Wooden: The greatest at modesty, too

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 10, 1972.

You picture the man who is, demonstrably, the world's greatest basketball coach, and there comes to view a guy with lots of diamonds on stubby fingers, a Rolls-Royce illegally parked outside the gym with his driver reading a comic book in the front seat. Guys leap to light his cigarettes, the president of the college is on the phone seeking an appointment, maybe so is the president of the United States. He is doing a commercial, dictating a book, getting a manicure, reserving a table at Scandia for lunch, and two 7-foot phenoms from the sidewalks of New York are cooling their heels in the outer office waiting for an audition and/or scholarship.

Then you meet John Wooden and he is answering his own phone, he clips his nails with a drugstore clipper, his haircut has a faint bunkhouse bowl look to it, his clothes are less Savile Row than bought-with-a-coupon, and the whole thing cries out for a Grant Wood bruch, not a shrill sports column.

John Wooden is American Gothic to the collar button. You meet him and you're tempted to say, " All right, what did you do with the pitchfork, John?" You can smell the hay if you close your eyes. Players might call other coaches "The Baron" or "The Bear" but they call John "The Reverend."

His walls are awash with homilies, exhortations of the spirit, words-to-live-by. He's as homespun as calico, as small-town as a volunteer fire department. He doesn't juggle oil wells or cattle deals or tax shelters. He doesn't even own his own house. He has turned down $100,000 contracts to coach the pros.

He looks like the kind of guy you could get to guess which walnut has the pea under it. The eyes are a kind of a guileless blue, and the conversation is sprinkled with "Oh, my goodness!" and "Gracious!" and you bet he could never figure out how they sawed the lady in half, or got the rabbit into the hat. They run carnivals for guys like this, you feel sure. He'd buy a watch from an 8th Avenue auctioneer, or a vegetable slicer from a sidewalk pitchman.

Yet this is a man whose basketball teams have won more than 1,000 games over the years, and who is sitting on the crest of six national championships in a row.

It is a conceit of our times that kids are supposed to be manageable only by their peer groups, that they are in headlong rebellion from any other authority and, the postulate has it, there is no way a street kid from Philadelphia or a blacktop player from Lexington Avenue could relate to a Bible reader from Indiana who coaches by wall motto. In a time when training table mutinies are as commonplace as any other forms of campus unrest, Wooden has managed to put together title teams from elements as diverse as a Democratic ticket. People thought the playground players would take one look at Coach Wooden and say, "Is that a name or a description?" and take the next bus back to where the words on the walls aren't out of Edgar A. Guest.

Wooden built championship teams when he had to practice in dingy second-floor gyms in between the Greco-Roman wrestlers, the trampoline gymnasts, the girls in leotards, and even the glee club practice and the pompom girls. He played in Venice High gyms, on City College parking lots and at auditoriums built for auto shows, not zone presses.

His monument is the 13,000-seat Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. It is also the 10-man squad of alumni who will contest the "Elgin Baylor Pro Stars" at Pauley Pavilion Friday night, a team that will include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Henry Bibby, Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Abdul Rahman (ne Walt Hazzard) and a team that might easily win the NBA any year. The game will benefit the Ralph Bunche Scholarship Fund at UCLA.

Someday this empire may fall to a diamonds-on-the-fingers type who will keep a staff manicurist, a bar in the office and a picture of Raquel Welch where the "Pyramids of Success" or "The Tree of Self-Realization" is now framed. If so, he'd better turn John Wooden's picture to the wall -- unless he wants to draw that frown and icy glare of disapproval that guys who draw charging fouls or show up for preseason practice with tender feet are so familiar with.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.