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John Alcindor was born in Trinidad in 1873. Educated at St. Mary's College he was awarded an Island Scholarship and decided to attend medical school in Edinburgh. Alcindor graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1899 with a first-class honours degree.
Alcindor moved to London and over the next few years worked at hospitals in Plaistow, Hampstead and Camberwell. In July 1900 Alcindor attended the Pan-African Conference held at Westminster Town Hall. There were 37 delegates from Europe, Africa and the United States. Those attending included Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Archer, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sylvester Williams and William Du Bois. At the conference a large number of delegates made speeches where they called for governments to introduce legislation that would ensure racially equality. Michael Creighton, the Bishop of London, asked the British government to confer the "benefits of self-government" on "other races as soon as possible".
After the conference the Pan-African Congress wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, suggesting that black people in the British Empire should be granted "true civil and political rights". Chamberlain replied that black people were "totally unfit for representative institutions". Sylvester Williams responded to this by writing to Queen Victoria about the system "whereby black men, women, and children were placed in legalized bondage to white colonists". The letter was passed to Chamberlain who replied that the government would not "overlook the interests and welfare of the native races."
In 1907 Alcindor established his own medical practice in Paddington. He also carried out research and he published articles on cancer, tuberculosis and influenza in the British Medical Journal and the General Practitioner. He pointed out that his research suggested that poverty, low quality food and unbalanced diets played an important role in poor health.
In 1911 Alcindor married Minnie Martin and the couple had three sons (John, Cyril and Roland). As well as running a medical practice at 37 Westbourne Park Road he worked as Medical Officer of Health for the Paddington Poor Law Guardians.
Alcindor remained active in the struggle for equal rights and in 1921 he succeeded John Archer as president of the African Progress Union.
The first dunk in organized sport happened in 1936. Joe Fortenberry, a 6-foot-8-inch Texan, introduced the dunk during the Berlin Olympics. Fortenberry captained the American squad on its way to winning the gold medal in the first Olympics to include basketball.
Early on, basketball purists despised the dunk. Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen said as much when describing the dunk in his 1937 book.
“Dunking does not display basketball skill—only height advantage.”
Kansas Basketball Coach Phog Allen
Less than a decade later, the first college dunk happened in 1944, on accident. Oklahoma A&M’s Bob Kurland, one of the college game’s first 7-foot centers, unexpectedly dunked in a game against Temple.
“The ball happened to be under the basket. I got it up and stuffed it in. That started it, I guess,” the late Kurland told the Orlando Sentinel in 2012. “It was an unintentional accident. It wasn’t planned, just a spontaneous play in Philadelphia.”
Despite negative sentiment about the dunk extending into the 1950s and 1960s, some players continued to incorporate it into their offensive games. Many defenders, however, took offense to the play, viewing it as an insult that broke one of the game’s unwritten rules. In some instances, players showed their distaste for the act by deliberately taking out the legs of a dunker.
Jeffrey Green. Historian
John Alcindor was born in Trinidad in July 1873, studied at St Mary’s College and was awarded one of the four Island Scholarships which funded him for three years’ study. He went to Edinburgh University 1893-1899, graduating M.B., B.Ch. in July 1899 and moving to London where he worked for several doctors and hospitals. He set up his own practice in the Harrow Road, Paddington, and also worked as a Poor Law medical officer. During the war he served the Red Cross and was awarded their medal.
Married in 1911, he had three sons. He played cricket for a hobby, and conducted medical research, publishing three papers in the medical press. He was in contact with other black people in Britain, attending the 1900 Pan-African conference organised by Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams, was a friend of the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born in London in 1875, son of a doctor from Sierra Leone) and befriended his American friends including violinist Clarence Cameron White and baritone Harry T. Burleigh in 1908-9.
Among Dr Alcindor’s work before he established his own medical practice were periods with Dr Little (letter, left), being a superintendent at Paddington Infirmary (1899), assistant medical officer at St Mary’s Hospital for Women and Children in Plaistow (1900), and in 1902 the acting assistant physician at the Hospital of St Francis in south west London. Add to his studies and periods at Glasgow and Edinburgh hospitals, by 1902 he had a very useful professional experience.
In 1921 Dr Alcindor took over the black-rights group the African Progress Union on the resignation of chairman John Archer. He attended both the 1921 and 1923 Pan-African Congresses in London, and renewed his friendship with W.E.B. Du Bois. His contacts included many black people in London, and he corresponded with Trinidad, Cameroon, and Kenya as well as white-run liberal groups in France and Britain. He was a guest at the Croydon wedding in 1924 of Gwendolen Coleridge-Taylor to Harold Dashwood – the same year he went to Paris on behalf of his West African lawyer friend Charles Coussey whose daughter Anne Marie had fallen in love with a future giant of African American literature, poet Langston Hughes. Two years later she married the Trinidadian lawyer Hugh Wooding – and Hughes wrote about his Paris experience in his The Big Sea autobiography (1940).
The funeral of the “Black Doctor” of Paddington was noted in the local press, which said he had been a “familiar figure in the neighbourhood” and was “of kindly and sympathetic disposition” (Paddington, Kensington and Bayswater Chronicle 1 November 1924) and in the African World (London), 8 November 1924, p 73 where he was described as having led a life that was “a shining example of the extinction of racial prejudice by high character, and the fact that a coloured man can earn the esteem and respect of all classes of the English people, both for charming personality and sterling character”. See page 025 of this site.
In 1946 the coffin of his son Captain Cyril Alcindor, an infantry officer who had been a regular infantryman in the 1930s, was interred in the same plot.
Dr Alcindor had died at the age of 51. There can be little doubt that had he continued to run the African Progress Union then the better-known League of Coloured Peoples, founded by Jamaica-born Dr Harold Moody in London in 1931, would not have been needed. That both doctors worked with John Barbour-James shows continuity. Alcindor’s replacement was the Ghanaian merchant Kwamina Tandoh.
Alcindor, Barbour-James, Moody and Tandoh all have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For the fullest study of Alcindor see Jeffrey Green, “John Alcindor (1873-1924): a Migrant’s Biography” in Immigrants and Minorities Vol 6 No 2 (July 1987) pp 174-189. There is also Jeffrey Green, “West Indian Doctors in London: John Alcindor (1873-1924) and James Jackson Brown (1882-1953)”, Journal of Caribbean History Vol 20 No 1 (June 1986) pp 49-77. Percy Chen’s China Called Me (New York: Little, Brown, 1979) is an overlooked account of life for a youth of colour in London in the 1910s.
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Alcindor associated in the late 1890s with the group around Henry Sylvester-Williams and his African Association. They were behind the First Pan-African Conference in 1900, which he attended in London, as a delegate from the Afro-West Indian Society.
Alcindor became the second president of the African Progress Union in 1921, succeeding John Archer.
Alcindor presided on the first day of the 2nd Pan-African Congress in 1921, with Rev. W. H. Jernagin. He spoke at the 3rd Pan-African Congress in 1923.
