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.

For more from the author, visit his Web site at

For legendary coach Wooden, poetry was a passion, escape

By Seth Davis
Inside College Basketball
Friday June 4, 2010 10:24PM

I can't be sure that John Wooden was reciting poetry at the moment he drew his last breath on June 4, 2010 at the age of 99, but I have good reason to believe he was. In September 2006, when I visited Wooden at his modest apartment in Encino, Calif., he told me that he liked to recite poetry to help him fall asleep. He had a rotation of maybe a half-dozen ditties, including a couple that he had written himself. With an easy smile and a dulcet voice, Wooden recited for me one of the self-written poems he used to hypnotize himself:

The years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face
Erect no longer is my walk and slower is my pace
But there is no fear within my heart because I'm growing old
I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord
But I've gone to human prayer, he has brought me inner peace
And soon my cares and problems and other worries cease
He's helped me in so many ways, he's never let me down
Why should I fear the future when soon I could be near his crown?
Though I know down here my time is short, there's endless time up there
That he will forgive and keep me in his ever loving care

I asked him if he actually spoke out loud while completing his nightly routine. "Sometimes out loud, and sometimes I'll just recite them in my head," he replied. "But I'll never know. I may go to sleep in the second or third, or maybe the fourth. When I wake, I think, 'I wonder which one I fell asleep to?' "

So yes, I like to think Wooden was whispering rhymes when he left this world. No doubt his passing will be greeted with many tributes. By the simplest measure, he was arguably the most successful coach of any sport in American history, having won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. Given that only two schools (Duke and Florida) have even won two titles in a row since Wooden claimed his last in 1975, it's safe to say that achievement will never be surpassed.

Many other encomiums will be affixed to Wooden in the wake of his passing, and they will all be fitting. He was a gentleman, a scholar, a teacher and a friend. He was a straight arrow, a paragon of integrity, a man of unfailing humility and open spirituality. He was an author, a lecturer, a professor emeritus of sports and society. He was the ultimate family man.

I like to remember John Wooden the poet. He loved to read poetry, write it and especially recite it. His power of recall, even in his late-90s, was astounding. On the two occasions in which I ate breakfast with him at Vip's restaurant on Ventura Boulevard -- his favorite spot -- I ended up listening to him recite poetry to me in his den. When he told me, as he told so many others, that he would have been happy remaining as an English teacher back in Martinsville, Ind., it was easy to believe him.

John Wooden, 2006
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / March 7, 2006)

Wooden, at his Encino home, reads from an assembled book of poems sent to him by one of his former players, Swen Nater.

Wooden wrote nearly a dozen books, most of them variations on his Pyramid of Success, but for his final project he wanted to compose a book of poems. He conceived it in the same rigid, hyper-organized fashion in which he planned his practices: The book was going to contain exactly 100 poems, 20 each on family, faith, patriotism, nature and fun. During our last visit he told me he had composed about 65 or 70. He never intended to publish the compendium. He just wanted to leave it behind for his family.

The poems Wooden wrote over the years would never earn him a Nobel or a Pulitzer, but they did serve their purpose. In January 1962, Wooden received a letter in verse from one of his former players, Pete Blackman. He replied in kind with a long poem of his own lamenting the shortcomings of his current team. But he ended the letter with an upbeat stanza:

However, Pete, there's optimism
Beneath my valid criticism
I want to say -- yes, I'll foretell
Eventually this team will jell
And when they do, they will be great
A championship could be their fate
With every starter coming back
Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack
And Fred and Freddie and some more
We could be champs in sixty-four

That verse proved to be prescient. Despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-5, the 1963-64 Bruins gave Wooden the first, and most unlikely, of Wooden's 10 national titles.

Wooden's affection for the written verse also helped sustain him through the darkest period of life, when he fell into a deep depression following the death of his wife, Nellie, in 1985. He told me of the time he penned a few lines of doggerel after receiving an encouraging call from a close friend:

At times I'm feeling a little low, I hear from a friend and then
My worries start to go away and I am on the mend
No matter what the doctors say, and their studies have no end
The best cure of all when spirits fall is a kind word from a friend

I asked Wooden where his love of poetry came from. "I'd say from my father reading to us when I was on the farm," he said. "We lost the farm when I was a sophomore in high school, but my dad would read to us. We had no electricity, no running water, a few oil lamps. He would read to us from the Scriptures practically every night. He read a lot of the early American poems."

Wooden narrowed his eyes slightly and smiled. "I can just see my dad as I see you, if I close my eyes," he continued. "I studied poetry when I was in college. I wrote a paper on it as I worked towards my thesis. I've just enjoyed it. It paints a picture. A lot of people don't like it. I can't understand that."

John Wooden, Hall of Fame, 2006
(Ed Zurga / Associated Press / November 19, 2006)

The inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo., had five honorees: Wooden, James Naismith, Oscar Robertson, Dean Smith and Bill Russell.

In 2003, Wooden combined his love of poetry with his Pyramid of Success to write a children's book called Inch and Miles: The Journey To Success. The title refers to two characters -- a worm and a mouse -- who discover the Pyramid's tenets in search of the proper definition of success. (Success isn't having trophies or toys/It isn't a medal or friends of your choice/What is success? That's easy to see/It's trying to be the best you can be) The book brought Wooden great joy, not least because it enabled him to visit local elementary schools and meet with children who read it.

I can't say I knew John Wooden well, and I have no recollection of his tenure as the coach at UCLA. (I was not quite five years old when he won his last championship.) But I will always treasure the memory of those two visits to his apartment. You didn't have to be a professional sportswriter to gain an audience with him. You just needed a phone book and some time; his number was listed and he was fond of receiving visits from strangers who simply looked him up and dialed. Or, on any given morning you could just pop into Vip's, where he knew all the waitresses and busboys, as well as most of the customers. This, to say the least, was a man of habit. His son, Jim, liked to refer to Vip's as "Cheers without beer."

I visited Wooden ostensibly to interview him, but when you're in his presence you can't help but talk about yourself, in hopes that he will drop you a bit of his wisdom. So when I told him I was the father of two young boys, Wooden counseled that the most important part of parenthood was to provide a good example. That nugget was followed, naturally, with a poem written by a reverend, called "A Little Fellow Follows Me." Wooden spoke it by rote:

A careful man I want to be, a little fellow follows me
I do not dare to go astray, for fear he'll go the self-same way
I cannot once escape his eyes, whate'er he sees me do he tries
Like me, he says he's going to be, the little chap who follows me
He thinks that I am good and fine, believes in every word of mine
The base in me, he must not see, that little fellow who follows me
I must remember as I go, through summer's sun and winter's snow
I am building for the years to be, in the little chap who follows me

At the end of our visit, Wooden told me he wanted to give me something. He ambled over to his small desk, opened a drawer and pulled out an 8x11 slab of cardboard. The poem was printed on that board alongside a photograph of a man walking on a beach wearing a navy blazer, slacks and a white sailor's hat. A small boy walks a few paces behind him.

I asked Wooden to autograph the photo and poem to my sons. He turned on the lamp and in his meticulous, cursive handwriting he wrote, "To Zachary and Noah. Love, John Wooden." Today, the poem hangs framed on a wall in Noah's room. I like to think of it as Wooden's voice from the grave, speaking in rhyme.

Wooden always paid attention to detail

2010-06-04 22:55:45
The Orange County Register

John Vallely, John Wooden, 1970
(Associated Press)

In 1970, Wooden held the NCAA championship trophy again as the Bruins, led by guard John Vallely, who became known as "Money Man" for his play in big games, defeated Jacksonville, 80-69, in College Park, Md.

When John Vallely left Orange Coast College and got to UCLA, the train had left the station.

The Bruins had won four NCAA basketball championships. Vallely knew John Wooden, knew the players, knew the score.

Then Vallely and the Bruins got together for the first day of practice.

They practiced putting on their socks.

"I thought, this is the craziest thing I've ever been through," Vallely said Friday night.

For the next three days the Bruins hit the court, but not with a ball. They practiced balance, footwork, movement. Vallely looked around. Lew Alcindor was doing it, too.

