Saturday, June 05, 2010

John Wooden: Untouchable record, incomparable man

By John Feinstein
The Washington Post
Saturday, June 5, 2010; D01

Through the years, there have always been milestones in sports thought to be untouchable. Once, Lou Gehrig's string of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games was on that list. Then Cal Ripken Jr. came along. Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional major golf championships was thought to be completely out of reach since no one else had won more than 11. The record still stands, but Tiger Woods now lurks just four behind. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is considered sacred, but Pete Rose did get within 12 of the magic number.

There's one men's college basketball record, though, that not only will never be broken, the likelihood is it will never even be threatened: 10 national titles. That's how many NCAA championships John Wooden won at UCLA. No other coach -- not Mike Krzyzewski, not Adolph Rupp, not Bob Knight, not Dean Smith -- has even gotten halfway to that mark. In fact, those four, generally considered the four greatest college basketball coaches in the game's history not named Wooden, have won 13 titles combined. Perhaps even more remarkable: Wooden won those 10 championships during a 12-season span, beginning in 1964 and ending in 1975, when he retired after UCLA beat Kentucky in that year's national championship game.

He was 64 when he walked away -- younger than Rupp, Knight or Smith were when they retired and the same age Krzyzewski will be next February. He was 99 when he died on Friday, the unquestioned best in the history of his sport. Some may talk about how Wooden won his titles in such a different era. Others will bring up the whispers about UCLA players being taken care of by the famous booster Sam Gilbert in ways that ran outside of NCAA regulations.

Either argument misses the forest for the trees. Wooden won in 1964 and 1965 with a small team that pressed all over the court. He won from 1967 through 1969 with center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the greatest player in college basketball history. He won the two years after that with Steve Patterson, very decidedly not the greatest player in college basketball history, replacing Alcindor. Then he won twice more with Bill Walton in the middle, and he won his last title with a team that probably should have lost to Louisville in the national semifinals and easily could have lost to Kentucky in the championship game.

He also saw to it that almost all of his players graduated, and if freshmen had been eligible when Alcindor was a UCLA freshman in 1966, he might easily have won 10 straight national titles instead of nine in 10 years, from 1964 through 1973.

Wooden won with more talent and more size than the opposition, and he won with less talent and size than the opposition. He won playing fast, and he won playing slow. On the rare occasions when he did lose, he never blamed his players or the officials. He was as gracious in defeat as he was in victory.

Red Auerbach, arguably the greatest professional coach of all time, knew Wooden well and often made fun of how proper and Midwestern Wooden always was. Several years ago, before he died in 2006, Auerbach talked about the fact that he believed he was one of the few people who ever gave Wooden a hard time about anything.

"I used to tease him about the fact that he would never curse," Auberbach said. "He would say to me, 'Red, you don't have to use profanity to motivate players.' I would say to him, 'John, you don't have to use profanity to motivate players. Most of us do.'

"But the thing people missed with him was how smart he was. He was genuinely a humble guy, never pointed out how well he'd coached or how he had outsmarted the other guy. He just did it, smiled and moved on to the next thing. The thing he did best, though, was he could coach anybody: Some of those guys he had, especially Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, weren't exactly easy to deal with. But they never questioned him. People didn't give him credit for how much he got out of those guys and all the guys who played for him."

Krzyzewski has been asked through the years if his success -- he has been to 11 Final Fours, only one fewer than Wooden -- is somehow comparable to Wooden's because it now takes six victories to win the national title as compared to four throughout most of Wooden's run. (It was five the last time he won, in 1975.) Krzyzewski's answer has always been emphatic.

"What Coach Wooden did will never be touched," Krzyzewski has often said. "And the number of games you win in the tournament isn't as important as the number you can lose -- none. One bad shooting night or one good shooting night by the other team and you're gone. One bad call can knock you out, or a key injury at the wrong time. That's the beauty of the college game and of the tournament. But it's also the reason why none of us has ever come close to what he did and none of us ever will.

"You can have a pretty good argument about who is the second-greatest college coach of all time. There's absolutely no argument about who is the greatest."

John Wooden, 97 and counting, 2007
(Alex Berman / October 12, 2007)

Former players join Wooden at a party for his 97th birthday. Among them were, from left, Mike Warren, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.

I had the chance to know him even though he was out of coaching before I began working at The Post because he was always so accessible. As recently as 2006, when I wrote a book on the Final Four, he was still a great interview: His memory was extraordinary, and his insights always made you stop and think.

My most vivid memory of him though, goes back to the 1984 Final Four in Seattle. Coach Wooden's wife Nell was terminally ill and had come to the Final Four knowing it was likely going to be her last one. She was in a wheelchair, and all weekend, Coach Wooden pushed her around trying to see as many friends as possible.

Late one night in the coaches' hotel, the Woodens said their goodnights to a group of friends and started across the lobby. The place was packed even though it was well after midnight. Seeing Coach Wooden pushing his wife in the direction of the elevators, someone started to clap. Then someone else picked it up and then someone else. By the time the Woodens had reached the elevators, everyone in the lobby had turned in their direction and was clapping. No wild cheers -- John Wooden was never someone who wanted wild cheers -- just warm applause and quite a few tears.

Coach Wooden stopped and turned Nell so she could face everyone. The two of them waved their hands and nodded their thanks.

Years later, I asked Coach Wooden if he remembered that moment, and for an instant, I thought he had forgotten because he was completely silent. Finally he said: "Oh yes, I remember it. That was a very sad time for me, but having all those people do that so spontaneously, well, it meant a lot to me and to Nell. There is nothing quite like the respect of your peers."

For one of the few times in his life, John Wooden was wrong. As a coach, he had no peers. And he was a better man than he was a coach.

That, more than anything, is his legacy.

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