Student Massacre in Mexico City Influences Athletes
American sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman during the award ceremony of the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic games. During the ceremony, Smith and Carlos protested against racial discrimination: they went barefoot on the podium and listened to their anthem bowing their heads and raising a fist with a black glove.
Archivio Angelo Cozzi/Mondadori/Getty Images
In addition to better treatment for people of African descent worldwide, Smith and Carlos were gravely concerned over an event that happened 10 days before the Summer Games began. On October 2, 1968, Mexican military troops and police officers shot into a crowd of unarmed student protesters, killing as many as 300 youth (official estimates of the number of dead remains uncertain). This incident, along with their existing concerns about human rights, influenced the pair to make a political statement at the Olympics.
After winning the gold and the bronze medals in the 200-meter race (a white Australian athlete named Peter Norman won the silver), the duo stepped up to the podium wearing their symbolic beads, scarves, socks and gloved fists. Carlos used a black T-shirt to conceal the “USA” on his uniform to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will,” he explained later in his book, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. Both men also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges, as did Norman, who𠆝 asked how he could support their cause.
Sharing just one pair of gloves—Smith wore a glove on his right hand, and Carlos wore one on his left—the Black Olympians raised their fists as “The Star-Spangled Banner” began.
“The stadium became eerily quiet,” Carlos recalled in his memoir. “. There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.” He remembered that some spectators booed them, while others shouted the national anthem at them in defiance. “They screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms,” he wrote.
Remembering the start of UCLA's dynasty, 50 years laterBoasting talent that went on to become basketball legends, UCLA won the 1967 NCAA Championship.
Fifty years ago, the college basketball earth shook. Wherever UCLA went, awe followed, mostly because of the 7-foot-2 Bruin who could not be stopped.
His name was Lew Alcindor, before it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and when he scored 56 points in his first college game, everyone could guess what was coming. "The thing that surprised me,” he would say a half-century later of his debut, “was how easy it was.”
When he and the rest of a young starting lineup – four sophomores and a junior in an era when freshmen could not play – rolled to an unbeaten regular season, winning all but four of 26 games by at least 15 points, history was on alert. W hen they stormed through the 1967 NCAA tournament, taking the national championship with victory margins of 49, 16, 15 and 15 points, their legacy was secure.
And they were only beginning.
They had taken the John Wooden dynasty to a place it would remain until the mid-1970s. They had become a team feared and, in some ways, loathed. “We’re not very popular, are we?’’ forward Ken Heitz said one day.
UCLA won 10 national titles in 12 years from 1964-75. But something about that 1967 team – the one that began a streak of seven consecutive championships – made those Bruins the symbols of all that was possible in Westwood.
“I guess in many respects, the first one in 1967 was kind of a check-off 'Well there’s No. 1,'” says Lynn Shackelford, one of the sophomore starters that season, renowned for left-handed high-arching jump shots that seemed to fall from the rafters. “'Now we have to do it two more times,' because that’s what everybody expected.”
How dominant were they? Team captain Mike Warren, the lone junior starter in 1967: “There were games that were close. There were some games that were finished by halftime, and in some they were finished before the ball even went up, watching guys watch us go through our warmups. I remember talking to one of the opposing players years afterward and he told me the coach had instructed the team not to even watch us during warmups.”
How intimidating? Two days after the '67 national championship game, the dunk was outlawed in college basketball in a vain attempt to slow down Alcindor. The skyhook, perhaps the most lethal shot basketball ever has seen, was born.
Fifty years later, the Bruins of 1967 still share a special time when they reconvene.
“We don’t get together to re-live the glory days,” Abdul-Jabbar says, via e-mail. “Most of us have gone on to do much more glorious things in athletics or elsewhere. We get together because we have a bond, not because of the victories, but because of the hard work and dedication we put in for four years to become the best athletes we could. The trophies and championships were just a byproduct of that effort.”
A hint of what was to come
Where to begin to explain how it was? Start in the Los Angeles airport in the mid-1960s, with Warren there to meet a new recruit. Tall kid from New York named Alcindor.
“I remember distinctly Wooden telling me that he was very sensitive about his height and by all means don’t stare at him,” Warren says. “That was probably not the best thing to say. You tell a 19- or 20-year-old kid not to do something ./>John Wooden coached at UCLA from 1948 to 1975.
They got him, and UCLA-land wondered what might come next.
October of 1965. Alcindor – a Dodger fan – and Shackelford went to a World Series game together as freshmen. “I do remember people taking a second glance when he climbed out of my Volkswagen in the Dodger Stadium parking lot,” Shackelford says. “But hey, we’re 18 years old. We can crawl into little cars at that point.”
November of 1965. UCLA opened its new Pauley Pavilion with the annual varsity-freshman game. The varsity had several players back from the 1965 national championship team and was ranked No. 1. The freshman team had Alcindor, Shackelford, Heitz and Lucius Allen, all high school phenoms.
“It was supposed to be Coach Wooden’s big night,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “A bunch of Coach’s former players were there for the building’s opening, and they formed a human tunnel for Coach to run through to the cheers of the over 12,000 fans in the stands.
“My main thought going into the game was that they would beat us quickly and that would kill any future rivalry between us. They were the national champs, having just come off a record of 58 wins out of 60 games for the last two seasons. We were a tune-up game to launch them into yet another championship season.”
Some tune-up. The freshmen won 75-60.
Warren: “Back then, [the freshmen] practiced behind a curtain. So my expectations were, yeah, this might be a good game but we’re going to prevail. Well, those guys almost ran us out of the gym. They beat us by 15, but it could have been more.Before he was called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he played at UCLA as Lew Alcindor.
“Kenny Washington was so upset he wanted to play them again the next night. From my point of view I think we could have played them 10 times and they would have beaten us 10, or maybe nine. They were just that good. Kareem threw the equation out the window. How do you play him? Not too many teams figured it out.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “Our main concern was that we didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. The freshman coach, Gary Cunningham, who was coaching his first college game, felt bad that we beat his mentor and friend, Coach Wooden. After the game, there was a reception in the student union but Gary felt so embarrassed that he was a bit dispirited. But Coach Wooden wasn’t disturbed at all.
“In fact, he said that if the varsity had been able to beat us badly, that meant I wasn’t as good a player as he thought I was. I was certainly glad I didn’t hear him say that before the game.” Abdul-Jabbar writes about his relationship with Wooden in the upcoming book, "Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court."
Shackelford: “From that point on, I think we all knew we were going to be on a wild ride. And this was not going to be ordinary times.”
UCLA went 18-8 that season and missed the NCAA tournament. But the freshman games drew well.
A championship team's first steps
Dec. 3, 1966. College basketball held its breath. The Alcindor era was about to dawn. Against cross-town rival USC, no less. The expectations weren’t just high, they were in the stratosphere. Warren wondered if the team was too young, with four sophomore starters.