Vallely would help the 1969 team win the title, as expected, and the 1970 team win another one, which was unexpected.

Everyone else talked about the winning. Wooden rarely did.

"He'd tell us that if we put forth the effort and were loyal to each other and unselfish, he had a pretty good idea what was going to happen," Vallely said.

It all began with smooth socks.

A 99-year-old life based on rapt attention to the most miniscule detail finally ended Friday night, 35 years after Wooden coached his final game.

He would have turned 100 on Oct. 14, the day before UCLA would begin practice. Originally the school was going to unveil the remodeled Pauley Pavilion on that birthday. Few doubted he would make it. His memory never failed him, whether it was black-and-white or color.

Vallely's immediate reaction was, "He's back with Nell," Wooden's beloved childhood sweetheart. They exchanged winks before each tipoff. She died in 1985 and, on the 21st day of each month Wooden wrote her a letter.

But there was also disbelief and disorientation Friday night, because Wooden leaves a permanent hole.

His brand of daily rigor no longer exists, except in Wooden books, Wooden sayings, and the Pyramid of Success,

Happiness through self-sacrifice and difficulty. It made Wooden a twilight sensation to a generation that didn't know Swen Nater from Ralph Nader.

"I always ask people, what part of the Pyramid of Success would you remove?" said Vallely, who is a renowned public speaker and leaned on Wooden through a life that brought cancer to himself and claimed his daughter.

Every year Wooden became more of a beacon as his former profession devolved. He never made more than $32,500 as UCLA's coach, and his team practiced amid intramural volleyball players.

Wooden didn't refer to his players as "kids" and thought "student-athlete" was a redundancy. He did not insult his players in the name of "intensity." That made his criticisms even more poignant, strangely enough, and he could strip an official's soul without a single bleep.

But then he was a tough guy, a chiseled athlete in his Indiana youth and a hero while in high school and at National Player of the Year at Purdue. He could deal with superstars because he had been one.

He did not bargain. He listened to Bill Walton explain why a beard was so important to him, and replied that he respected Walton's convictions. "And we'll miss you," he said. Walton shaved immediately.

"There was so much going on back then," Jamaal Wilkes said. "The Vietnam War, the civil rights issues. It was a confusing time, and yet here was someone so pure and clear and pristine. He always talked about 'the young men under my supervision.'''

Today, UCLA would not permit a coach to work 15 years before he won a national championship. Wooden was the foil for Bill Russell and Phil Woolpert at San Francisco, Pete Newell and Darrell Imhoff at Cal. Meticulously he rewrote his practice plans and reconsidered his drills and found a way to get substitutes involved.

He also unleashed a zone press that won titles in '64 and '65 before he maximized Alcindor's unprecedented skills in '67, '68 and '69.

There was no slavish reliance on a "system."

Along the way he made college basketball a major sport. The groundbreaking Astrodome loss to Houston, in '68, was televised by the bootleg Hughes Sports Network. Few games were televised on channels anybody watched, but UCLA's 88-game winning streak — and its death, at Notre Dame — created a commodity.

Now basketball is a glutton's paradise, with every game televised somewhere, and high school teams flying cross-country each weekend.

Underneath all that, in the quiet places, John Wooden undoubtedly guided more lives than any sporting figure in his 99-year time.

One day Vallely told his coach that he and his girlfriend, Karen, were getting serious. Wooden stuck his finger in Vallely's chest and said, "Then you marry that girl."

The Vallelys went to Reagan Medical Center on Wednesday and Vallely reminded Wooden of that day.

"He got this big smile on his face," he said.

They walked away, propelled by goodbye, Vallely's socks tight on his feet.

John Wooden's life was a love letter

Basketball, coaching and teaching were important to John Wooden, who stayed sharp and lively until the end, but nothing meant more to him than Nellie.

T.J. Simers
The Los Angeles Times
8:20 PM PDT, June 4, 2010

Mike Connors, John and Nell Wooden, 1973
(Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

John and Nell Wooden are greeted at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1973 by one of the coach's former UCLA players, Mike Connors, who at the time starred in the TV detective series "Mannix."

To say it is a sad day would be to risk meeting him again, and getting that look from John Wooden.

To say it is a time to be happy might not sound right, but you could hear the anticipation in his voice about this very day whenever he spoke about the chance to reunite with Nellie Riley, the love of his life.

He meant so much to so many, but it was the only girl he ever dated and then married who meant the most to him -- a love letter written from husband to wife on the 21st of every month to mark her death.

On the table in his condo is a stack of inspirational sayings, which are designed to reveal a new passage every day. But it has been 25 years since anyone turned the page, Nellie the last to do so before going to the hospital and never returning.

"It says, 'Oh Lord, make me beautiful within,''' Wooden said in recounting the inspirational reading that still sits there today. "She was beautiful within.''

And so was he, a marvel late into life until losing his independence -- his 1989 Taurus disabled so he would not be tempted to drive it, and then requiring 24-hour help at home.

Two years ago this month, his tireless caretaker, Tony Spino, wheeled him onto the Nokia Theatre stage, Wooden none too happy because he wanted to walk out with Vin Scully.

Billed as "Scully & Wooden For the Kids" to raise money for sick children, it was also a night for many in Los Angeles to say goodbye to Wooden between the laughs and his countless words of inspiration.

He was 97 at the time, sharp, witty, and to the surprise of some who may not have known him beyond his public persona, eager to tease as he had done his whole life.

At one point he scooted forward and almost out of his wheelchair to teach Robert, a 12-year-old cancer survivor, how to put his socks and shoes on. At one point, it was as if everyone in the audience was leaning forward with him as he tried to tie the youngster's shoes.

He talked that evening about courting Nellie while they were together in high school, although his coach had a rule that no dating was allowed during the season.

When asked about religiously breaking that rule, Wooden said, "I'd hardly call it religiously.''

And what would he have done as a coach if one of his players had done the same thing?

"Depends on what kind of player he was, of course'' he said with a twinkle.

Ten months shy of turning 100, "ninety-nine is a long time too,'' he rasped with a hint of exasperation between Wooden Classic basketball games this past December, he's no longer with us.

In the next few days there will be all kinds of stories about the legendary basketball coach, the games, players, and great memories. Someone will refer to him as the "Wizard of Westwood,'' and he just hated being called that -- a little dismayed upon the dedication two years ago to find it prominently noted on his plaque in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

John Wooden, 2005
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / February 15, 2005)

John Wooden holds court at a ceremony to rename Aliso High School in Reseda as John R. Wooden High School. Wooden is sitting in front of a mural that outlines his Pyramid of Success motivational program.

They will praise him for being the best coach of all time, although teaching is what he loved the most. He began his career as a high school English teacher, honored later when Aliso High in Reseda became known as "John R. Wooden High.''

They will credit him with saying, "Be quick, but don't hurry,'' and "failing to prepare is preparing to fail.'' Some will recall being scolded: "Kids? What are kids?'' he would sternly say. "Baby goats, aren't they? Try to remember you're talking about children.''

They will talk about all the championships he won, yet his most treasured prize sits in a small box at home, a medal marking his academic accomplishments at Purdue.

They will dust off the Pyramid of Success, and he would like that.

They will quote any number of important people talking about how much they admired Wooden, which more often than not made him uncomfortable. He preferred to quote others.

"A life not lived for others is not a life,'' he would often say in repeating something said by Mother Teresa, the person in his lifetime he admired the most.

He was a student of Abraham Lincoln and worshipped his own father, suggesting everyone's mother and father should be first on the list to be revered.

All his life he carried his father's seven-point creed with him in his wallet, one of his father's maxims best explaining John Wooden's entire life: "Make each day your masterpiece.''

I will recall his wicked sense of humor, our arguments over tattoos, and the first NCAA tournament bracket he ever filled out – as wrong as the rest of us.

I will also treasure our little jokes about mixing up Sally Rand the stripper with Sally Ride the astronaut, and the mock outrage for naming a post office after someone who drank moonshine during Prohibition.

