Monday, April 03, 2006

Adrian Wojnarowski: UCLA's Tainted Dynasty

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.



TheCanadian said...

The quote from Walton is false. It is actually from terrorist sympathizer and radical journalist Jack Scott. The following is the letter I wrote to Dan Werzel of Yahoo (who originally dredged this quote up during the Final Four) on this topic.

Dear Mr. Wetzel:

As a UCLA fan, I was alarmed by your April 2 column, concerning alleged statements that Bill Walton made in a book concerning improprieties in UCLA’s basketball program during John Wooden’s tenure. In a follow-up on April 5, you wrote to a reader, “You don't think those comments by Walton were, at the very least, worthy of reprinting? When I first read them last year, I couldn't believe they weren't better known. Seriously, Bill Walton said that, if investigated, UCLA would have to give up seven NCAA titles and go on probation for 100 years. Sorry, but that's worth cribbing.”

I ordered a copy of the book, “On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers,” used copies of which are readily available on I assume you will be surprised to learn (and will immediately inform your readers) that your characterization of Walton’s comments is completely false.

First, you stated in your April 2 column that the book was written by Walton (“Those quotes come from none other than Bill Walton, maybe the greatest Bruin of them all, in his 1978 book ‘On the Road with the Portland Trailblazers’”). This is false. The book was written by Jack Scott. In the Author’s Note, Scott wrote: “Bill never asked to read even one page of the manuscript – never mind the entire manuscript – before it went to the printer. Consequently, I am solely responsible for the book’s content. You should not automatically assume that Bill agrees with all of the opinions I express throughout the book…”

Second, you quoted Walton as saying (or writing), “If the UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s were subjected to the kind of scrutiny (other schools) have been, UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national championships and be on probation for the next 100 years.” This, too, is false. This was the author, Scott’s, statement, not Walton’s (page 215).

Moreover, the insertion of the parenthetical statement “(other schools)” is misleading. The actual words Scott wrote (which you replaced with “(other schools)” was “Jerry Tarkanian and his players.” Scott was defending Tarkanian, with whom Scott identified for obvious reasons: Scott was a former athletic director at Oberlin College, which, he wrote in “On the Road,” the NCAA “put under intensive investigation for illegal recruiting while I was the athletic director” (page 215). A quick Google search reveals that in a 2000 obituary on the Oberlin College website, Scott is described as “a renowned critic of organized athletics [who] took every opportunity to lash out against the financial exploitation of collegiate and professional athletes, arguing that sporting events should cater to the needs of participants rather than owners, advertisers and spectators.”

Had you correctly attributed this seemingly damning quote to Scott, rather than incorrectly to Walton, you might also have thought it appropriate to inform your readers about Scott’s background, to which much of his book was devoted. Scott was a writer for the radical 1960’s magazine Ramparts, and was closely associated with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Extended portions of the book detail Scott’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI as that agency (which he accused of “crimes and killings,” see Introduction, page xvii) “harassed” him and his family for years merely because he harbored his fugitive friends, SLA members Patty Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris, for six months. Your readers might have been interested in examining the merit of Scott’s opinions of Sam Gilbert and Jerry Tarkanian in the context of his opinions of the FBI and SLA.

The only conceivably damning quote in your article that Scott actually attributes to Walton was Walton’s alleged statement to Scott that “It’s hard for me to have a proper perspective on financial matters, since I’ve always had whatever I wanted since I enrolled at UCLA” (page 212). However, Scott’s book (unlike your article) at least put this alleged quote in context – it comes immediately after Scott’s explanation that it was easy for Walton to stay at UCLA for four years and resist turning pro because “he came from a comfortable middle-class background.” Even as presented by Scott, it appears that Scott and Walton were discussing Walton’s privileged background, not largesse from Gilbert. Of course, Scott, who barely disguised his anti-Gilbert agenda throughout the book, is content to let the reader draw the more nefarious conclusion.