Abdul-Jabbar: “I remember it was a balmy December day, and Pauley Pavilion was packed, as it always was when we played USC, so I would either fail or succeed in a grand scale.”
He scored 56 points, and the Bruins rolled, 105-90.
Abdul-Jabbar: “It was like test driving a Ferrari. It was just as good-looking and fast as I had hoped.”
And the rest of college basketball had feared.
The romps began, one after another, as an entire sport gasped.
Shackelford: “We’d line up for the first free throw, and somebody on the other team would just nod over to me and say, 'There’s no way that guy’s only 7-2.’ You can imagine the intimidation factor.
“It was always interesting to see how teams would play us, more specifically how they would play Kareem. One of the great things Wooden was capable of doing was getting us all to play together and to make the various sacrifices that needed to be made. Kareem could have scored 56 points every night if that had been the objective. Lucius could have scored 30 or 40 points.
“Our quickness made us hard to guard, our outside shooting was consistent, and I was a big threat on the inside. That was a formidable combination. Sure, when one team is steamrolling through the season, other teams will become a little intimidated and hesitant. But at the same time, that also gets them excited about being the ones to knock us down a notch."
Colorado State lost by only 10 points to the Bruins. Shackelford: “Years later, somebody introduced me to the guy who was the Colorado State coach and he was still bragging about that game. It was like that was one of the highlights of his coaching career.”
UCLA did not have a road game until Jan. 7, at Washington State. By most accounts, Wooden was a little anxious about how the sophomores would react in their first hostile setting. The Bruins stayed in rooms above the student union, and the Washington State fans were camped out all night outside their windows. Warren: “I remember not getting a lot of sleep. And I seem to recall having a band play outside. And knowing that when we played on the road we weren’t going to get a lot of calls, and that was directly related to Kareem and his ability.”
UCLA won by nine points. In early February, the Bruins had their closest call a 40-35 overtime win against USC and its slow-down strategy. Two weeks later, Oregon – having lost the first meeting with UCLA, 100-66 – tried to dawdle as well, and the final was 34-25. It was the last time UCLA won by less than 10 all season.
March 24, the Final Four in Louisville. The Bruins had stormed through their first two NCAA tournament games, beating Wyoming by 49 and Pacific by 16. Houston, the first ranked opponent they faced since December, was next, featuring a talented center named Elvin Hayes.
Shackelford: “I remember being impressed by him. In the first five minutes of the game, he got the ball and tried to dunk over Kareem. And I thought, 'Whoa, I’m not used to seeing that.”
Didn’t matter. UCLA won 73-58. In the other semifinal, unheralded Dayton upset North Carolina, 76-62, and its young coach in his first Final Four. Dean Smith.
Dayton was a Cinderella story, slipping into the Final Four by winning its first NCAA tournament game in overtime, its next by a point and its next in overtime again. Against the Tar Heels, star Don May hit 13 shots in a row in a 76-62 win. He had averaged nearly 17 rebounds that season, but was only 6-foot-4. “The whole tournament was kind of a series of good fortune,” Flyers coach Don Donoher says 50 years later. “We won every close game there was.
After their win over Houston, the Bruins went back to the hotel to rest for the championship game the next night. The Tar Heels were in the same hotel.
Shackelford: “After being upset, they decided they were going to party. They got very, very loud, getting the fire extinguisher hose and running it down the hallway, slamming doors. I can remember the next morning Coach Wooden was very, very upset. I don’t think he slept very well and I don’t think any of us slept very well. I think he was kind of mad at Dean Smith for years afterwards because of that.”
The first of many
March 25, 1967. Mighty UCLA, No. 1 and 29-0. Unranked Dayton, with five losses, including to Niagara. Trying to simulate Alcindor’s daunting wing span for his shooters during practice, Donoher had his scout team wave brooms and tennis racquets.
Warren had special motivation, beyond the obvious. He was a product of the deeply emotional world of Indiana high school basketball, and his South Bend Central team had lost the state championship game to Muncie Central. He had never gotten over it. Among the Dayton players that day was Glinder Torain, from Muncie Central. The two had taken some college recruiting visits together.
Warren: “I’ve always said I’d give up one of the championships at UCLA for one Indiana state championship. This kind of got the slate even.”
Before the biggest game of their lives, the young Bruins sat in the locker room waiting to hear from Wooden.
Shackelford: “I’m thinking, here it is, we’re 29-0, this is what I’ve wanted for my whole life, to play an NCAA championship game. And now I’ve got John Wooden talking before the game. This is going to be indelible, and imprinted in my life forever and ever. And he walks in and just says two things.”
The first: which way to face during pre-game introductions, for the TV cameras.
Shackelford: “He goes, 'Louisville is the fifth most immoral city in the United States and I expect everybody to behave themselves properly after the game. All right, that’s it, let’s go out there.’ And that was it.
“So we were out there doing pre-game warmup, and we were trying to figure out who were the cities above Louisville. I think all we could come up with was Las Vegas."
Donoher had one surprise. He sent out reserve Dan Obrovac, at 6-foot-10, for the opening tip. It was the only tip Alcindor would lose his entire college career.
Donoher: “Unfortunately, we couldn’t take the ball and go home.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “He only played five minutes that game, but to his great credit, he made history in those five minutes. The photo of Dan beating me was featured in Sports Illustrated and become iconic [it would hang for years in University of Dayton Arena]. In the end, it didn’t matter we beat them 79-64."
A half-century later, Donoher still mourns part of his strategy: “May played deep in the post and that played right into the teeth of UCLA because of Alcindor. In retrospect, had we played May high up around the foul line and played our center off to the corner, deep along the baseline, maybe we could have generated more offense early and been competitive in the game. But that was a tall order. They had shooters. They had great guards. And they had about the best player in the history of the game. We were up against it.
“The final score was not indicative of how much they dominated us [it was 70-46 when Wooden called off the troops]. But then again, they dominated their whole schedule.”
Shackelford: “As good as they were, well-coached, they were a little undermanned against us. His [May’s] game was five feet and in, muscling inside, and that’s just not going to happen with Lew Alcindor. So it was a pretty easy win.”
Alcindor had 20 points, Allen 19, Warren 17, Shackelford 10. The Bruins breezed despite a horrendous 11-for-25 from the free-throw line. I t was the third national championship for UCLA and Wooden in four years.
But it was something else: An unmistakable message of what was ahead for college basketball, delivered by a program that would own the future.
Shackelford: “I’m not sure it had a big effect on the dynasty. It had a big effect on us. We were fresh and eager and playing in a positive way. We just kind of took it for granted that we were going to win. It was just a question of who was going to play and how much we were going to win by. It’s not like we were over-confident. But you look at the statistics, we were just supremely better than everybody.”
By 1968, the nation seemed to be coming apart with the Vietnam War and battles over civil rights. The UCLA campus, too. The Bruins, as socially aware as any group of diverse college kids, nevertheless played on.