He did not take himself as seriously as everyone else did, a quick quip as much a part of his repertoire as his words of wisdom.

I will remember the minutes just prior to Scully & Wooden, getting a frantic call to join him, his family and mine in his Nokia Theatre dressing room.

He had a beautifully wrapped box on his lap, UCLA colors, and he appeared so serious. The room went quiet as he gave this marvelous speech about getting the opportunity to be with Scully and help sick kids.

"On behalf of the Wooden family,'' he said with a grin beginning at each corner of his mouth, "we would like to present this to you as a token of our appreciation.''

Inside the box was the hideous singing bass that my daughter and I have jokingly traded over the years, Wooden visibly thrilled to be in on the family one-upmanship, and delighted he had played his part to perfection.

Who knew the man who inspires almost pope-like treatment could be so devilish?

I will also recall the end of that evening, Scully graciously stepping aside so Wooden might sit center stage, 7,000 admirers standing, applauding and so unlike Los Angeles -- in no hurry to leave.

And he loved it, almost giddy afterward, a competitor for one more night, pulling the very best he had to offer out of himself at age 97, and giving everyone a show.

Scully, who called Wooden earlier this week, is urging Fox Sports Prime Ticket to air the Scully & Wooden event again. A Prime Ticket spokesman said it will run Monday night after the Dodgers-Cardinals game.

John Wooden and Vin Scully, 2008
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times / June 13, 2008)

Wooden and Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully made a joint appearance for charity, conversing on stage at the Nokia Theatre about sports and life. The event also was televised.

There will be all kinds of personal remembrances from one end of the country to the other, some as simple and as powerful as something written in one of his books and what it has meant to someone.

But maybe it's really Nellie, Nellie's memory and his love for his wife more than anything that explains Wooden's legacy, or John Bob, as his wife of 53 years called him.

Wooden lived what he preached, as sound a road map as anyone might want to follow, and while obviously in no hurry to die, he did so at peace with the prospect of even happier days ahead with the woman he loved.

A few years back, moved by such devotion, one of his former players, Swen Nater, put it in a poem, "Yonder,'' which Wooden recited from memory near the end of Scully & Wooden.

Once I was afraid of dying.

Terrified of ever-lying.

Petrified of leaving family, home and friends.

Thoughts of absence from my dear ones,

Drew a melancholy tear once.

And a lonely, dreadful fear of when life ends.

But those days are long behind me;

Fear of leaving does not bind me.

And departure does not host a single care.

Peace does comfort as I ponder,

A reunion in the Yonder,

With my dearest who is waiting for me there.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

John Wooden dies at 99; UCLA basketball coach won 10 national titles

Wooden's accomplishments during his 27-season tenure with the Bruins made him one of the greatest coaches in sports history. He also created the 'Pyramid of Success' motivational program.

By Bill Dwyre and David Wharton
The Los Angeles Times
June 5, 2010

Wooden delivers instructions during a timeout in the 1972 NCAA championship game at the L.A. Sports Arena. UCLA defeated Florida State, 81-76; Bill Walton, seated at left, was named the tournament's most outstanding player. (Rich Clarkson / Sports Illustrated)

John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who became an icon of American sports while guiding the Bruins to an unprecedented 10 national championships in the 1960s and '70s and remained in the spotlight during retirement with his "Pyramid of Success" motivational program, has died. He was 99.

Wooden died Friday evening of natural causes at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the university announced. He had been hospitalized since last week for dehydration.

Though the stern, dignified Midwesterner's fame extended beyond the sports world, it was Wooden's achievements during 27 seasons at UCLA that put him in the company of such legendary coaches as the Green Bay Packers' Vince Lombardi and Notre Dame's Knute Rockne.

His string of championships began with back-to-back victories in 1964 and '65. Starting in 1967, his team ran off seven consecutive NCAA titles — going 38 tournament games without a loss — a feat unmatched before or since in men's college basketball.

The Bruins won with dominant players such as Walt Hazzard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. They also won with teams — such as Wooden's last squad in 1974-75 — that had no marquee stars.

That team defeated Kentucky, 92-85, in the national championship game to give Wooden his 10th and final title. (Mike Krzyzewski of Duke won his fourth national title this spring, matching the total won by the late Adolph Rupp of Kentucky.)

In 40 years of coaching high school and college, Wooden had only one losing season — his first. He finished with 885 wins and 203 losses, and his UCLA teams still hold an NCAA record for winning 88 consecutive games from 1971 through 1974.

The Bruins attained greatness during a golden age in Los Angeles sports. The Dodgers had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on the mound at newly built Dodger Stadium. The Lakers, with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, battled annually for the National Basketball Assn. championship. The USC football team, coached by John McKay, won several national titles.

But for all the success that local teams enjoyed, none could match UCLA for the sheer number of championships.

Wooden built his dynasty on simple precepts. He insisted that his squad be meticulously prepared and in top physical condition. No detail was overlooked. The first practice of each season, the coach would remind his players about pulling on socks smoothly and carefully lacing sneakers — there would be no excuse for debilitating blisters.

His workouts were so grueling that former players said they often were relieved to play in games.

Swen Nater, John Wooden, Bill Walton, 1972
(Associated Press)

The 1972 team had no shortage of height: Wooden is dwarfed by centers Swen Nater, left, and Bill Walton. Players didn't always see eye to eye with Wooden, but they knew that breaking the rules would result in punishment no matter how valuable they were to the team's success.

In the 2005 book "Wooden on Leadership," guard Gail Goodrich recalled, "He believed that winning is a result of process, and he was a master of the process, of getting us to focus on what we were doing rather than the final score. One drill he had was to run a play over and over at full speed, but he wouldn't let us shoot the ball. He made us concentrate on what happened before the shot was taken, what happened to make it possible. He made us focus on execution. He built teams that knew how to execute."

Walton, in his book "Nothing but Net," wrote: "John Wooden was so intense during those practices. He never stopped moving, never stopped chattering away. Up and down the court he would pace, always barking out his pet little phrases."

Stressed teamwork

Those phrases reflected another facet of Wooden's coaching style: He demanded crisp fundamentals and teamwork predicated on passing and cutting to the basket. He wanted his players to be smart, both on the court and in their lives away from the game.

Among Wooden's pithy maxims:

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

"Flexibility is the key to stability."

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

This approach produced immediate results. Upon arriving in Westwood in 1948, Wooden inherited an underachieving team picked to finish last in the conference. Instead, the Bruins wound up with a 22-7 record. The next season, they won the conference championship.

Yet UCLA did not win a national title until Wooden's 16th season. To accomplish this, he had to do something that many coaches can't manage: He had to change. At the urging of assistant Jerry Norman, a former player added to the coaching staff in 1957, Wooden focused on defense and instituted a zone press that he had used infrequently since he was a high school coach. Norman also was energetic about recruiting, something for which Wooden had little appetite.

By the mid-1960s, the Bruins were so confident in their system that Wooden rarely bothered to scout opponents. He figured it was their job to stop the Bruins.

In the 1973 book "The Wizard of Westwood," longtime college coach Jerry Tarkanian told Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, the authors of the book who both covered UCLA basketball for The Times, that Wooden "does a tremendous job of organizing and getting his teams ready to play. He makes very few adjustments during games. Other teams worry about what he's going to do — his press, his fast break. You're extremely conscious of them. They're hardly conscious of you at all."

Wooden was respected for more than just victories. The UCLA coach was equally revered for how his teams played the game — a style that reflected his personality.

Hard times

John Robert Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910, in Hall, Ind., the third of six children. His father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, an uneducated farmer, guided the family through tough economic times by stressing hard work, honesty and the value of education. All four of the Wooden boys would be, at one time or another, teachers.

In a 1998 interview with The Times, Wooden recalled: "My father would always tell me: 'Don't look back, don't whine, don't complain.' "

When Joshua Wooden lost his farm in the Depression, he moved the family to Martinsville, 30 miles south of Indianapolis, where he found work as a bath attendant at one of the small town's artesian wells.