Perhaps due to his political viewpoint, his own anger at being under “intensive investigation” by the NCAA, and/or Walton’s firing of Gilbert as his advisor at about the time the book was written (pages 168-69), Scott used Gilbert as a whipping boy whenever Gilbert came into play. He implied, without evidence, that Gilbert had mob connections (page 213) and made unsupported but provocative statements such as “[h]is critics have questioned how someone who does so much for free could also be a self-made millionaire” (id.). This is typical of Scott’s “journalism,” in which, for example, he suggests without evidence that NBA referees are on the take (page 6 and accuses Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsey of racism based on unsourced innuendo and despite Walton’s admiration for Ramsey (page 115). Scott also excused Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from publicly accusing Walton of marijuana use by writing that “Kareem explained that it was Sam Gilbert who told him this story about Bill” (page 211).

Yet even with his undisguised bias and politically charged point of view, Scott ultimately wrote that “Bill and I doubt John Wooden was aware of the ‘support’ his star players regularly received, and these revelations should not detract from his brilliant coaching record” (page 215).

The bottom line is that Jack Scott – a radical sportswriter and rogue athletic director, closely associated with the murderous SLA – is the person who provided the “money quote” on which your article was based, not Bill Walton. I think you would be doing your readers (as well as journalism) a disservice if you fail to correct the falsehoods on which your article was based.


Anonymous said...

Whether Walton made those comments or not the evidence is overwhelming that Gilbert was as guilty as sin.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how attacking the author of a 30 year old book denies or affirms Sam Gilbert's involvement with UCLA's basketball program. I would assume the complete absence of any "real" quotes from Walton himself denying the authenticity of the book would put the Canadian in the unenviable position of writing for Walton just as he claims Scott has.

As a Kentucky fan, allow me to tell the short story of UK's downfall in the late 80's. Kentucky had a new president, David Roselle. The NCAA was conducting an investigation into some minor infractions involving the basketball program. The standard operating procedure (even to this day) is for athletic programs and their universities to stonewall and in no way give the NCAA any more information or access than is absolutely necessary. Roselle made the fatal error of not only inviting the NCAA in, but also allowing unlimited access to files, administrators, you name it. This is personal opinion, but I feel confident saying that any school in the United States would be hammered by the NCAA if they allowed full access in that manner. Imagine allowing the police into your home to search for ANYTHING illegal. Would they find something illegal? Of course. Maybe you pulled the tag off your mattress, maybe you have a roof truss that doesn't pass building code, maybe you have a pound of pot in your closet.

The point is, who would call the police and invite them into their home? Only a fool, and that's what Roselle was. Imagine a coach who could not win a national title in 15 years but magically finds the formula to win 88 in a row and ten national titles. That's the point, and it does not take a genius to see what happened here. Drag Scott through the dirt as if it even matters.

Blarney said...

Before you ordered this book, and wrote this novel-length should've researched what Walton RECENTLY said on the subject.

In a documentary of Tark's Legacy at UNLV done by the Mountain West Conference's TV station, Walton confirmed what was written in the book and confirmed that UCLA players weren't held to the same standard as Long Beach State players. That Tark was harrassed....came from Walton's OWN MOUTH.

Sucks being wrong.....

Anonymous said...

for the kentucky fan- you forgot about the numerous other problems like shawn kemp who got in only because then coach eddie sutton's son (also a player on the team) took the s.a.t for him and of course the federal express incident where money in a package was headed off to recruit chris "thousand dallor" mills.
no, kentucky was a bigtime cheating program. they had been cheating since adoplh rupp. kentucky was horrible. now they got calipari. wonder how thats gonna work out.

Anonymous said...

Walton has denied on many occasions making the quotes in question. As for Tark, he has always had a problem with UCLA because he believes that former Athletic Director JD Morgan turned him into the NCAA for violations when he was at Long Beach. Second point. Sam Gilbert had no connection with UCLA's team until he met Lew Alcindor and Lucious Allen in their junior season. So by that point in time, Coach Wooden had already won three national titles and had the best team in the country already on campus (in those days you couldn't leave early for the pro's) as well as having signed the freshmen who were the keys to winning titles the following years.