Warren: “It was in some ways similar to what we’re going through now. There was such a schism in America. The line was divided very clearly as the line has been drawn very clearly now. For us to walk on that court and all of us experiencing it differently as things were blowing up around the country, Wooden somehow -- and I still haven’t figured out how -- got it that that’s the only conversation that took place. It was about basketball. Off the court Wooden tried not to interfere in our lives a whole lot. That was the sanctuary. It became much easier inside than outside.”
In 1968, UCLA would lose the landmark made-for-television game in in the Astrodome to Houston and Hayes, Alcindor slowed by a scratched eye. And then in the Final Four the Bruins would destroy the top-ranked Cougars, 101-69, in one of the most devastating performances the tournament has ever seen.
In 1969, they would lose one more game, 46-44, to their old slow-it-down pals from USC. But they would march to the three-peat, then turn the dynasty over to a new wave. When Alcindor and his class left UCLA, a floppy-haired high schooler from California named Bill Walton took over.
But 1967 will always linger, and not just at UCLA.
Donoher: “The significance from Dayton’s part which holds true to today, after we won the regional up in Chicago, we came back to the hotel and our athletic director had been working on a mission of building a new arena in Dayton. He just announced to everyone after that game, 'Tonight, we built an arena.’ And three years later, we were in it.”
UD Arena has now hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other in the nation.
One more thing form Donoher:
“In our family room I’ve got a big picture right front and center of Lew Alcindor and Don May," he says. "The house we live in probably was built because of it.”
A legacy on and off the court
As for the Bruins, the legacy from 1967 came in many ways. One was the no-dunk rule.
Abdul-Jabbar: “Of course I was not pleased at having a rule changed just to keep me from playing my best. Part of my passion for basketball was to see how far I could go as an athlete. On the other hand, I was in good company, because two of my role models – Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – had been so dominant, they caused ruled changes for me [Including widening of the lane, and the elimination of goal tending]./>Lynn Shackelford was renowned for left-handed, high-arching jump shots.
Shackelford: “What the coaches would do was just tell us to lob the ball into Kareem and him dunk it. Since he couldn’t dunk it, he had to perfect the hook shot, which became known as the skyhook, which to this day is probably the most unstoppable shot in the history of the game. So in the world of unintended consequences, they actually made him a better player.”
Warren headed off to Hollywood after 1968. Alcindor and Lucius Allen to the NBA after 1969. Shackelford eventually to business, Heitz to law school. Wooden to more titles. It was left to each man to put 1967 in context.
Warren on Wooden: “I came all the way out to UCLA to get away from my parents – not because I didn’t love them, but I wanted to grow up – and I run smack dab into a guy who is just like my parents. He’s saying the same thing they were saying. But once I got distance from the experience, and particularly when I had children of my own, not only do I hear my parents in my inner ear from time to time, I hear Wooden.
“That’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. When Wooden and I would get together, we very seldom reminisced about basketball. But we talked a lot about family.”
In 2010, Abdul-Jabbar connected with a man dying of cancer: Dan Obrovac, the Dayton Flyer who won that tip 43 years before.
“I was especially sympathetic because I had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenus leukemia. Basketball isn’t just a job, it’s a brotherhood." Abdul-Jabbar says. "So I sent Dan a signed photo of that tipoff with the hope it would bring a smile to his face.”
Fifty years after that one-sided game in a one-sided season, many Bruins are gathering to mark the feat.
Shackelford, about the call he got from UCLA about a reunion of the 1967 team: “I said. `Whatever you do, you’re going to have to do it every year for seven years.’ They said `Yep, that’s a good problem to have.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “Winning seven consecutive NCAA championships has set a gold standard in college sports that may never be equaled. At the time it happened, I didn’t think of it that much because I was still in my professional career, and frankly, was getting used to UCLA winning. But looking back, it’s extraordinary for any sport to have one team consistently set the standard for excellence. I’m so happy I could be part of that extraordinary legacy.”
The numbers tell a lot, but only the men who lived it truly understand. Men who were there when John Wooden became immortal and UCLA became a dynasty.
Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 39 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NCAA or its member institutions.
The Wizard And the Giant
DESPITE ALL THE MONEY that John Wooden&aposs basketball team was generating for UCLA, his salary was just $17,000 in 1968. To supplement this income he ran several youth basketball camps around Los Angeles. In many ways he enjoyed working more at the camps than at Westwood. "When I have my summer basketball school out at Palisades High, they&aposre eager to know how to do things," he said. "The college players are more blasé."
The campus culture in which Wooden operated didn&apost just encourage students to question authority. It urged them to topple authority. With his old-fashioned Midwestern values, the 57-year-old Wooden was the very embodiment of the establishment. He and his players occupied the same space but lived in different worlds. "I really respected him, but I don&apost know that like was in the equation," said Bruins swingman Kenny Heitz. "We had a bunch of guys who had really good relationships with our fathers. Wooden became that old guy we couldn&apost please."
Wooden faced a Catch-22: If he stuck to his ways, he appeared out of touch if he bent, he was a hypocrite. Lew Alcindor posed an especially touchy problem. The junior&aposs size alone (7&apos2") warranted a different set of standards. From airplanes to buses to hotel rooms, Alcindor needed special accommodations. Plus𠅊nd more to the point—he was really, really good. If Wooden was going to bend for anyone, it would be for his star center.
For example, UCLA had a rule that if a player was late for the team flight, he had to find his own way to the game. However, the school&aposs radio announcer, Fred Hessler, recalled that when Alcindor was late for one flight to the Northwest, athletic director J.D. Morgan called UCLA&aposs sports publicist and told him to go to Alcindor&aposs apartment and take him to the airport. "J.D. realized these [arenas] were sold out because of seeing [Alcindor]," Hessler said. "He was going to see that our star attraction got there."
But where the coach saw a necessary accommodation, his players saw a double standard. "Wooden had this dress code for a team meal, and then one day Lew and [star guard] Lucius [Allen] showed up in jeans, and he didn&apost say anything," Heitz said. When forward Lynn Shackelford was asked by a writer from Sport magazine what would happen if a player were late for curfew, he replied, "It all depends on how you&aposre playing. It&aposs been a lot looser since the big man arrived."
Before Alcindor, the pregame menu had always been precise: steak, potato, melba toast, celery, milk. "Somewhere along the way, out of 11 players, you&aposd see eight glasses of milk and three Cokes," guard Don Saffer said. "They were for Lucius, [starting point guard] Mike [Warren] and Lew. The rest of us didn&apost want milk, but that&aposs the way it was."
When the players complained𠅊nd this being the &apos60s, they felt free to do just that—Wooden conceded their point. "Two of his teammates made some remarks to a reporter that I gave [Alcindor] special privileges," Wooden said in 1998. "Breakfast, for example. He got a couple of glasses of orange juice and they&aposd get one. True. Then they said I let him room alone while they always had to room with someone else. But you don&apost find two king-size beds in the same room. I told one of these players, You&aposre lucky he&aposs here. I wouldn&apost have you if he wasn&apost here."
