The Truth about Sam Gilbert and John Wooden
The summer between my junior and senior years at UCLA, I had the privilege of being coached for two weeks by Bobby Knight at the 1972 Olympic trials in Colorado Springs. I found him to be an exceptional teacher and his knowledge of the game, I must say, was in the same league as my college coach John Wooden. He was also fun to be around, especially when watching him interact with the officials.
The entire group was divided into eight teams, so each team played seven games. The very first game, Knight was all over the refs but they barely acknowledged he was there. So the next game, he coached in a referee shirt and it worked.
Coach Knight was good to me. He played me a lot and I ended up leading the entire camp in scoring. The NBA and ABA scouts were there and my stock went up considerably. I have often thanked Coach Knight for what he did for me.
I was on the 1973 UCLA team that played Indiana University (Knight was coach) in the semifinals of the final four. Although they gave us a run for our money, we won and went on to win our seventh straight NCAA championship.
Fast forward to November 8, 2017 where in an interview, “Speak for Yourself,” Knight said:
“I have a lot of respect for Wooden as a coach. He was a good coach. I don’t respect Wooden because he allowed Sam Gilbert to do whatever he could to recruit kids.”
“I think John was called in and told he didn’t have to worry about recruiting. People would take care of that for him.”
Sam Gilbert was a millionaire real estate tycoon, based in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. Sam was a UCLA basketball fan but went a bit too far. He illegally helped some of the players, materially and financially. Coach Wooden got wind of what was going on, warned us to stay away from Gilbert, and trusted us to do the right thing. The rest of the story is, the NCAA put UCLA on probation years after Wooden retired.
But I have no idea why Bobby Knight claimed Gilbert was involved in player recruitment. I was a UCLA player for three years and never heard anything of the sort.
To this day, there is much communication between Bruins, and to my knowledge, not one has ever said, Gilbert helped recruit him, and that includes Kareem, Walton, Johnson, Wilkes, Wicks, and Hazzard. I have read numerous articles about Sam Gilbert’s dealings and nowhere have I found even a hint of Gilbert being involved in UCLA recruiting. Had it been true, it certainly would have surfaced by now, don’t you think? It’s been over 40 years.
Knight erroneously assumed Wooden needed help recruiting. Are you kidding? The best players in the country were standing in line wanting to join the legendary program Coach Wooden had developed. As for me, I wanted to play for a coach that was a role model, and who:
- Didn’t grab players by the jersey and jerk them to their seats
- Didn’t hit a policeman before a practice
- Didn’t get into a shoving match with a reporter and stuff him into a garbage can
- Didn’t curse at the Big Ten commissioner from midcourt
- Didn’t toss a chair across the court
- Didn’t bang his fist on the scorer’s table and pull his team off the floor before the end of a game in protest
- Didn’t scream at his son and kick at him
- Didn’t go into an outburst at a news conference
- Didn’t berate a referee and call his work on the court “the greatest travesty”
- Didn’t choke a player in practice and get suspended for three games.
But I have to confess; Coach Wooden bribed me into signing with UCLA.
On three of my other four visits to major universities that recruited me out of junior college, one gave his players money to take me to a porn flick and offered me a bunch of cash when I departed. Another promised me a starting spot. One coach set me up with a date —the football centennial queen who followed up our date by writing a letter which said in part, “When you get here, I want us to date.”
Coach Wooden took me to a UCLA track meet. As we watched, he said I’d never see much playing time because the best center in the country was coming to play at UCLA — that was Bill Walton, 3-time NCAA player of the year.
He also promised, to the best of his ability, he would help me make maximum improvement. Every day in practice, he said, I would be honing my skills against the best team in the country — the six-time NCAA champion Bruins. He thought I would have a very good chance of being noticed by NBA scouts, even if I never started a game.
I just couldn’t resist that bribe.