At Martinsville High School, Johnny Wooden — as he was known in those days — ran track, played baseball and became an all-state guard in basketball, leading his team to the state title in 1927. Most of the Big Ten Conference schools recruited him, Purdue winning out because of its academics and its renowned coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert.

John Wooden was captain at Purdue and led the Boilermakers to the 1932 national title.

The Boilermakers played an aggressive, up-tempo style that suited Wooden, who became known as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his tendency to bound around the court and dive for loose balls, then bounce back into the action. He was a three-time All-American and led the Boilermakers to their only national championship in 1932.

His senior year was noteworthy for two other reasons. Wooden won the conference Medal for Academic Achievement as an English major. Years later, he would place the honor among his favorites on a list that included induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Also in 1932, Wooden married his high school sweetheart, Nell Riley. He called her "the only girl I ever went with."


After graduation, Wooden played semi-professional basketball, barnstorming through the Midwest. He once made 134 consecutive free throws, earning a $100 bill from the team's owner, the first time he had ever seen currency so large.

But his principal occupation was as coach and English teacher at Dayton, Ky., High School, where he followed an initial 6-11 season with a more respectable 15-3 finish. After two years, he moved to South Bend, Ind., Central High and nurtured a string of winning teams.

During World War II, Wooden enlisted in the Navy to serve as a physical trainer for combat pilots. Upon his discharge in 1946, he took a job as athletic director and coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in Terre Haute.

Again, his teams had winning seasons, but the young coach might best be remembered for a game his squad did not play. In his first season, Indiana State earned a spot in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament but was told that its lone black player, a reserve guard, was not welcome. Wooden declined the invitation.

The next season, the Sycamores, with a 27-7 record, were invited again. After discussions between Wooden and tournament officials, Clarence Walker became the first African American to compete in the postseason tournament.

Those two seasons at Indiana State — and a 44-15 record — were enough to attract interest from larger schools. It was good luck and bad weather that ultimately brought Wooden to the West Coast.

Both the University of Minnesota and UCLA sought to hire him, and he was partial to remaining in the Midwest. But Minnesota wanted him to retain the previous coach as an assistant; Wooden was set on bringing his own man. As negotiations continued, Wooden set a deadline for Minnesota to decide. When the deadline passed without the expected phone call from Minnesota, he accepted the UCLA offer. Hours later, Minnesota called to say that a heavy snowstorm had knocked out phone service. Administrators pleaded with him to back out of his agreement with UCLA.

Wooden insisted on keeping his word, even after he arrived on the Westwood campus and discovered why the program he was taking on had had only three winning seasons in the previous 17 years.

John Wooden, 1948
(Associated Press)

John Wooden, right, newly announced head basketball coach at UCLA, is shown with his wife, Nell, left, and their children, Nancy, 14, and James, 11, at their home in Terre Haute, Ind.

In his 1976 memoir "They Call Me Coach," Wooden said of his players: "When I went up on the floor for the first time in the spring of 1948 and put them through that first practice, I was very disappointed. I felt that my Indiana State team could have named the score against them. I was shattered. Had I known how to abort the agreement in an honorable manner, I would have done so and gone to Minnesota, or if that was impossible, stayed at Indiana State."

Attention to detail

Wooden soldiered on, instituting an up-tempo game — and fervent attention to detail — that he had learned under Lambert at Purdue. The style was foreign to the West Coast, where most teams favored a more deliberate pace, and it helped the Bruins to the 22-7 record that ranked among Wooden's most satisfying achievements.

But the talent level of his players was only one of the challenges the coach faced in Westwood. Wooden later said that he had been led to believe the university was about to erect a basketball arena on campus. In fact, Pauley Pavilion would not open for 17 more years.

Instead, the Bruins played in the men's gymnasium, dubbed the "B.O. Barn," a cramped and stifling facility that seated about 2,500 with pull-out bleachers. To make matters worse, basketball shared the gym with other sports, and Wooden would later recall trying to conduct drills while gymnasts bounced on trampolines. After practice, the coach and his student managers swept and mopped the floor, an almost inconceivable chore in this modern era of big-name, million-dollar coaches.

So it was no surprise when, before his third season, Wooden entertained an offer to coach his alma mater. Purdue was willing to pay significantly more "than the $6,000 I got to come to UCLA," Wooden later said, and he agreed to the terms on one condition: UCLA would have to release him from the final year of his contract.

Wooden did not expect much resistance from UCLA administrators, but he was wrong.

"They pointed out that I was the one who had insisted on a three-year contract and felt that I should honor it," he wrote in his memoir. "They made me feel like a heel for even considering leaving."

UCLA offered to increase his salary, but he declined, saying he would honor the terms of the original contract. Money would never be the primary issue in his remaining in Westwood — his highest salary would be $32,500 and, because of a technicality, the university did not even pay into a pension fund for him until his 13th year.

Substandard facilities

In time, Wooden also learned to live with the substandard facilities. In 1956, city fire officials declared the B.O. Barn unsafe for crowds of more than 1,000, which forced the Bruins to play elsewhere. Home games shifted from the Venice High School gym to Long Beach City College, from the Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax district to the downtown Sports Arena, which the Bruins shared with USC.

"I think the lack of a real home gym and positive thinking were the main reasons we didn't win a championship in those early years," former center Willie Naulls told Chapin and Prugh in "The Wizard of Westwood."

Wooden took a more optimistic view, hoping that his teams were tougher for the hardship, better able to deal with the hostile arenas of such opponents as Oregon and Washington State. This was the competitive side of the man, somehow at odds with his otherwise dignified persona.

His players knew that he could be fierce in the way he hit them with an angry "Goodness gracious sakes alive" that carried more sting than a string of expletives. During his early years at UCLA, he also became known for mercilessly riding officials from the bench.

"He never swore, but there was not a coach in the United States who could use the English language any better than he could," an official told Chapin and Prugh. "He was always technically and grammatically correct when he was chewing you out."

Opposing players received similarly harsh treatment, Wooden shouting at them through his ubiquitous rolled-up program, telling them they were in for a rough night. It was a habit that he gradually toned down and would ultimately regret. In a Times article shortly after his retirement, he said: "The only thing I may be ashamed of more than anything else is having talked to opposing players. Not calling them names, but saying something like 'Keep your hands off him' or 'Don't be a butcher.' "

Still, no amount of zeal or relentless preparation could transform the Bruins into a national champion, at least not in that first decade. The team parlayed half a dozen conference and divisional titles into three trips to the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round each time.

The situation worsened in the late 1950s, UCLA seeming to lose ground each season. A 14-12 record in 1960 was Wooden's second-worst ever.

Making changes

It was at that point that he decided to give his program a thorough review. As he would later say: "Failure is not fatal. Failure to change might be."

For much of his coaching career, Wooden had relied on his starting five, believing that he could get them in good enough shape to play most, if not all, of each game. Now, realizing that his teams were wearing down near the end of the season, he began rotating more reserves into the action.

Through 1961 and '62, Wooden also began listening more to his prized assistant. Jerry Norman felt the small, quick UCLA teams could benefit from running the zone press, which meant pressuring opponents the entire length of the floor instead of falling back and defending the basket.

At the same time, Norman brought new passion to recruiting. Whereas Wooden had been content to pick from among local high school and junior college prospects, his assistant went after the best players nationwide.

One more thing occurred to nudge UCLA to the next level. In 1963, J.D. Morgan became athletic director and quickly assumed many of Wooden's duties. With Morgan handling scholarship issues, scheduling and travel, the coach could focus on what he did best.

The pieces were starting to fall into place for a championship run.

The UCLA team of 1963-64 had no one taller than 6 feet 5 in the starting lineup, but compensated for lack of size with veteran leadership and great quickness. Experts who did not consider the team a serious contender soon changed their minds.

The so-called Bruin Blitz — Norman's zone press — smothered opponents and allowed guards Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich to score in bunches. UCLA took over the No. 1 spot in the polls at midseason and stormed into the NCAA tournament undefeated. In the first half of the championship game against Duke, the Bruins went on a 16-0 run to pull away for a 98-83 victory.