Nobody was more realistic about special treatment than the guys at the top of the pecking order. "We black players knew that as a unit we had a lot of power," Warren said. "Before the season, Coach Wooden told Alcindor and me that our hair had grown a little too long last year and suggested that we cut it closer this year. We didn&apost, and nothing happened."
Partly this was the coach&aposs nod to progress. "I&aposm not as strict as I used to be," Wooden conceded in the summer of &apos68, "but society isn&apost as strict, either." The challenge for Wooden would grow steeper as the culture became even more permissive. That included the arrival of a new element in campus social life: drugs. Marijuana had been virtually unheard of at UCLA just a few years before, but in a flash it was everywhere. Alcindor was introduced to pot by a fellow student at Power Memorial High in New York City. He didn&apost feel much effect the first couple of times he smoked, but after church on Easter Sunday, 1965, he went to a friend&aposs house and together they pounded the pipe so hard that Alcindor nearly coughed his lungs out. He felt high, really high, and he liked it.
It wasn&apost until he got to UCLA that Alcindor experimented with LSD. After a few trips, however, he decided he didn&apost really like it and stopped. Still, acid was all around him. One day a pair of students who had taken LSD came upon him and thought he was a hallucination. Alcindor found it hilarious, one of the few times he didn&apost mind strangers becoming fixated on his height.
Alcindor was able to keep his drug use on the down-low, but Allen was not so lucky. At the end of his sophomore season, in the spring of 1967, he was pulled over for speeding, and the police found a small bag of marijuana in his pocket and another in his glove compartment. UCLA booster Sam Gilbert bailed Allen out of jail and found him a criminal lawyer, who got the charges dropped because of insufficient evidence. Since it was the off-season Allen was not suspended from the team, and he never spoke to Wooden about the arrest.
If Wooden had any inkling his players were using drugs, he certainly would not have approved. But he also believed their private lives were their own business. The only times he insinuated himself were when their behavior threatened to disrupt his machine. That concern prompted him to call Warren to his office one day for an uncomfortable conversation. Wooden had received a call from a white man whose daughter was dating Warren. The man made it clear that if Wooden didn&apost keep Warren away from the girl, then he would. "He didn&apost stop me," Warren said of Wooden, "but, man, how about telling me my life is in danger? How&aposs that for a hint?"
Wooden had no personal objection to interracial dating, but he worried about the reactions of those who did, which could disrupt the delicate balance of his program. "I would discourage anybody from interracial dating," he said. "I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society too. It&aposs asking for trouble, but I&aposve never told a player who he could or couldn&apost date."
IN THE &apos68 NCAA tournament semifinals, the Bruins avenged their only loss of the season, humiliating top-ranked Houston 101--69. The win sent UCLA into an anticlimactic meeting with fourth-ranked North Carolina, a 78--55 romp in which Alcindor had 34 points. Tar Heels coach Dean Smith called those Bruins "the greatest basketball team of all time."
Now that the tournament was over and he had his second consecutive NCAA title, Alcindor could show his true colors—literally. He emerged from the UCLA locker room in an African robe with red, orange and yellow stripes and swirls. The giant garment, which he called his "dignity robe," hung just below his knees. When Wooden saw what Alcindor was wearing, he smiled.
Besides Warren&aposs graduation, the Bruins suffered a second crushing departure that spring: Allen was arrested a second time, on two felony counts of possession of marijuana. There was no way UCLA could keep him on the team, especially since he was lagging on his academics. He dropped out of school without saying goodbye to Wooden.
With both Allen and Warren gone, UCLA was shorthanded in the backcourt. On the flip side, Wooden was getting ready to coach perhaps the best frontcourt in college basketball history. Alcindor, Heitz and Lynn Shackelford were back, and they were being joined by three elite sophomores: Steve Patterson and Curtis Rowe, who had anchored the undefeated UCLA freshman team, and Sidney Wicks, a former all-city player at Alexander Hamilton High in L.A. who had spent a year shoring up his academics at Santa Monica City College.
Socially, Alcindor was entering his own season of adjustment. He had lost his two best friends on the team in Allen and Edgar Lacey, who had quit in late January 1968 after being benched. But instead of sulking and withdrawing as he usually did, Alcindor broadened his horizons. Wicks and Rowe were the only other blacks on the team. Not only were they two years younger, but they were also boisterous and flamboyant—very different from Alcindor. So he spent more time with teammates Mike Lynn and Bill Sweek and with Bob Marcucci, a white student manager. Alcindor had become an aficionado of martial arts after studying his freshman year with an accomplished instructor turned movie actor from Hong Kong named Bruce Lee, and he shared his love of kung fu movies with his white buddies. "We spent time going to movies and jazz clubs," said Marcucci. "It was cool."
Even outsiders noticed this more content, more open-minded Alcindor. "The face lights up in a ready smile," Jeff Prugh wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "The demeanor is cool, but cordial. The feelings surface more quickly and are expressed sometimes good humoredly." In part this was natural maturation, but there was another reason Alcindor evinced a sense of inner peace. Over the summer he had converted to Islam.
Alcindor had first become intrigued by Islam during his freshman year at UCLA, when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Like Malcolm, Alcindor eschewed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, whose U.S.-bred version of Islam included rants about white devils and exhortations to violent retribution. Alcindor was drawn to Islam&aposs traditional Eastern-based doctrines, which he called "the real Islam."
While living and working in New York City during the summer of 1968, Alcindor studied at a mosque on 125th Street in Harlem. He immersed himself in the Sunni tradition, as Malcolm had. For two weeks he took instruction each day beginning at 6 a.m. He converted in late August and was given the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means "noble servant of the powerful One."
Alcindor did not tell teammates or coaches about his conversion until December, on a road swing through the Midwest for games against 13th-ranked Ohio State and No. 5 Notre Dame. On the bus ride between Columbus and South Bend, Alcindor started talking religion with Patterson, a born-again Christian who had started a church-based student group. When Patterson said the only way for a man to reach heaven was through Christ, Alcindor asked, "What about all those people in Africa who never heard of Jesus? Are they all going to hell?" Patterson answered that they were, and pretty soon the debate got heated.
Then an amazing thing happened: The conversation cooled into a thoughtful, civil exchange. Soon Patterson and Alcindor were joined by Don Saffer, who was Jewish, and Terry Schofield, who was Catholic. Other players shifted to that part of the bus, where they all discussed the presence of God, the meaning of life, the shared values of differing religions. Wooden moved closer as well. He didn&apost say much mostly he listened. Finally Alcindor revealed that he had become a Muslim. Much to his surprise, the players and coaches weren&apost put off. Instead they were curious and accepting. "I didn&apost know who the hell Malcolm X was," Sweek said. "I learned a lot through [Lew]."
