Monday, June 14, 2010

John Wooden's legend eclipses his competitive fire

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; D01

Somewhere under all the layers of folklore there was a living, active, imperfect man -- not the avuncular, grandfatherly John Wooden, but a Wooden with faults, inner fire, and a blind spot or two. In the many eulogies and tributes, we see just brief flares of the real personality. His formality of speech and refusal to curse were courtly, yes, but there was another side to him, something implacable, a touch of iron, and if we don't recognize that, we've lost his entire point.

Those cornerstones in the Pyramid of Success were noble platitudes, such as "loyalty" and "industriousness," but they ascended to what? Not to saintliness. To "Competitive Greatness," a potentially immoderate goal, as Wooden well knew and expressed if you really listened to him. A bespectacled old grandpappy doesn't win 10 championships in 12 years out of saintly mild-manneredness. Only a man dancing right on the edge of excess does that.

Of all of Wooden's sayings, none was perhaps more self-cautioning than this one: "Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be grateful. Conceit is self-given; be careful."

He left out a few blocks in that pyramid, such as obsession, a controlling nature, and punishing discipline.

"He had a hammer," says his first championship guard, Gail Goodrich.

This was a man who even paid attention to the thread count in his players' socks (50 percent wool). Who recommended their training table meals right down to how many stalks of celery (three), how many ounces of steak (10) and what temperature the meat should be cooked at (medium). Followed by fruit cocktail.

There has been a fair amount of myth-making around Wooden in the days since he died, which is understandable given that at the age of 99 he outlived most of the people who knew him well, and the remembrances of his players are so tinted by love, reverence and mistiness. The legend has overtaken the facts.

Perhaps the greatest myth about Wooden is that because he uttered maxims such as "Don't look at the scoreboard," he somehow was an abstractionist who didn't care about winning.

Goodrich remembers Wooden's speech in the locker room on the day that UCLA played Duke for the 1964 national championship. Goodrich expected some sort of inspirational address. Instead, Wooden stalked in and said, "How many of you remember who finished second last year?" No one raised a hand. "They don't remember who finished second," Wooden said. "Now go out there and play the way that got you here, and you'll be happy with the result." Later Wooden would confess, "I never wanted to win one more badly than that one."

In fact, he was a ferocious competitor whom Bill Walton characterized as a "caged tiger." Former UCLA women's coach Billie Moore knew Wooden well and would sit in the gym and watch Wooden drill squads that had won multiple national championships as if they were just learning the game. For the first 10 minutes they would practice without a ball, rehearsing proper footwork and timing. "It looked like improvised dance," she says. Players would pantomime two- and three-step combinations, jump stops, pump fakes, with Wooden insisting on correct follow-through. "Repetition, motor skills, the smallest steps," she remembers.

"What he knew was that when you have that kind of attention to detail, you don't have to worry about losing," Moore says.

So our image of him as the kindly schoolteacher is not entirely correct. Wooden doesn't seem to have treated his players like boys. He treated them like men: expected to follow rules, to discipline themselves, and to sublimate themselves to principles uncompromisingly. Which is not at all the same thing as indulgence. The relationship was purposeful and professional. It was Wooden's most crucial characteristic: He never indulged or infantilized athletes.

"He never enabled anyone," Goodrich says.

Willie Naulls, who in 1956 became his first consensus all-American, was from San Pedro, Calif., and one afternoon before a game, he informed Wooden that he needed to go home for a few hours. Wooden didn't forbid it, but he warned that traffic would be heavy and said, "You don't want to be late coming back." Naulls was in fact late. He arrived just before tip-off, and took a seat on the bench. Wooden refused to play him for the entire game.

"That's the kind of discipline we're talking about," Goodrich says. "He had a hammer. He was willing to go with players of lesser talent than with a star who thought he could dictate the rules or the play."

In that respect Wooden wasn't just old-fashioned; he was timeless. He preached virtue in the most classical sense -- from the Latin virtu, meaning manly excellence, and there was nothing avuncular about it. If Wooden spoke in platitudes, and if many of his sayings seemed familiar, that's because in fact they're 2,000 years old.

See if you don't hear a bit of Wooden in Epictetus (AD 55-135), the Stoic philosopher. "Practice yourself in little things, and thence proceed to greater."

Or better yet, hear him in Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Wooden saw virtue as Aristotle saw it, as an expression of habituated patterns of thought and action.

But for all of the classical neatness of the Pyramid, attaining virtue is not a neat process or a permanently achievable state, and Wooden understood that, too. It's an ongoing series of choices, of breaking old habits and forming better ones, of mistakes followed by reconsiderations, and regrets, of halting one-step-up-and-two-steps back progress, a struggle to curb. That's what he meant when he said, "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."

Wooden was not set in mythic bronze; he evolved and so did his message, from a corporatized version of success to a system of ethics. It seems true that Wooden deepened over time.

Wooden talked constantly to Goodrich about balance, "individual balance, and team balance." He insisted that Goodrich play with his head up, "because your head determines your balance," and he structured the offense so that the floor was always balanced with players. He distrusted overload situations.

The irony is that UCLA's 10 titles yielded such unbalanced success, the unreasonable demands of which drove him into retirement. At least some of that imbalance was a result of booster Sam Gilbert's influence. Whether Wooden, with his sharp-eyed attention to his players' celery stalks and socks, could have missed the fact that Gilbert was buying them cars is an open question. But what's not in question is that Wooden's teaching sought to counter indulgence, and to stress ethical, restrained, balanced behavior as the ultimate byproduct of winning.

It's not necessary to make a myth out of Wooden. He burned to win despite his protestations, and wasn't such a purist as all that.

Who was he really? A man not afraid to explore his intellect or ashamed to quote poetry. A man of fidelity. A man who never really craved wealth. A man who taught self-restraint, and strove to practice it himself. "He lived his rules," Goodrich says.

