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JOHN WOODEN - The Basketball Legend

John Wooden - (Maxi Basket photo)




James Loving/National Radio Text Service


John Wooden started coaching at UCLA in 1948 and retired after the 1974-75 season. During that time he coached UCLA to a record 10 NCAA titles - Wooden to me was like a god or royalty to some. In reality Wooden was a teacher and therein is the eloquence of this man.


Friday March 29, 2002


MEMORABLE MOMENT: In 1990, I co-hosted a radio show on KDWN in Las Vegas, Nevada that reached nine states west of the Rocky Mountains. I was asked by the shows host… in my year of sports reporting who was my most memorable interview.

I was caught off guard by the question. At the time I thought of an interview I did the week prior with another legend of sport who had accomplished an unbelievable feat in sports history. My answer was Major League Baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan.

I had interviewed Ryan about his unbelievable record of pitching five no-hit games, a major league record. Two days after we talked Ryan did it again, pitching number six at the age of 43. That was why his interview and feat was so present in my mind.

After the show I gave the question more thought and although Ryan was worthy of the choice in reality he wasn't my most memorable interview. That distinction goes to former UCLA University basketball coach JOHN WOODEN who is considered by many as being the greatest basketball coach ever. Our meeting took place March 1990.

While the qualifying NCAA championship games called "March Madness" are currently being held in the USA, Wooden's legend resurfaces. Wooden to me was like a god or royalty to some. In reality Wooden is a teacher and therein is the eloquence of this man.

Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910. He was Basketball. College Player of Year in 1932 when he played for the University of Purdue. As a college player he was an All-American. He is also a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame for all of his accomplishments in the game.

Wooden started coaching at UCLA in 1948 and retired after the 1974-75 season. During that time he coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles (1964-65, 67 to 73 & 1975).

UCLA lost only ten games during those ten championship seasons. They were undefeated four of those championship campaigns. His teams won seven straight NCAA titles from 1967-73, a feat that many feel will never be surpassed or equaled.

Wooden is known as the Wizard of Westwood, the Los Angeles area where the UCLA campus is located.

I was invited to his home to do the interview. He lived in a modest condo in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Wooden had the reputation of being all business and rarely displayed a humorous personality. I tested that side of him after being there for about an hour. I disclosed that I was angry with him because I always wanted to play for UCLA but he didn't recruit me and offer me a scholarship.

He was taken back by my comments. When I told him I was joking he smiled. I went on to relate to him that he did recruit and give a scholarship to Walt Hazzard who came from my Philadelphia area. Hazzard went on to become a member of Wooden's first NCAA championship team in 1964. I played against Hazzard when I was in prep school and he was a senior at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Hazzard was a superstar who, like Wooden, also became the College Player of The Year in 1964. Hazzard went on to have a solid NBA career. That brief interlude with Wooden showed me a gentle side of the man that I doubt few of his players had ever witnessed.

Keith Erickson, now a radio/television broadcast commentator was a member of two of Wooden's championship teams in 1964 & 1965. During our talk Wooden mentioned that Erickson was the finest athlete he ever coached. He said Erickson had the athletic talent and ability to play any sport that he wanted.

Wooden was all business, when he spoke his teams listened. They listened, learned and earned him a record 10 NCAA championships.



"I had the best athlete possibly that I've ever coached," Wooden said of Erickson. I think he could have been al all-star big league (baseball) shortstop; he could have been an all-star in the NFL because he's fast. I think he'd be a leading money winner on the tennis or golf circuit. He's was a great surfer, golfer… ah... play pool or anything. The guy was a phenomenal athlete."

When I informed Erickson of the comments of his former coach Erickson seemed shocked. It was as if Wooden never shared his inner feelings about his players with them. I sent Erickson a copy of that section of the interview to dispel his skepticism. Like many of Wooden's players and basically students of the game...Erickson also had a solid NBA career.

During Wooden's coaching career he coached many superstar players. Most notably he taught the game to two of the NBA's 50 greatest players, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton. Wooden noted that an important aspect of his job was to get the potential out of his players and mold them into a cohesive squad.

"You want the best player that you can get and then try to mold him into the type of player that will work into your particular system," he said. "I found out that seldom, on any squad that I had, the players that I considered to be the five best would not make the best team. They wouldn't have the… well some people tend call it chemistry, I don't know what it is but…. The best five players very, very seldom make the best team."

Wooden gave me an hour and a half of a taped interview. He gave me more time since he took time to answer the phone when it rang, excused himself and never missed a beat when he returned to continue the dialogue. He was a very cordial man in trying to make me feel comfortable when and after I arrived.

The other thing that stands out from that experience was Wooden was really impressed with the effort and accomplishment of his 1964 team. He noted that they were a small team with no player over 6-5. That didn't stop them from winning the first of Wooden's ten championships.

"Any time you win you must have the players," he said. No coach wins without the players. The most amazing thing to me was winning the first two championships, 64 and 65. In 64 we were the shortest team to ever win it. No one was over 6-5. In 65 we repeated with only two returnees from the 64 team."

Those UCLA squads had other hardships to overcome to achieve their championship status. In the process they learned what sharing and overcoming adversity was all about.

"We had no home court," Wooden pointed out. "We had no dressing room of our own. We practiced (in a gymnasium) with gymnastics on the open court practicing on one-side wrestlers at the end of the court and trampolines on the other side.

"Under those conditions I had become convinced and almost developed an inferiority complex that we could never do it (win championships). You've got to make the most out of what you have and not get so concerned in regard to things that you don't have. That was the amazing thing to me is that we could win those first two (championships) under those conditions with no home court and the conditions with which we had to practice."

Wooden noted the differences in the game today from the time he coached. Most notably he feels the addition of the 45-second clock has changed the game for the better. He had mixed feeling about the 3-point shot.

"I'm neither for or against but I am against it only being 19 (feet) 9 inches away. I think that's entirely too close."

Wooden was a stickler on fundamentals. He acknowledged that the game has changed with players being more athletic. He also had an opinion of the mental attitudes of players today.

"I see a gradual change in the game and I think its kind of natural but I don't like it, from a personal point of view. One is that I see too much showmanship now. I think television (exposure) has brought that about. There's too much trying just to be fancy and spectacular, I don't see as much team play. The players individually have become so much better and they take too much on their own. When they do that, that takes away from team play."

That Wooden experience remains in my mind as my most memorable interview ever. For someone I always admired and respected to give me so much of his time and share his thoughts showed me how truly great and gracious a distinguished man can be.

Related story in French language


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