If anyone was likely to have been put off by Alcindor&aposs conversion, it was Wooden. He was a deacon in his church, never missed a Sunday service and shared Patterson&aposs devotion to Christ. Yet Wooden had no objection to Alcindor&aposs newfound faith. He knew Alcindor would not have made such a profound decision without researching it thoroughly. The coach "was curious to know what Islam was all about," Alcindor said, "and really showed me the utmost respect [for] making my own choices."
That bus ride through a cold Midwestern night did more to fortify the players&apos bonds than any win could. "It&aposs the most memorable moment of the years I spent at UCLA," Heitz said. For Alcindor, it was the first time his fellow students finally became his teammates. The first time they really felt like brothers.
THE BRUINS won both games on that trip. The Notre Dame game was part of a new nationally televised series that helped stamp UCLA as a brand while also giving visibility to Fighting Irish basketball. From there the Bruins steamrollered nine unranked teams, culminating with a 100--64 laugher over once-mighty Houston at Pauley Pavilion.
As in the past, however, those scores belied rising tensions. Wicks was a primary source. He was playing a lot of minutes, but he couldn&apost understand why Patterson and Shackelford were starting ahead of him. Unlike so many sophomores, Wicks wasn&apost intimidated by Wooden. "People say we butted heads," Wicks said. "I like to say we expressed ourselves."
Wicks also made his displeasure known to Shackelford. "He was very frustrated," Shackelford said. "What he didn&apost realize was that I was a much smarter player in pressure situations." Now a senior, Shackelford had been through this before, and it was wearing him out. The responsibilities of playing for UCLA, the expectations, the grinding, exhausting practices—"It was becoming more of a job," Shackelford said. "My last year wasn&apost as exciting as it should have been."
Here the Bruins were, undefeated again, ranked No. 1, perfectly positioned to mount a run at an unprecedented third straight NCAA title, and yet everyone was feeling the strain, Wooden most of all. He had an older team now, and the upperclassmen were no longer cowed. (After he retired, Wooden was asked who was harder to coach, black players or white players. He replied, "Seniors.") Saffer&aposs playing time had dwindled so much that he decided to quit the team.
Wooden also had several blistering confrontations with Heitz. When the coach received an anonymous letter that aired some of the team&aposs dirty laundry, he assumed that Heitz had written it and confronted him after a pregame meal. Heitz had not, in fact, written the letter. "I just completely lost it," Heitz said. "I was like, &aposYou are out of your mind.&apos I went to my room and I&aposm thinking, S---, I&aposm never going to play here again."
Alcindor too was feeling the tension. Before a game against Washington State he came down with a migraine so intense that the doctor wouldn&apost allow him to warm up until 15 minutes before tip-off. "It&aposs got to be the constant pressure he&aposs under," Wooden said. "He can&apost even talk to a friend or anybody else and not have to answer questions about what he&aposs going to do about pro basketball."
Wooden admitted two days later that he got into his guys during halftime of their home game against Oregon on Feb. 22 because he didn&apost think they were playing with enough passion, even though they would win by 34 points. "I may have to assume that demeanor a little more often, but it&aposs not good to have to verbally lash a team to keep the pressure on it," he said. "You don&apost talk natural fight into people. That&aposs inborn." The Bruins may have been on their way to making history, but they weren&apost having a lot of fun doing it.
Wooden hardly recognized what he had wrought. His unparalleled ability to teach the game had coincided with an enormous influx of talent as well as a burgeoning television industry. It was enough to make anyone lose his balance.
One day during Alcindor&aposs senior season, Wooden found himself at the weekly writers&apos luncheon sitting next to former Bruins guard Freddie Goss, who had just been hired as the coach at UC Riverside. Even though he got the job largely on Wooden&aposs recommendation, Goss said, "He told me point-blank, &aposFreddie, this is no life.&apos He looked at coaching basketball as a way to teach ethics. At some point it became this fast-moving train, and he didn&apost know how to get off."
Wooden wasn&apost exactly unhappy he did like to win, after all. But his program had become a monster, and it was all he could do to keep from being devoured by it. "I can honestly say that I received more criticism after we won a championship than I did before we won one," he said. "That&aposs why I&aposve always said I wish all my really good friends in coaching would win one national championship. And those I don&apost think highly of, I wish they would win several."
The games were the worst part of it. Wooden lived for practice, but when game night came he could only sit in his seat squirming, clutching his rolled-up program, barking at the referees. Two months after his team won the 1968 title, Wooden admitted to the Daily Bruin that he wasn&apost sure how much longer he wanted to keep his job. "The last two years have been tremendous from a winning standpoint," he said, "but they have been my most trying years for a number of reasons."
It was all he could do to steal a few quiet moments. Often before practice began, Wooden would ask Marcucci to shag for him while he shot underhanded free throws. "We would chitchat a little bit, but I could see he was thinking about a lot of stuff," Marcucci said. "Now that I look back on it, I&aposm convinced it was a way for him to mentally get away from the pressure."
BY THE time the Bruins got to Louisville for the final weekend of the 1969 NCAA tournament, they didn&apost want to win the title so much as get it over with. That sapped them of their competitive edge, and it nearly cost them in their semifinal, against Drake. UCLA ran out to an 11--2 lead, but then the Bruins seemed to relax. Wooden was particularly annoyed with Sweek, whose playing time had dwindled the last few weeks. When Sweek missed a defensive assignment midway through the first half, Wooden benched him. Sweek seethed. "I was a senior," he said. "This was my 89th game. I didn&apost think I needed a lesson at that point."
The old UCLA would have put the game out of reach, but there was no blitz in sight. In fact, the script was being flipped: Drake was the speedier and more cohesive unit. Sweek sat and watched his senior season teeter on the brink, yet Wooden would not put him back in. The only thing that kept the Bruins in front was John Vallely, the long-range marksman who tossed in a career-high 29 points. But when Vallely fouled out with four minutes left, Wooden had no choice but to send in Sweek.
When the coach summoned him, Sweek removed his warmup shirt slowly and sauntered to the scorer&aposs table with a look of disgust on his face. He wanted Wooden to know just how pissed he was. As it turned out, Wooden didn&apost think he needed any lesson, either. "Sit down," he barked.
Sweek did not sit down. He headed straight for the locker room. He was through with John Wooden. Back on the court UCLA appeared to stay in control until the Bulldogs erupted for six points in the final 20 seconds, but they came up just short, 85--82. The Bruins&apos final opponent would be Wooden&aposs alma mater, Purdue. Wooden, however, was not in a celebratory mood. All the pressure, the conflict, the mutinous behavior from his senior class had finally pushed him over the edge.
Wooden was the first member of the team to reach the locker room. He found Sweek naked in the shower, and he lit into his fifth-year senior. "It was madder than I had ever seen him," Sweek said. "The veins in his head were bulging." Wooden&aposs assistants had to restrain him from tackling Sweek in the shower. The players stood agape. "It was tragic and hilarious," Heitz said. "Mostly hilarious. Wooden is yelling at Bill like he wants to fight him. Sweek is going, &aposYou wanna come fight, old man? You&aposve been messing with my mind for five years!&apos And the whole team is dying laughing."