Surely that's enough. Surely that adds up to goodness.

John Wooden and an Inconvenient Truth

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the court at UCLA, John Wooden called the plays. Off the court, Sam Gilbert called the players.

-- Excerpt from 1991 book "Undue Process"

Strange, isn't it? We sports writers are quick to call out the cheaters and alleged cheaters, from Jim Calhoun to John Calipari to Barry Bonds and Bill Belichick -- Belicheat, we labeled him -- but when it came time to size up John Wooden's basketball dynasty at UCLA, most of us surrendered to the myth.

The country's most-decorated sports columnists, upon Wooden's death June 4, copied the NCAA's move from some four decades earlier and ignored a terribly inconvenient truth: UCLA cheated.

Go back and read the Los Angeles Times' explosive investigative piece from Feb. 1, 1982, and you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

Culled from 45 interviews with people connected to the program, including former players and coaches, the piece portrayed wealthy booster Sam Gilbert as a "one-man clearinghouse" for players. It detailed how members of seven of Wooden's 10 championship teams were lavished with "cars, stereos, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers' prices for season tickets," all against NCAA rules.

The Times' reporters were Alan Greenberg, since deceased, and Mike Littwin, now a general columnist for the Denver Post.

"No one other than Sam Gilbert ever disputed a word we wrote," Littwin says. "No one said they were misquoted. The only (fan) complaint we got was, 'Why don't you do the same thing to USC football?' "

I asked Littwin whether he was offended by the way journalists have ignored his work in their stories about Wooden.

"I don't feel bad," he said. "I just think when people write about a guy like John Wooden, it's very difficult to contradict the narrative, and the narrative is that John Wooden was a saint. Well, there are very few saints. He was a good man and a smart man, and I believe he chose to look the other way when it came to Sam Gilbert."

In other words, one could say Wooden "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance," to borrow a phrase the NCAA used in addressing Calhoun and UConn basketball. It applies to the Pete Carroll situation with USC football, as well, and you better believe Calhoun and Carroll are doing their turns in the media frying pan.

Even before Gilbert -- whom players called "Papa Sam" or "Papa G" -- gained influence in the mid-1960s, UCLA boosters apparently were paying players. That assumption isn't based on hearsay. It's based on quotes from the likes of Jack Hirsch, a starter on Wooden's first title team in 1964, who said the going rate was $5 per rebound up to 10 on a given night, and $10 for each one thereafter.

"It was a helluva great feeling to pick up $100 for a night's work," Hirsch told authors Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh in the Wooden biography "The Wizard of Westwood."

Not that any of this should have been the focal point of the Wooden tributes. He was a great coach, and, by all accounts, an even better man. (Littwin, incidentally, says Gilbert was not believed to have aided in the recruitment of Wooden's players, though he apparently helped keep some on campus.) It's just that if you're attempting to place UCLA's dynasty in the pantheon of sports achievements, you need to mention Sam Gilbert.

You need to at least acknowledge the possibility that UCLA's championship run was tainted.

Columnists would have done well to follow the lead of HBO's 2007 documentary, "The UCLA Dynasty," which waited until the final minutes to address the Gilbert issue but did so fairly.

"The puzzle of Papa G," the narrator said, "remains the elephant in the UCLA trophy room."

Does any of this detract from Wooden's legacy as a humble, giving man? Not one bit.

Does it mean he endorsed Gilbert's actions? No.

Did Wooden even know of them? As Littwin said, it's hard to believe Wooden was unaware of Gilbert's influence.

Does it call into question Wooden's coaching acumen? It shouldn't. He might well have won all those titles without Gilbert. We'll never know.

What we do know is that UCLA apparently broke NCAA rules at a much more prodigious rate than, say, the modern-day USC football and basketball programs, and, allegedly, the UConn men's basketball program. Not that you'd know it from reading America's best columnists.

John Feinstein, as good a sports writer as there is, basically told his Washington Post readers to disregard "whispers" about Gilbert's activities at UCLA.

Whispers? Gilbert's brazen rule-breaking was hardly hush-hush. In the HBO film, Lucius Allen, a star guard under Wooden, spoke of Gilbert supplying transportation and clothes and said, "The way he explained it to me, it was within the rules. But it wasn't."

Many of those who deftly avoided the elephant in the trophy room wound up stepping into some steaming piles of hypocrisy and unintended irony.

A sampling:

» Jay Mariotti of, who has called for Calhoun's firing, absolved Wooden of even benign neglect. Mariotti argued that when the NCAA hit UCLA with a two-year probation in 1981 -- largely based on Gilbert's activities -- it targeted the school's administration, not Wooden, who was well into retirement.

OK, so we're basing our Wooden exemption on the integrity of an NCAA investigation that was launched about 15 years too late and opted not to go back and address the title years? Wow. Can the Fab Five have a re-do?

» Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, index finger in full-wag mode, wrote that Wooden's sayings should be posted in AAU locker rooms across the land. I guess he was implying that AAU basketball is fraught with corruption, that money often changes hands in the peddling of star players.

I wonder if any get paid by the rebound.

Maybe one of the enduring lessons of the UCLA dynasty is this: If cheating can happen in a program run by as fine a human being as John Wooden, no program should be free of suspicion.

The Times, by the way, asked Wooden in 1981 about allegations from his days as coach (Gilbert died at age 74 in 1987, days before he was to be indicted for racketeering and money laundering).

"There was something Abraham Lincoln said -- he'd rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time," Wooden said. "Maybe I trusted too much."

If trusting too much was Wooden's only sin at UCLA -- and it might well have been -- then it is eminently forgivable. Understandable, even, given the kind of man he was.

But it doesn't change the inconvenient truth.

No comments: