Wednesday, July 25, 2018

John Wooden the Competitor

John Wooden the Competitor


Who was John Wooden? Rather, what was he like? The popular opinion seems to be, he was a very kind man, a man of principles, and a Saint of sorts. In fact, John Wooden has been nicknamed, St. John.


Thousands will testify of his generosity and integrity. When calling for an appointment at his Encino condominium, few have failed to get one. When with Wooden, one was showered with wise sayings and poetry that illustrated such powerful truths, many say, “A visit with Coach Wooden was a life-changing experience.” Books have been written about his high moral standards and living a life above reproach. “Never lie. Never cheat. Never steal. Never whine. Never complain. Never make excuses.” He lived that.



Those who tossed him flattery have seen his chin quickly drop to his chest, as if to dodge the praise. When one gentleman told Coach how honored he was to be in his presence, Coach told him, “I am not what I used to be. I’m working on becoming better every day,” and then thanked the man for the reminder. Deeply and soberly committed to keeping his ego down where it should be, to Coach Wooden, a compliment was very much like Kryptonite.



But make no mistake; John Wooden didn’t win the Indiana State high school championship and the national collegiate championship as a player being a nice guy. And he certainly didn’t win ten NCAA championships as a coach by being everyone’s friend. The world may never have seen a more ruthless competitor. Within the rules of course, he did everything he could to gain an edge and that did not rule out “working the officials” and “working the opposing players.”


Following are excerpts from a 1969 article in The Vault entitled, “Two Faces of the Rubber Man,” John Wooden’s nickname as a player. He had won four championships at this point.


Working the Officials

His scathing comments can melt a referee’s whistle almost in mid-tweet. One official said, “I’ve seen him so mad that I’ve been afraid he’d pop that big blood vessel in his forehead. But I never heard him curse.”


“Dadburn it! You saw him double dribble down there! Goodness gracious sakes alive! Everybody in the place saw that!”


Eddie Powell, a player for Wooden at South Bend Central High School, said, "Usually sometime during the first half he would choose one incident, a close call, and jump all over the referee," said Powell. "Just chew him out in a gentlemanly manner, if there is such a thing, but let him know that there is that side of him. During the half he'd seek out the referee and apologize to him. He'd say, 'I know I should have known it was a close call. I was wrong. It's just a job and you're doing the best you can.'


"And then they'd part with Wooden walking away meek as you please. In the second half, if another close call arose, chances are the referee'd call the play in Wooden's favor."


To make his full-court press as effective as possible, Wooden wants referees to be acutely aware of the rule that gives a team only 10 seconds to get the ball across the mid-court line. Sometimes he carries a stopwatch to the bench. He will not say a word about it and probably will not check it, but he will make certain that the officials notice it.

"No official, no player has ever heard me use a word of profanity," he says. "I don't stand up and do anything to excite the crowd. That's one of the worst things coaches can do. You've never seen me throw a chair or a towel, or jump up and go down the floor yelling.

"I don't say, 'You're a homer!' I'll say, 'Don't be a homer! I'll say, 'See 'em the same at both ends!' I'll say, 'Watch the traveling,' or some such, but no profanity and nothing personal.

Working Opposing Players

"The thing I may be ashamed of more than anything else is having talked to opposing players, not calling them names but saying something like 'Keep your hands off of him' or 'Don't be a butcher' or something of that type."

Walt Hazzard, the high scorer and imaginative passer who sparked Wooden's first NCAA title team in 1963-64, is a great admirer of Wooden's needling. "He is one of the best bench jockeys in the world. He has an 'antiseptic needle'—clean but biting. I've seen opposing players left shaking their heads, but there was nothing they could say."


I think you get the idea. But just in case, let me finish with a story Coach told me. He and Denny Crum, his assistant who went on to coaching greatness himself, regularly played Saturday morning golf. Coach told me, “Denny was a much better golfer than I but he rarely beat me. I had to do whatever I could to make the playing field more even. So, for example, when Denny would line up a putt that would win him the hole, I might say, on his backstroke, “Are you sure you accounted for the break?” Most of the time, he missed the putt.