Sweek gave as good as he got. "You&aposre right, Coach, and I&aposm wrong," he said sarcastically. "In fact, you&aposre always right. Edgar Lacey quit, but you were right, and he was wrong. Don Saffer quit, but you were right, and he was wrong. All these problems, and you&aposre just never wrong. Did you ever think the problem was you?"
Finally the assistants pried Wooden away. Sweek was sure he had played his last game for UCLA. When he woke up Friday morning, however, he had not yet been booted from the squad. So he went to breakfast. As the meal was winding down, Wooden said he wanted to speak to the team. He said he had thought about what Sweek had said and conceded his argument had some merit. He told the players how proud he was of them and how much he enjoyed coaching them. At the end Wooden shook hands with Sweek in front of the team. He never apologized—neither did Sweek𠅋ut the incident had been put behind them. "That he would try to bring us together and mend this thing, I thought was impressive," Sweek said. "He forgave me and wanted me to be there and play in the final game."
Maybe it was the catharsis of that confrontation. Maybe it was the presence of Alcindor&aposs father, Big Al, playing first trombone in the UCLA band. Maybe it was the fact that there was only one game left. Or maybe it was simply that the Bruins were a great team that had gotten a lousy game out of their system. Whatever the reason, UCLA took the floor with real purpose on Saturday night. Purdue never had a chance. Wooden sicced his best defender, Heitz, on guard Rick Mount, and Heitz held the Boilermakers&apos star scoreless for more than 18 minutes during the first half. During one stretch Heitz forced Mount to miss 14 consecutive shots.
As the game wound down, the only suspense was whether Alcindor would go through with his plan to dunk in one last gesture of protest against the NCAA basketball rules committee, which forbade dunks. Wooden removed him with just under two minutes to play, before he had the chance. The final score was UCLA 92, Purdue 72.
It was an emphatic valedictory for the young giant. He finished with 37 points and 20 rebounds as he completed his college career with an 88--2 record, both losses coming by a single basket. In becoming the first player to be named the NCAA tournament&aposs Most Outstanding Player three times, Alcindor established himself as arguably the greatest player in the history of college basketball. Wooden did the same as a coach. He was now the first coach to win five NCAA titles as well as the only one to capture three in a row.
After all they had been through, the seniors were only beginning to realize that the important things they learned from Wooden had little to do with basketball. "He was able to be flexible enough to change his thinking during the craziness of the &apos60s," Sweek said. "He was such a morally upright person. He could hear and he would listen. Despite his background, he was willing to change. "
For all that Alcindor had accomplished on the court, his two most vivid memories from his senior season took place on a bus and over breakfast. He never felt particularly close to Wooden, but he understood that Wooden was a major reason why he was leaving Westwood a better man. "He was a teacher above all else," Alcindor said years later, well after he became widely known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He challenged us without taking away our spirit."
The teacher learned a great deal from his students as well. It had been a trying three years, but the Alcindor era was officially over. Maybe now life could return to normal. Maybe Wooden could find a better balance. "I look forward to again coaching to try to win," he said, "rather than trying to avoid being defeated."
WHEN A PLAYER COMPLAINED ABOUT ALCINDOR&aposS PRIVILEGES, WOODEN SAID, "YOU&aposRE LUCKY HE&aposS HERE. I WOULDN&aposT HAVE YOU IF HE WASN&aposT HERE."
WOODEN HAD NO OBJECTION TO ALCINDOR&aposS NEW FAITH. HE KNEW ALCINDOR WOULD NOT HAVE MADE SUCH A PROFOUND DECISION WITHOUT RESEARCHING IT THOROUGHLY.
AFTER HE RETIRED, WOODEN WAS ASKED WHO WAS HARDER TO COACH, BLACK PLAYERS OR WHITE PLAYERS. HE REPLIED, "SENIORS."
MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY Alcindor and Wooden were not close, but the cosmopolitan New Yorker and the small-town Midwesterner earned each other&aposs respect.
NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SECOND HELPING In the spring of &apos68, just before he converted to Islam, Alcindor (back row, behind Wooden) won his second NCAA title with Warren (holding trophy) and Allen (42).
John Wooden: “The Wizard of Dishonesty”
John Wooden brought a squeaky clean image to college basketball. He’s looked upon as the kindly old grandfather of the college game. Wooden brought the pyramid of success to the coaching world. If you look at it closely, you will find that it is indeed a very useful tool for young coaches. Wooden used it with great success. Unfortunately, his pyramid, when taking a closer look, is nothing but a sham. I know, I know, “The Wizard of Westwood” a fraud? Bare with me and I’ll explain exactly my reasons to write this.
John Wooden coaching record before 1967?
I’ll get to why I have split up Wooden’s career into two-time periods in a minute. In John Wooden’s first 19 seasons, he lost a total of 137 games, qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments, three Final Fours, and won two National Championships. That’s the record of a Hall of Fame coach, but not of the greatest coach of all-time. From 1966-67 until he coached his last game in 1975, Wooden made it to nine Final Fours, and won eight National Championships. Why was Wooden’s success so drastically different over the last nine years of his career?
Who was Sam Gilbert?
Sam Gilbert owned Sam Gilbert and Associates, a construction company that built homes and commercial buildings in the West Los Angeles area. He developed inventions, including metal studs and a door lock that made him wealthy. Gilbert had attended UCLA in the 1930’s but had never received his degree. Gilbert became involved in UCLA basketball sometime around 1966-1967 season, when UCLA player Willie Naulls brought Lew Alcindor (famously known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Lucius Allen to him for counseling. He opened up his Bel Air, Los Angeles home,(near Beverly Hills) to the players, and became an adviser to many.
What did Gilbert do to help the program become dominant?
Gilbert held dinners at his home and provided UCLA players with advice, counsel and much, much more. He was known as “Papa Sam” to UCLA’s collection of All-Americans — he even negotiated NBA contracts for the players.
“There were two people I listened to,” former UCLA star Lucius Allen once told The Times. “Coach Wooden as long as we were between the lines. Outside the court, Sam Gilbert.”
Wooden was wary of Gilbert but generally turned a blind eye. He later admitted that he had what he called “tunnel” vision. Do you really believe that a man who was so seemingly in control of his team did not know what was going on?
A 1981 Los Angeles Times investigative series, which interviewed 45 people connected with the UCLA basketball program, established Gilbert as, “a one-man clearinghouse who has enabled players and their families to receive goods and services usually at big discounts and usually at no cost.”
The paper quoted Brent Clark, an NCAA field investigator who said that, in 1977, he was told to drop his case in Westwood. “If I had spent a month in Los Angeles, I could have put them on indefinite suspension,” he said of UCLA. An NCAA spokesman disputed this claim, saying that Clark was living in a “fantasy world.”
