John Wooden and New Basketballs
If you played basketball in high school, remember how every year the AD would buy a set of twelve new basketballs for the varsity? The first day of practice, there they were on the rack at half-court, fresh out of the boxes, pristine, and shiny. The light-brown leather was a stark contrast to the black lettering and they smelled like new.
At UCLA, we had new balls also, but only two or three out of the twelve. The rest were either one or two years old. The colors ranged from light brown to very dark brown, almost black from the wear and the sweat.
When I walked on the Pauley Pavilion floor for my first UCLA practice and saw a rack of eclectic basketballs, I wondered what was going on. At Cypress Community College the year before, we had brand new balls. Did Coach Wooden forget to put basketballs in the budget? I heard he was frugal so perhaps he wanted to save money. I didn’t know. But when I considered the UCLA athletic department netted over one million dollars a year, mostly due to basketball and football attendance, and the cost of twelve new basketballs was somewhere around $600, it didn’t make sense. I was confused but afraid to ask.
It wasn’t until years after graduation I finally asked Coach about it. He said, “It’s simple. Do you remember, for some of our away games, the game ball was strange-looking and had a different feel?” I nodded. “That team had been practicing with that ball all week?” I nodded because we used to talk about that happening at Notre Dame. The basketball was almost pale and seemed larger than a regulation ball. Coach continued. “By shooting with a variety of balls during practice, I conditioned the players to be able to adjust quickly to any basketball.”
At the time, some thought John Wooden, being older than other coaches, was old school and set in his ways. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was the most-innovative coach in the world.
For example, while all other teams were going with the fad of wearing polyester reversible tank tops which remained wet all practice, we were wearing inexpensive cotton t-shirts which sucked the sweat from our bodies and dispensed it into the air.