Does this information lower your opinion of John Wooden? Not me. I admire him even more. In fact, I’ve taken notes. Wanna play a round of golf?

Monday, July 23, 2018

Coach Wooden and the O.J. Simpson Painting

Coach Wooden and the O.J. Simpson Painting


The following story was told to me by Mike Warren, starting point guard on three consecutive UCLA championship teams.


There’s a great story that Coach told me about an Andy Warhol painting of O.J. Simpson that was in the Wooden Center. Why it was hanging in the Center was beyond Coach Wooden’s comprehension. This was quite a while after O.J. was found not guilty in the murder trial of his wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman. Coach was talking to the Wooden Center’s Manager and he expressed his displeasure with OJ’s picture being there.  


“It doesn’t make much sense, do you think, to have OJ Simpson’s picture in the Wooden Center?”


The manager said, “Coach, you’re probably right but I don’t have the power to put up or take down anything.”


The Coach replied, “Do you think it would be easier to take down OJ’s painting or my name off of the building?”


“Coach, I’ll look into it right away.” A short while later, Coach was at an event where the UCLA Chancellor at the time, Albert Carnesale, was also present and not too far away. In a voice just loud enough for Albert to hear, the Coach went on a rampage talking about OJ’s picture being in the Wooden Center and how it didn’t make any sense to have it up. He went on and on about how displeased he was that it wasn’t taken down.


Again, he pulls out his trump card question. “Do you think it would be easier to remove OJ’s painting or my name?” He never once looked at the Chancellor but his words were definitely heard.


A day or so later, Coach saw the Center’s manager again. “Coach, did you know I took down OJ’s painting.” “No, I didn’t know but it looks like someone agreed with me.”


Later, Coach saw Albert Carnesale at another function and, excitedly, the chancellor said to the Coach, “John, the other week at the (he named the function), were you specifically talking to me about the OJ’s painting and not necessarily to the person you were conversing with?” Wooden never answered but Albert did see that little twinkle that Coach usually gave when he had put something over on someone.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Coach Wooden and the Pre-Game Meal

Coach Wooden and the Pre-Game Meal


It was Saturday, December 5, 1970 and UCLA was playing its second game of the season, a preseason game against Rice University. The day before, they had beaten Baylor 108-77. Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the two All-American forwards, had demonstrated not only why they were national champions the year before, but that UCLA was in shape to win it again.


But when the starting team was announced, Sidney and Curtis were not included. In fact, Coach Wooden didn’t put them in the game until ten minutes were used first half. Why? These were the two best players in the country and Coach Wooden always started his best team.


On the day of every game, home and away, UCLA coaches and players ate pre-game meal together about five hours before game time. The menu never changed: a 16 oz New York steak, baked potato with one TBS butter, peas, fruit cup, Melba toast, and hot tea.  


On that particular day, pre-game meal was at 3:00. It was very unusual for anyone to be late to anything, especially this great dinner, but Wicks and Rowe casually strolled in at 3:10, not apologizing but rather greeting everyone as if nothing was wrong. Coach Wooden didn’t say anything.


Fast forward to about twenty minutes before game time when Coach Wooden was addressing the team before it went out to the floor for warmups. As always, he provided the matchups, which means, who was guarding who. Wicks and Rowe were not mentioned.


Twenty one minutes before game time, Coach Wooden told everyone to get into the hallway and prepare to go out to the floor for warmups. Everyone went out except for Sidney and Curtis. Coach asked, “Why are you not going?” I think it was Wicks who arrogantly demanded, “Why are we not starting?” Coach said, “You were ten minutes late for pre-game meal, so you’ll not play the first ten minutes of the game.”


Wicks said, “Well when you call us to send us into the game, we may not go at all.” Coach Wooden replied, “If you don’t go in the game when I call you, you’ll not play another minute for UCLA.”