The winning continued into the next season, although Hazzard was off to the NBA. The team lost only twice during the regular season with forward Keith Erickson picking up the slack and Goodrich continuing his stellar play. The senior guard had 42 points against a stronger, but slower, Michigan team in leading UCLA to a 91-80 victory in the NCAA title game.

Bruin star power

Those first two championships had been won with strategy and fundamentals, a high-post offense running like clockwork. After a mediocre season in 1965-66, Wooden and his Bruins would resume their historic streak with something else: star power.

Lew Alcindor, John Wooden, 1969
(Associated Press)

Wooden gives instructions to star center Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during a workout in preparation for the 1969 NCAA championship.

The winter of 1966 brought Lewis Alcindor — who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to the starting lineup. Alcindor actually had enrolled the previous year, recruited from Power Memorial High School in New York City. But he had to wait a season because at that time NCAA rules did not allow freshmen to play on the varsity team.

Once the 7-foot-plus center became eligible, Wooden again showed a willingness to adapt, shifting to a low-post offense that accentuated the big man's skills.

Alcindor dominated the game over the next three seasons, with the team playing in brand-new Pauley Pavilion. Not even a controversial rule change — college basketball outlawed the dunk in a move thought to be aimed directly at Alcindor — could faze him. In all, he led the Bruins to an 88-2 record and three straight titles.

Even with historic success, those years were not idyllic. Wooden, the ultimate conformist, was coaching at a time of great social upheaval.

Though UCLA players would always be conservative in appearance — continually warned about the length of their sideburns — they sometimes bristled at the coach's mandates. Alcindor spoke openly of his unhappiness at Westwood and at one point nearly transferred. On the court, there was constant pressure to be perfect.

Wooden seemed almost relieved when Alcindor graduated, if only because expectations eased.

"It will be fun coaching to win again, rather than coaching to try to keep from losing," he was quoted as saying in "The Wizard of Westwood."

The Bruins returned to the high-post, high-energy offense their coach had always favored. Led by young guard Henry Bibby and forwards Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks, they pushed their championship streak to five in a row with titles in 1969-70 and 1970-71. The stage was set for another dominant player.

From the moment that center Bill Walton stepped on the court at the start of the 1971-72 season, the Bruins seemed untouchable. With the smooth-shooting Keith Wilkes at forward, the "Walton Gang" stormed through consecutive 30-0 seasons, winning their sixth and seventh straight titles.

It was during this era that the Bruins won 88 consecutive games, a streak that ended with a loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Jan. 19, 1974.

On the court, Walton was a player after his coach's heart. Wooden would later say that although Abdul-Jabbar was his most dominant star, Walton might have been the all-around best, a big man who could score, rebound and pass the ball with equal aplomb.

Yet, away from the game, the redhead could be too free-spirited and outspoken for Wooden's tastes. In his senior year, teammates hinted at tension in the locker room, and UCLA's championship run ended with a double-overtime loss to high-flying David Thompson and North Carolina State in a 1974 NCAA semifinal game.

One more year

The man known as the "Wizard of Westwood" — a nickname he despised — reportedly considered retirement that winter but decided to stay one more year.

His finale would not be like the hallowed seasons of the past. There would be no All-American guard in the backcourt and no dominant player along the frontline, with forward David Meyers the only returning starter from the Walton era. The team had to rely heavily on sophomores Marques Johnson and Richard Washington.

The Bruins suffered two upsets during the 1974-75 season — including a humiliating 22-point loss at Washington — and barely escaped close games on numerous other occasions. Yet, as Meyers said, the team did not have to deal with the "personality conflicts" that had marked the previous season. This squad reflected its coach's intense and focused personality.

In the NCAA tournament, UCLA stayed alive with two overtime victories. After a last-second win over Louisville in the semifinal, a triumphant Wooden walked into the locker room and gave his team one more reason to play hard in the final: "I'm bowing out."

On his final night as a coach, March 31, 1975, the Bruins played in a manner befitting the first of Wooden's championship teams. They outran a stronger Kentucky squad and even out-hustled the Wildcats on the boards, winning 92-85.

"I've always said my first year in coaching was my most satisfying," Wooden reflected during the tournament. "My last year has been equally satisfying. This is as fine a group of youngsters as I've ever had."

Assessing the Wooden era, Joseph Valerio of the New York Post wrote: "There has never been a dynasty in sports to compete with UCLA's. The Yankee dynasty was built around center field, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The Celtics around Bill Russell. UCLA's has been built around John Wooden. The faces have changed at least every three years, but 64-year-old John Wooden remains."

John Wooden, 1975

Wooden won his 10th -- and final -- NCAA basketball championship in 1975 when the Bruins defeated Kentucky, 92-85, in the final. A few days earlier, he had announced his retirement effective at the end of the season.

Wooden slipped quietly into retirement, enjoying more time with wife Nell and their family. In 1977, the Los Angeles Athletic Club established the Wooden Award, recognizing the best college player of the year — a basketball version of football's Heisman Trophy.

Wooden ended his support for the award in 2005, however, after the club objected to the former coach lending his name and support to the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, an award sponsored by Athletes for a Better World that honors a college or professional athlete for community service.

Busy final years

His final years were kept busy by resurging interest in his life philosophy and "Pyramid of Success" — the diagram that includes 15 blocks arranged in rows, each containing a quality that Wooden believed would help people reach their potential.

"From the everyday basics to life's lessons on realizing our dreams, Coach was always leading and teaching: the underlying themes, his principles, his foundation, his core as a human being, his pyramid," Walton wrote in a forward to the book "They Call Me Coach."

Advocates of the teaching system Wooden developed, which was based on such traditional values as cooperation and responsibility, began using it as a motivational tool in the corporate world.

Nissan, Southern California Edison and the U.S. Air Force were among the companies and organizations that had employees attend a seminar called the John R. Wooden Course.

With each year that passed since his retirement, it seemed less likely that any coach would match his record of success. The NCAA tournament expanded significantly, meaning that teams had to win more games to reach the championship. Wooden's legacy seemed complete.

But the early 1980s brought a dark cloud: troubling allegations about past associations with a prominent booster.

Sam Gilbert was a former UCLA student and wealthy contractor who opened his Los Angeles home to players beginning in the late 1960s and liked to think of himself as their surrogate father. In 1967, when Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen were dissatisfied with life in Westwood and thinking seriously of transferring, Gilbert counseled them and was instrumental in persuading Allen to stay.

In a 1981-82 Los Angeles Times investigative series, several UCLA players said that Gilbert had helped athletes in ways that violated NCAA rules. The improper benefits allegedly ranged from buying players' game tickets at inflated prices to helping them buy cars and arrange for loans at steep discounts. On occasion, Gilbert also reportedly helped arrange abortions for their girlfriends.

Former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps called Gilbert the "Sugar Daddy" of the UCLA program. After the Times series ran, the NCAA placed the team on probation.

None of the violations were tied to Wooden, but the retired coach acknowledged harboring suspicions about Gilbert during the 1960s and '70s, and former players spoke of Wooden's see-no-evil relationship with the booster.

Andy Hill, a former guard who later became a television producer and motivational speaker, told The Times that he believed that Wooden relied on longtime trainer Elvin "Ducky" Drake to be something of a watchdog for the team, and that Drake had apparently missed what was going on with Gilbert.

"Among the things Coach Wooden was good at," Hill said, "was knowing what he didn't want to know."

Another former player, Greg Lee, told The Times in 1982: "On the one hand, he was glad about [Gilbert's] presence. But whatever was happening was going to be out of sight, out of mind."

In the same article, Wooden put it this way: "There's as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said — he'd rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time.

"Maybe I trusted too much."

Then in 1985, Wooden suffered the devastating loss of his wife Nell, who died after a long illness at age 73.

They had been married 53 years and had enjoyed a remarkably close relationship given the demands of big-time coaching. Nell Wooden attended UCLA games, even on the road, and in a pregame ritual Wooden would seek her out in the stands and exchange what became known as "the lucky look." He would wave his rolled-up program at her and wink and she would give him the OK sign.

