Sunday, June 6, 2010

John Wooden: Wizard of Westwood

John Wooden, a staid Midwesterner who migrated to U.C.L.A. and became college basketball’s most successful coach, died June 4th at Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26. He was 99.

Wooden created a sports dynasty against which all others are compared, and usually pale. His teams at U.C.L.A. won 10 national championships in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975. From 1971 to 1974, U.C.L.A. won 88 consecutive games, still the N.C.A.A. record.

Four of Wooden’s teams finished with 30-0 records, including his first championship team, which featured no starters taller than 6 feet 5 inches.

Three of his other championship teams were anchored by the 7-foot-2 center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Two others were led by center Bill Walton, a three-time national player of the year.

Besides Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, Wooden turned out celebrated players like Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson, Henry Bibby, Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson.

No N.C.A.A. men’s basketball coach has won more than four championships since Wooden retired. Of Wooden’s eight coaching successors at U.C.L.A., only one — Jim Harrick in 1995 — won an N.C.A.A. championship with the Bruins, who have managed to retain an air of the elite among basketball programs largely on Wooden’s legacy.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1995, Wooden said his coaching philosophy revolved around three main ideals. One was to get his players "in the best possible condition." Another was "quickness."

The third was teamwork: "You better play together as a team or you sit."

Wooden was 64 when he retired after U.C.L.A.’s 1975 championship victory over Kentucky. He left with a 620-147 record in 27 years at U.C.L.A. and a 40-year head coaching record of 885-203.

Appreciation of Wooden has grown with time. In retirement, he wrote books, became a sought-after public speaker and regularly took his place in the second row behind the Bruins’ bench at Pauley Pavilion. A slight man hugely popular for his winning record and his understated approach, he ultimately became viewed as a kind of sage for both basketball and life, a symbol of both excellence and simpler times.

He was honored in many places. Martinsville, Indiana, where he grew up, has a John R. Wooden Drive and a John R. Wooden Gymnasium at Martinsville High School. A college basketball player-of-the-year award is named for him. The midseason John R. Wooden Classic features leading college teams. He was the first person elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach. In 2003, U.C.L.A. named its basketball floor the Nell and John Wooden Court.

Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. "He broke basketball down to its basic elements," Abdul-Jabbar wrote in The New York Times in 2000. "He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius." ♣

Did You Know?
Wooden was a religious man whose strongest exclamation was "Goodness gracious sakes alive!"

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