When ten minutes were gone, Coach looked down the bench and yelled, “Curtis and Sidney: Get in the game!” They sprinted to the scorer’s table. UCLA won the game 124-78 and Coach didn’t have a problem with the two forwards the rest of the season. UCLA repeated as Champion.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coach Wooden and Grandchildren

Coach Wooden and Grandchildren


Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about the Xs and Os of basketball. He liked explaining how things work. Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about life. He really liked talking about life. Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about the ins and outs of creating a united team. He would sit up in his chair to talk about that. I have talked with John Wooden about grandchildren. That’s when he would sit up in his chair and lean forward. I think he loved that subject more than anything else. Stories and stories he would tell filled with very funny and heart-warming moments. Once Coach said, “My granddaughter looked at me eye to eye, moved in a little closer almost nose to nose, and softly said, ‘Papa. You’re really sumpin.’”  


Like many, I didn’t understand his joy until I received my first grandson, Chase Maxwell. I wanted Coach to know I had learned the lesson so I wrote this poem and sent it to him.  



Grandpa’s Little Boy

Swen Nater


I hold my infant grandson tenderly.

His eyes meet mine and I hear angels sing.

His trusting stare gives more than worth to me.

Oh, I am rich, yes richer than a king.


And when I think of all the waiting rhymes,

Created for those virgin, tender ears,

The circus clowns and puppet shows and mimes,

I beg my God to live a few more years.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

John Wooden on Golf

John Wooden on Golf


About 1990, five years after retiring from the NBA, I took an interest in golf. Many ex-NBA players do because it’s a very challenging sport to conquer. And most of us sadly discover, it’s too late to master it. Nevertheless, we spend countless hours a day practicing bunker shots, chip shots, pitch shots, and longer shots at the driving range. I got my handicap down to fifteen which I think is respectable.


One eighteen hole round, I shot a 55. I had two hole in ones but had some trouble with the Clown’s Mouth and Windmill holes.


But seriously, in a visit to Coach Wooden’s condo in Encino, California, I discovered, he was quite the golfer during the years he taught at UCLA. He told me, “Swen, once I got a double eagle and hole in one in the same round.”


I asked, “Which was the most fun? I bet it was that double eagle.”


With some excitement, he replied, “Not at all. It was the hole in one. You see, I never saw the ball go in the hole when I made the double eagle. On a par five, I hit a 260 yard drive right down the middle of the fairway. About to hit my second shot, I calculated I was about 275 yards away. The group in front of us were on the green putting. With my three wood, I knew I couldn’t reach the green so I hit the ball with the plan of laying up perhaps 50-70 yards from the green. I hit the ball solidly with some draw from right to left. It landed about 50 yards from the green and rolled forward and onto the green. A firm believer in practicing golf etiquette, I knew I had done a terrible thing, hitting into the group in front of me. I waved as if to say, “Sorry.” They waved back, all of them, and enthusiastically pointed down to the hole. The ball had gone in. Later, I was able to apologize but they would not accept.”


Coach Wooden continued, “I have one word of advice for you, Swen. Don’t take golf too seriously.” Going forward, I remembered those words whenever I hit the ball in the pond, popped it up off the tee, and putted ten feet past the hole on a five foot putt.


Coach and I talked about various ways to improve a golf game. I mentioned one item I had purchased, the “Medicus,” a practice iron with a hinge in the shaft. If you made a downswing with a jerk, the hinge releases and you are left with a floppy club head. I told Coach, “Practicing with this club is supposed to take four or five strokes off your game.”


To that he replied with a smirk, “Swen, I’ve probably seen all the commercials and ads for gimmicks they promise, will take strokes off your game. I did the math and, if I bought all of them, I wouldn’t have any strokes.”  I never bought another video or practice tool again.


My handicap is much higher now and I play golf about two times a year. Nevertheless, whenever I play, I bring an extra pair of pants. You know why? Well, in case I get a hole in one. Coach liked that joke.