After her death, Wooden became what he described as "bordering on" a recluse for several years, staying in the Encino condominium they had shared, refusing to change anything about it. He stopped going to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four, saying: "She was always with me. So the memories are too painful." Each month, he wrote her a letter, adding it to a growing stack on her pillow.

Yet until this past season he remained a presence at Pauley Pavilion, sitting in the second row, watching over a program that would never be the same after he stepped down. Seven coaches have come and gone in the 35 years since his retirement. Only once, under Jim Harrick in 1995, have the Bruins won a national championship.

Around that time, Wooden told Prugh that "the players are better today, but the team play is not."

Asked repeatedly to select his all-time squad, he invariably declined, but did pick a most valuable player. It was Abdul-Jabbar, whom he still called Lewis Alcindor.

"I believe he caused his opponents more difficulties both on offense and defense than any player in the history of the game," he wrote in his memoir. "And I would choose Bill Walton as the second most valuable player I ever had. Bill probably could do more things than Kareem, although he was not the dominant force that Lewis was."

John Wooden, George W. Bush, 2003
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press / July 23, 2003)

President George W. Bush congratulates Wooden after presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House. The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. government.

Age did little to slow Wooden. Although he never fully recovered from Nell's death, he resumed his annual trip to the NCAA Final Four when the Bruins made their title run in 1995. His calendar was once again filled with personal appearances.

UCLA wanted to honor him in 2003. Wooden agreed, on one condition. The floor of Pauley Pavilion was renamed the "Nell and John Wooden Court."

Keen observer

He remained a keen observer of the college basketball scene, especially UCLA. In March 2007, as UCLA advanced in the NCAA basketball tournament only to lose to Florida in the championship game, Wooden told a Times writer that Coach Ben Howland's team played better defense than his teams did.

One of Wooden's last major appearances was in June 2008, when he and Dodger announcer Vin Scully sat for a 90-minute question-and-answer session with Times sports columnist T.J. Simers. A sold-out crowd at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles sat spellbound by the conversation between two local legends, which was televised live.

That night Wooden shared his insight into his longevity: "Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valley. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low."

Wooden is survived by his son, Jim; daughter Nan; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. One of his great-grandchildren, Tyler Trapani, is a non-scholarship player on the UCLA basketball team.

Funeral services will be private, but a public memorial is being planned at UCLA.

Former Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

Friday, June 04, 2010

Israel, Disarmed

If even a blockade, the most passive and benign of defenses, is impermissible, what defenses does Israel have left?

By Charles Krauthammer
June 4, 2010 12:00 A.M.

The world is outraged at Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey denounces its illegality, inhumanity, barbarity, etc. The usual U.N. suspects, Third World and European, join in. The Obama administration dithers.

But as Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, the blockade is not just perfectly rational, it is perfectly legal. Gaza under Hamas is a self-declared enemy of Israel — a declaration backed up by more than 4,000 rockets fired at Israeli civilian territory. Yet having pledged itself to unceasing belligerency, Hamas claims victimhood when Israel imposes a blockade to prevent Hamas from arming itself with still more rockets.

In World War II, with full international legality, the United States blockaded Germany and Japan. And during the October 1962 missile crisis, we blockaded (“quarantined”) Cuba. Yet Israel is accused of international criminality for doing precisely what John Kennedy did: impose a naval blockade to prevent a hostile state from acquiring lethal weaponry.

Oh, but weren’t the Gaza-bound ships on a mission of humanitarian relief? No. Otherwise they would have accepted Israel’s offer to bring their supplies to an Israeli port, be inspected for military materiél, and have the rest trucked by Israel into Gaza — as every week 10,000 tons of food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies are sent by Israel to Gaza.

Why was the offer refused? Because, as organizer Greta Berlin admitted, the flotilla was not about humanitarian relief but about breaking the blockade, i.e., ending Israel’s inspection regime, which would mean unlimited shipping into Gaza and thus the unlimited arming of Hamas.

Israel has already twice intercepted weapons-laden ships from Iran destined for Hezbollah and Gaza. What country would allow that?

But even more important, why did Israel even have to resort to blockade? Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically delegitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.

1. Forward defense: As a small, densely populated country surrounded by hostile states, Israel had, for its first half-century, adopted forward defense — fighting wars on enemy territory (such as the Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights) rather than its own.

Where possible (Sinai, for example), Israel has traded territory for peace. But where peace offers were refused, Israel retained the territory as a protective buffer zone. Thus Israel retained a small strip of southern Lebanon to protect the villages of northern Israel. And it took many losses in Gaza rather than expose Israeli border towns to Palestinian terror attacks.

But under overwhelming outside pressure, Israel gave it up. The Israelis were told the occupations were not just illegal but at the root of the anti-Israel insurgencies — and therefore withdrawal, by removing the cause, would bring peace.

Land for peace. Remember? Well, during the past decade, Israel gave the land — evacuating southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. What did it get? An intensification of belligerency, heavy militarization of the enemy side, multiple kidnappings, cross-border attacks, and, from Gaza, years of unrelenting rocket attack.

2. Active defense: Israel then had to switch to active defense — military action to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat (to borrow President Obama’s description of our campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda) the newly armed terrorist mini-states established in southern Lebanon and Gaza after Israel withdrew.

The result? The Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza operation of 2008–09. They were met with yet another avalanche of opprobrium and calumny by the same international community that had demanded the land-for-peace Israeli withdrawals in the first place. Worse, the U.N.’s Goldstone report, which essentially criminalized Israel’s defensive operation in Gaza while whitewashing the casus belli — the preceding and unprovoked Hamas rocket war — effectively delegitimized any active Israeli defense against its self-declared terror enemies.

3. Passive defense: Without forward or active defense, Israel is left with but the most passive and benign of all defenses — a blockade to simply prevent enemy rearmament. Yet, as we speak, this too is headed for international delegitimization.

But, if none of these are permissible, what’s left?

Nothing. The whole point of this relentless international campaign is to deprive Israel of any legitimate form of self-defense.

The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, six million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized, and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists — Iranian in particular — openly prepare a more final solution.

— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2010, The Washington Post Writers Group.

DC's Turkish denial

New York Post
June 4, 2010

As the Irish-flagged "aid" ship Rachel Corrie heads for Gaza and Act Two of this made-in-Turkey crisis looms, Washington still can't bring itself to accept that the entire script was written in Ankara.

Fourteen months ago, President Obama made his first stop abroad in Turkey, where he told his hosts that "Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership."

Now our "partner" has stage-managed a cynical -- but brilliant -- public-relations debacle for Israel. And Washington's hiding in the wings, unwilling to face an unruly global audience.

To his credit, Vice President Joe "Look, Ma, no hands!" Biden did come out to defend Israel's right to block the flow of arms to Gaza's terrorists. But our president only called for an Israeli investigation of Israel's guilt.

Nobody's asked for a study of Turkish involvement. But if the National Security Council won't do it, I will.

In underwriting a terrorist-linked Turkish NGO's mission to Gaza, the Turks had a strategic goal and a domestic goal -- both of which they accomplished.

In the foreign-policy sphere, where the Islamists in charge in Ankara have delusions of grandeur, the mission was to position Turkey as the new champion of the Palestinians.

The Turks never took the least interest in "Palestinian suffering" in the past. They regard all Arabs as fit only to be ruled by a Turkish hand. But the Palestinian cause is not only the tool of choice to harvest applause in the Middle East; it also plays well with the Islamist base of the Justice and Development Party.

Domestically, Turkey's devout Muslim premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wanted to further isolate and reorient his country's military -- which, for all its faults, has for decades defended the secular constitution that was Ataturk's great legacy.

Since taking office in 2003, Erdogan has worked relentlessly to neuter the military, casting private conversations as coup plots and trumping up charges to arrest popular generals. Faced with an upcoming Turkish-Israeli-US naval exercise, Erdogan saw an opportunity to sever the long-standing links between his military and Israel's. The timing of that "aid" flotilla was no accident.

Erdogan anticipated the clumsy Israeli response. He immediately canceled the naval exercise and forbade all further cooperation with Israel. Expect "humanitarian" maneuvers with Iranian forces in the future. (Turkish troops have already exercised with Syria's.)

