Here's the thing, too: This doesn't make Wooden less of a philosopher, less of a teacher, less of a great American icon. To me, it doesn't change the fact that the afternoon I spent in his condo two years ago rates as one of the best days I've ever had in this business. It's just a reminder there is no Camelot in sports. And there are no saints.
Wooden is 95 years old, bigger and more beloved than ever, and as Tark said one Hall of Fame coach told him this weekend, "People won't really start talking about [Wooden's] legacy until he's gone."
Wooden is still the kind of man, just like those Bruins were the kind of champions, who never will be duplicated. The banners are still hanging in Pauley Pavilion, the 100 years of probation that Walton swears would've been warranted never did come. Admire the UCLA history tonight, but don't let yourself get lost in the mythology. There was no Camelot in college basketball, no saint.