If there’s anything that we love here at PCHA more than grave-dancing, it’s sacred-cow-skewering. It must be Christmas, because the death of John Wooden allows me to do both.
In case you haven’t been near a television or radio or computer in the last day, the legendary UCLA coach died at 99 yesterday. The hagiographies are just beginning.
From J.A. Adande on ESPN:
What made Wooden’s death so unique among famous people who die at an advanced age is that we were still thinking of him as he is, not as he was. Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson were, in the public eye, already gone long before they were deceased. Not Wooden. In recent years, we still saw him at Pauley Pavilion, at the basketball events that bear his name, at charity fundraising dinners and in his regular booth at Vip’s Restaurant in Tarzana, Calif. And it’s only this week that I realized what an unselfish act it all was.
If he cared about only what he wanted, he would have left us long ago so he could be with his wife, Nell, who died in 1985. He never got over her loss, never stopped writing her love letters and never failed to include her role when discussing his accomplishments. Yet for 25 years, he went on without her. He did it for us.
Forget about the Wizard of Westwood… Wooden was more of a Jesus of Nazareth.
From Joe Posnanski on CNNSI:
Most people can live with the vague. For instance: What is success? Well, um, you know, um, there’s that old line about art: I know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. Success is like that, right? I can’t quite put it into words what success means, and other things like “happiness,” or “class,” or “integrity,” but I don’t need the words, right? These are things that come from wordless places deep inside, things that cannot be defined, things that we believe transcend definition. That’s OK. We KNOW what success means, even if we can’t really SAY what it means. Most of us can live comfortably in that hazy world.
But some people cannot live there. Some people keep asking, “Wait, what are we talking about here?” Some people need to find clarity, need to get in deeper, need to understand, need to take these cloudy perceptions and ideals that we talk around every day and inject some light, grasp for something concrete in them. Philosophers do that. Great teachers do that. John Wooden did that.
Totally. His 12 Lessons on Leadership, which includes No. 6 – “Little things make big things happen” and No. 10 – “Seek significant change”, is a model of specificity. It ranks right behind Plato’s Cave in the Canon of Western Thought.
Now, if people want to base their lives on his Pyramid of Success, more power to them. To me, a guy who spent the first day of practice every year teaching his players the proper way to put on socks and shave sounds a bit tightly wound, but whatever.
But what makes the overkill unforgivable is that not one of the obituaries will mention this… John Wooden was a cheater. Like, a John-Calipari-level cheater. If he coached today, with the NCAA looking into every nook and cranny of every program, he wouldn’t have been at UCLA long enough to win more than a couple of championships. He would have been more Jim Harrick than Phil Jackson.
You see, Wooden didn’t start to win championships until he was 16 years into his tenure, when all of a sudden he started landing the best-of-the-best national recruits, such as Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (as a side-note, has there ever been a bigger name upgrade than Alcinder to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and LeRoi Jones to Amari Baraka are pretty even switches. Only Brian Williams to Bison Dele comes close). In the final 12 years of his coaching tenure Wooden won 10 championships and made another Final Four. What changed?
A man named Sam Gilbert became involved with the UCLA basketball program. Beginning with Lew Alcindor and Lucius Allen, Gilbert became an “advisor” to UCLA’s stars. He helped recruit them, let them crash at his place, bought them clothes and cars – even paid for their girlfriend’s abortions. When they turned pro, he became their agent. This isn’t internet rumor… it’s well-documented, and backed up by accounts from former UCLA stars including Walton.
And just who was Sam Gilbert? He made his money in the construction business. He was posthumously indicted for running a money-laundering scheme to finance a World Series of Poker event at a casino that was subsequently seized by the government. The coach that followed Wooden, Gene Bartow, said that he felt that his life was threatened by Gilbert… Bartow later thanked the NCAA for not investigating the program the year after Wooden left, because he feels that he would have been in danger.
So, why did Bartow and later coaches like Larry Brown run afoul of Gilbert, but not Wooden? Because Wooden decided to follow a “see-no-evil, hear-no evil” strategy. There’s no possible way that he didn’t know what was going on… even if you believe he didn’t, that kind of willful ignorance has a name… “loss of institutional control”.
Know that John Wooden was an great coach… anybody who wins that many championships knows how to build a team. Know that he was by all accounts a nice-as-heck guy who really loved his wife. Know that his former players speak of him in glowing, life-changing tones. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also remember that his legendary athletic accomplishments were achieved at least partly because he allowed his UCLA program to operate outside the law, that his house of platitudes was built on a foundation of good, old-fashioned boosterism.