The Erdogan regime did a superb job of war-gaming how the Israelis would behave. Coordinating with Hamas to crowd Gazan waters with small craft to surround the blockade runners on arrival, they forced Israel to make its move in international waters -- to avoid a spectacle and needless loss of life.

For its part, Israel didn't do its own intelligence homework and expected to board those ships and round up a few hippies. Instead, the IDF encountered young, fit, armed and trained Turkish thugs looking for a fight.

The Turks got even more of a PR bonanza than they'd hoped for. While Israel acted lethargically on the public-relations front, Turkish officials were ready with angry statements for the waiting cameras. The IDF hadn't finished taking over those vessels before "outraged" Turks were condemning them as murderers.

Meanwhile, the White House would've had plenty of intelligence warnings on what the Turks were up to. The president must have been briefed. Yet we haven't heard a whisper of criticism directed toward Turkey.

Washington clings like an abandoned lover to its fantasy that Turkey is a model of how democracy and Islam can co-exist. Well, the Islamists were glad to use ballots to come to power, but they have no intention of relinquishing office. As fundamentalist Islam casts its lengthening shadow over Anatolia, democracy's light is dimming.

The Turks know which of our buttons to press, though. When Ankara's reps head west, they wage a charm offensive; when they go east, it's a harm offensive . . . from providing diplomatic cover for Iran's nuclear program to hosting strategy sessions for Iraqi extremists.

Flustered, Washington rationalizes that, gosh, Turkey's a NATO ally and our access to Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey (where our personnel are prepositioned hostages) is worth no end of forbearance.

As I wrote in Tuesday's paper, we're witnessing the greatest transformation in the Middle East in at least three decades, but our nervous leaders are bearing false testimony.

On Monday, Turkey turned its back on the West. History changed. Only the closed minds in Washington have not.

Book Review: 'The Last Stand'

Last Stand? Yes. Last Word? Never.

The New York Times
June 3, 2010


Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Illustrated. 466 pages. Viking. $30.

Few events in American history have generated as much commentary as the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, and George Armstrong Custer has become one of those contested figures who have been mythologized to the point of caricature: glorified as a romantic figure of frontier individualism and reviled as a glory-seeking avatar of genocidal hatred. In more recent years Custer’s story has also been told with more detail and dispassion: in Jeffry Wert’s 1996 account of his military maneuvers (“Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer”), and in Evan S. Connell’s novelistic classic, “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn” (1984).

It’s not clear why Nathaniel Philbrick decided that the world needed another book on Custer — perhaps he simply wanted to turn his storytelling talents, showcased in his 2006 book “Mayflower,” on the dramatic and symbol-laden battle of Little Bighorn. “The Last Stand” makes it clear that Mr. Philbrick has done a prodigious amount of research (his source notes are one of the outstanding features of this volume), and he’s woven it all into an evocative and cinematic narrative. Still, he’s turned up little that’s substantially new about Custer, and readable as his book is, it lacks the lasting visceral resonance of Mr. Connell’s masterpiece.

As he did in “Mayflower,” Mr. Philbrick has tried to spread around his sympathy for his subjects freely, sometimes performing contortions that come perilously close to rationalizations of Custer’s behavior. He cuts back and forth between the points of view of the Lakota, who saw their ancestral hunting grounds being stolen by the white men, and the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, many of them poor immigrants who “had no other employment options.” He gives us a moving portrait of Custer’s main antagonist, the great Lakota chief and wise man Sitting Bull, who valiantly tried to protect his people’s future, as well as smaller, pointillist portraits of other Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and some of Custer’s soldiers.

Mr. Philbrick nimbly evokes the beautiful but unforgiving landscape that was this theater of war. And in drawing upon diaries and oral histories, he also conveys the hardships of surviving on the Great Plains: the physical rigors and isolation experienced by ordinary cavalry soldiers, some of whom barely knew how to ride; and the threat of starvation Indians faced as the buffalo herds, on which they depended, disappeared with the encroachment of railroads and settlers. (“By the end of the 19th century,” Mr. Philbrick writes, “the buffalo had become so rare that when a small herd appeared near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several elderly Lakota felt compelled to hug, instead of kill, the animals.”)

What this book brings home is what an astonishingly distant world America was less than 150 years ago. Many Indians still led a nomadic existence, moving their teepees and horses from site to site, and warriors used bows and arrows, as well as rifles. As for the Seventh Cavalry, it marched into campaigns with a band and flag bearers, and Custer, who was as vain as he was impulsive, flaunted a ridiculous fringed white buckskin suit.

Little Bighorn memorial obelisk by Durwood Brandon

The Custer who emerges from “The Last Stand” is recognizable from a host of earlier books and movies: arrogant, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, brave, reckless, determined, impatient and hungry for glory. Sorting through many “Rashomon”-like accounts of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Mr. Philbrick does a powerful job of conjuring the fog of war that enveloped Custer and his men, while acknowledging that his account of exactly what happened is “necessarily speculative.” Along the way he offers a familiar assortment of reasons for Custer’s doomed decision to lead several hundred men into battle against a group of Indians that numbered in the thousands: from his desire to hog the limelight (and do so quickly, so that he might lift his political prospects back East or at least the success of a planned lecture tour) to his acrimonious relationships with other officers, to his preoccupation with taking Indian hostages.

Throughout this book Mr. Philbrick seems to be looking for mitigating factors on his subject’s behalf. He quotes a passage from Custer’s book “My Life on the Plains” that suggests that he had some sympathy for so-called hostile Indians like Sitting Bull, who were reluctant to submit to the will of the United States government: “If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation.” He gives the reader scathing portraits of Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen, battalion leaders who both had adversarial relationships with Custer and who both behaved less than honorably in the Battle of Little Bighorn. And he suggests that Custer’s superior, Gen. Alfred Terry, was really the one “moving the chess pieces” — the one who, “perhaps more than any other single person,” bears the responsibility for the “cumulative tragedy.”

In the end, however, Mr. Philbrick’s highly deliberate, on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach to Custer isn’t terribly persuasive. A few lines Custer once wrote in a book, after all, hardly make up for his cruel desecration of a Lakota burial ground. And whatever mistakes made by other officers in the lead-up to Little Bighorn hardly erase Custer’s own startlingly poor decision making.

The most compelling portrait in this book is that of Custer’s great adversary, Sitting Bull, who, Mr. Philbrick concludes, was not just a great warrior like Custer, but also “a leader, a prophet, and a politician.” Mr. Philbrick notes that Sitting Bull had wanted peace at Little Bighorn; he had given his nephew One Bull a sacred shield and sent him to talk with the soldiers, but was rebuffed by gunfire. He later told the riverboat captain Grant Marsh: “I did not come on your land to scare you. If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared either.”

Though the Sioux and Cheyenne were victors at Little Bighorn, Mr. Philbrick writes, “the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand”: the government redoubled its efforts against the Indians, and within a few years of Custer’s defeat “all the major tribal leaders had taken up residence on Indian reservations with one exception.”

“Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to U.S. authorities,” Mr. Philbrick continues, “but only after first handing his rifle to his son, Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an Army officer. ‘I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,’ Sitting Bull said. ‘This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.’ ”

Thursday, June 03, 2010

A Baseball Natural Just Wanted to Be Normal

The New York Times
June 3, 2010

His name and his talent forged a destiny for Ken Griffey Jr. He was going to be famous, whether he liked it or not. Yet in many ways, Griffey, who retired on Wednesday after 22 major league seasons, simply wanted to be normal. The inherent contradiction is part of what made him as fascinating a person as he was a ballplayer.

And let’s make no mistake: from 1989 through 1999, with the Seattle Mariners, Griffey was truly incandescent. He oozed potential and lived up to it. The choices his contemporaries made in the steroids era have saddened or angered so many fans, yet Griffey stands apart. He was the best of his day, no asterisks needed.

At this point, a reporter is obligated to note that we can never be sure who was clean. O.K., fine, but with outrageous physical gifts inherited from an All-Star father, Griffey was naturally dominant. There was no motivation to cheat; he was not jealous of other stars, like Barry Bonds, or insecure about his place in the game, like Alex Rodriguez.

I also think he was scared of taking steroids. Griffey told me last year he has never once been drunk. At all times, he wants to be in control — of his body, of his environment — and he feared what could happen if he used.

“To each his own,” Griffey said in 2003. “If people feel they need to do certain things, that’s fine. I don’t need to do those things. My thing is, when I’m 70 and 80 years old and I’m sitting on the porch with my grandkids and those guys are long gone, that’s the important thing. You either have a short-term reward or a long-term reward.”

Getting that comment took years. Griffey made you work for interviews, which he generally loathed. Celebrities do interviews, and Griffey never saw himself that way. He had the celebrity toys, for sure, and made a lot of money from endorsements. But while he had little patience for interviews, he loved conversation and one-on-one attention.

He also liked to make you work for it. I have met few players as suspicious as Griffey, who greeted me with a sneer in September 1998 when I introduced myself as the new Mariners beat writer for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He promised a year of initiation before he would trust me.

I hung in there with him; Griffey was the best player on the team, so I had no choice. It was exasperating, but I learned a lot by observing him. One day, Griffey entertained the baseball team from a high school that had been ravaged by a student gunman. He had asked them to the Kingdome as his guest, but had no interest in talking about it. That was fine; the gesture said everything.

Every now and then, a young child would accompany Griffey on his pregame rounds. Most were terminally ill, and frolicking at the ballpark with Griffey was their dying wish. Sometimes they played video games with Griffey, using the Kingdome scoreboard as the screen.

You never knew which Griffey you would see before games. He joked around a lot, but he could also be in a foul mood. No matter what, though, he was genuine. As a later teammate, Bronson Arroyo of the Reds, said on Wednesday, “He was always being real.”

True to his word, a year after I started on the beat, Griffey treated me better. I asked questions, and he gave thoughtful, sometimes provocative answers. Griffey was doubtful about the direction of the Mariners, and after the 1999 season he asked for a trade, a feeling that was reinforced when his friend, the golfer Payne Stewart, was killed in a plane crash that fall. Griffey, who lived in Orlando with his wife and three children, wanted to be closer to home.

At the ’99 winter meetings, the Mariners talked with the Mets about a deal centered on Armando Benitez, Roger Cedeño and Octavio Dotel. They asked for Griffey’s approval within 15 minutes, never interpreting that as a hard deadline.

Griffey did, though, and he was deeply offended that the team would try to rush him into an important family decision. He decided to accept a trade only to the Reds, who trained in Sarasota, Fla., and had provided warm memories for him as a child.

Though his Reds career was severely marred by injuries, Griffey was warm whenever I saw him. He rarely wanted to talk about baseball. He asked about my family, I asked about his, and he remembered details, a year or more apart. Once he showed me his Blockbuster card, delighting in the name printed on it: George Gruffey, or something like that.

When Griffey bought a cellphone with video capabilities, it was all over — he regaled visitors with video clips of his sons playing football. It was his new favorite pastime, and nothing, it seemed, made him happier.

Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. makes a leaping catch of a ball hit by Kevin Bass of the Baltimore Orioles in this May 26, 1995 file photo. Griffey broke his wrist on the play. (AP)

Back with the Mariners last season, Griffey looked more settled than he had seemed in years. Adored by the fans, who have always credited him for saving baseball in Seattle, Griffey made the clubhouse his playground, splicing his image into Manager Don Wakamatsu’s family photos and ramping up his needling of teammates, staffers and reporters.

Increasingly, too, he faced pitchers who idolized him growing up. In 2009, at a speaking engagement at Sacred Heart University, the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain and the Red Sox’ Jon Lester both said that meeting Griffey was a highlight of their young careers.

“I think every kid my age wanted to be Griffey growing up,” said Lester, who was born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1984. “We played Cincinnati this year and I went up to him like a 12-year-old and asked him for an autograph and shook his hand. I think I said three words to him. I called him Mr. Ken. He kind of laughed.”

Mr. Ken has left and gone away. He never reached the World Series, and he never did pass Hank Aaron on the career home run list, finishing with 630, fifth on the list. But he honored the game, and for his generation, that is a powerful legacy. He was real.


By Ann Coulter
June 2, 2010

Oil is spewing from beneath a British Petroleum oil rig into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of about 1 million gallons a day. There's no end in sight -- although White House officials have made it clear their goal is to stop the leak before the midterm elections in November.

Obama now spends at least half of every day answering pointed, increasingly aggressive questions about the oil spill, most of them from his daughter Malia.

The president finally went down to take a look at the oil disaster last week –- which is weird because I didn't even know there were golf courses near the Gulf. To show his concern, Obama is thinking about returning some of the nearly $1 million the oil industry donated to his campaign.

Ha, ha -- just kidding. He's not returning any oil money. But the situation has gotten so urgent that Obama did take time off from his golf game to praise the Phoenix Suns for protesting Arizona’s new immigration law.

He really did endorse the Phoenix Suns, which -- like most of his endorsements -- has resulted in their being eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers over the weekend. (Did I dream this, or was it just yesterday that President Obama was congratulating Al and Tipper Gore on their long and happy marriage?)

The media have been crowing that Republicans will lose the Hispanic vote forever if they support enforcing laws against illegal immigration, such as the Arizona law. To great fanfare, a poll was released last week showing that 67 percent of Hispanics oppose the Arizona law.

The headline on that poll should have been: "One-Third of Hispanics Support Arizona Immigration Law Despite Frantic Media Campaign to Convince Them It’s a Racist Plot Against Hispanics."

Incidentally, 67 percent of Hispanics also vote Democrat. The exact same percentage of Hispanics who oppose the Arizona law voted for Obama over John McCain -- who was championing amnesty for illegals.

Suck up to Hispanics with insane amnesty proposals; get one out of three Hispanic voters. Do the right thing and defend the country's borders; get one out of three Hispanic voters. ... Promise to make every Tuesday "Ladies' Night"; get one out of three Hispanic voters. Offer them a choice between "Extra Crispy" and "Original Recipe"; get one out of three Hispanic voters.

Indeed, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday, only 52 percent of Hispanics oppose the law, while 37 percent support it. In other words, more Hispanics support the Arizona law (37 percent) than voted for John McCain (31 percent) -– which is the strongest argument for amnesty I've heard in my entire life.

Overall, 66 percent of voters support enforcing the border before discussing amnesty. A plurality -- 48 percent to 35 percent -- would like their own states to pass a law just like Arizona's, despite the strong likelihood that the mainstream media will accuse them of being Nazi police states.

The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse recently compared the Arizona law to Hitler's policies toward the Jews. You remember how Jews were constantly sneaking across the border into Nazi Germany?

Finally, in keeping with the White House tradition of only releasing really good news on the Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend, last Friday the White House announced that no one in the administration offered Rep. Joe Sestak a job to drop out of the Senate primary against Arlen Specter, despite Sestak's claims to the contrary.

After a 10-week investigation, the Obama White House concluded that Bill Clinton, acting on his own, offered Sestak a nonpaying, advisory job with the administration.

It sounds like something Bill would tell Hillary after sneaking back into the house in the wee hours of the morning. "Honest, honey, I wasn't out with a tawdry cocktail waitress. I was offering some guy I barely know a job at the Obama White House."

So yeah, I know it sounds fishy, but if Bill Clinton says this is how it happened, that's good enough for me. Why, Clinton hasn't lied under oath in front of a federal grand jury for more than a decade.

Incidentally, why do so many Bill Clinton stories end with the words "nothing improper happened"? As I recall, the definition of "proper" gets pretty elastic when you're talking about Bill Clinton.

It's too bad Sestak turned down the offer, because if he had said yes, Obama could claim to have created at least one job, albeit unpaid.

I have mixed feelings about Obama trying to get Sestak out of the way in order to help Arlen Specter. As far as I'm concerned, the only good thing Obama has done so far is to endorse Specter, thus ensuring his defeat.

Maybe Obama should endorse oil spills.