Of course, the NCAA didn’t want the black-eye that would have come with taking away nine NCAA Championship banners from UCLA. So nothing was done and the NCAA made the problem go away. As a consolation, likely because of the Time’s investigation, the NCAA decided to strip UCLA of it’s 1980 NCAA Championship game appearance.. But they did nothing about the rampant cheating when coach Wooden was in charge.
Did Gilbert really help UCLA that much?
The people that do know about Gilbert will usually say Gilbert was never found to have helped Wooden with recruiting. While that’s true, do you really expect me to believe that word didn’t get around the entire country that a player will be taken care of if you chooses to go play for UCLA? Remember the Bruins record before Gilbert got on campus and started providing perks for the players. When you compare Wooden’s record before Gilbert arrived, to his record after Gilbert got on campus, I would think it would be hard to believe that Gilbert did not help Wooden’s winning percentage.
Should Wooden’s legacy be tarnished?
No doubt that it should be tarnished, but it hasn’t been and it won’t. When you look up this issue up on the internet, very few have chosen to write about it. I find that hard to believe. It’s one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports. Let’s face it, Wooden has a lot of competition there. Too bad that the NCAA is one of the most corrupt organizations the world has ever known. Until its put out to pasture, college sports will always have a black eye.
As for Wooden, I have no doubt he is one of the greatest coaches ever, but when looking at the evidence, it is hard for me to believe that he is the greatest.
In 1981, Wooden told The Times, “There’s as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said — he’d rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time. Maybe I trusted too much.” To this, I call absolute bull shit! Wooden carried himself as a man of integrity and to see him not own up to what he allowed to happen is sickening. There is NO doubt he knew what was happening and he allowed it. I say the same with NCAA. They knew what was happening and choose to do nothing.
What I take away from this whole episode is that all men are fallible. No man should be put upon a pedestal, especially when he’s just a basketball coach.
Eager for any advice on how to succeed in the classroom and the court at the college level, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then a UCLA freshman known as Lew Alcindor, had already established a bond with then-UCLA basketball coach John Wooden before the two visited a local restaurant for a dinner out.
The accomplished teacher from Indiana planned to spend their time advising the lanky 7-foot-2 center from New York City on how best to handle the looming attention from physical opponents and inquisitive reporters. Instead, it was the then-middle-aged Wooden who learned something that evening when he was exposed to the racism his 18-year-old dinner guest often endured.
As they left the restaurant, an elderly white woman marveled at Abdul-Jabbar’s height before addressing him with a racial slur. Though Wooden’s face turned red, Abdul-Jabbar remembered Wooden “was too much the Midwestern gentleman to verbally attack an old woman.”
|UCLA coach John Wooden introduces new UCLA player Lew Alcindor at the Bruins’ picture-day in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, 1966. (AP Photo)|
“It’s just like that for any white person in America. They don’t know what it’s like to be a black person being discriminated against,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “How are they going to find that out?”
Wooden soon did. He then apologized to Abdul-Jabbar and pleaded with him not to think all white people are racist.
“It really bothered him. It really affected his worldview,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “For someone like him that felt like he had the hands on the reins of everything, that must’ve been a humbling experience.”
|Lew Alcindor towers over coach John Wooden, who has some words of advice for the UCLA star during a pre-NCAA title game workout on March 21, 1969 in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo)|
It was one of many experiences Abdul-Jabbar shared in his book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-year Friendship On and Off the Court. In the book, one of more than a dozen he’s written, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer reflects plenty on Wooden’s record 10 NCAA championships with UCLA, his famed Pyramid of Success and how he helped Abdul-Jabbar develop his skyhook. The former UCLA and Lakers center also details complicated events that tested and strengthened his relationship with Wooden.
“Coach didn’t get it all right,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “But I talked about that so people didn’t think he was some kind of perfect person. He made mistakes, but the way he dealt with them was first rate.”
|In this Feb. 24, 2007, file photo, former UCLA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar assists former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden off the court after celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1967 national championship team. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas, File)|
Since Wooden’s passing in 2010, Abdul-Jabbar said he has developed a greater understanding of the strength of their bond. It centered on basketball but included passion for literature, history and music and a mutual respect of their different backgrounds. It took Abdul-Jabbar seven years to write that story.
“I had to think about what Coach Wooden meant to my life,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Then I had to think about how much did I want to share with the public? Some of it is private. But it is very meaningful.”
50 Years Of Coach Wooden And Kareem, Through Racism, Olympic Boycott And More 11:51
"I was hoping you'd say, 'You can identify me as a writer and activist who once played some basketball,' " I respond.
"That’s too long," Kareem says with a laugh.
Too long, maybe. But not wrong. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, has written over a dozen books: history, social commentary, kids’ books, autobiography — and he’s only 71.
Anyway, I had the opportunity to talk with Kareem recently. One of the things on his mind was his relationship with celebrated college basketball coach John Wooden, who recruited Kareem to UCLA in 1965, when Kareem was still Lew Alcindor.
"For me, it was an insight into what Mr. Wooden was all about when I first met him," Kareem explains, "because we started talking, and we immediately got off the subject of basketball. And he said, 'You know, I noticed that you have good grades, and UCLA is an excellent school. I expect you to do well here.' And, you know, I was kind of surprised. Most basketball coaches don’t care about that, and I understood immediately that we were simpatico that way. I was at UCLA to get an education, and we struck it off right away in terms of vision and appreciation of each other’s goals."
'I Dealt With It. But Coach Wooden Was Flabbergasted'
Kareem and coach Wooden at UCLA, Oct. 14, 1966. (AP Photo)
Still, on the surface, the young, gangly, 7-foot-2 center and his middle-aged coach couldn’t have been less alike. Kareem, black and New York Wooden, white and Indiana. And it didn’t take long for Kareem to begin to understand how their different backgrounds would determine how they handled circumstances they encountered together. Take, for example, a meal they shared at a sports bar during Kareem’s recruiting visit.
"Well, we went to The Bat Rack and had dinner," Kareem says. "Coach Wooden was getting to know me, and a woman, a very elderly white woman, approached Coach Wooden. I was standing right near them. And she asked him some questions about me, and wanted to know how tall I was. And then she used the N-word in saying that she’d never seen anybody that tall."
It wasn’t how the dinner was supposed to have gone. But even at 18, Kareem was not naive.
"You know, I had been through that before," he says. "It was nothing new to me. So, you know, I dealt with it. But Coach Wooden was flabbergasted. He was stunned. He didn’t know how to reply. She walked off and didn’t — to her, it was just her feeling out her curiosity about my height."
"It seems to me that he might’ve been stuck," I say. "I mean, obviously he doesn’t want to just let it slide, but also he doesn’t want to insult an elderly woman, I guess."
"Right. He didn’t expect to hear that from someone like that. It reminds me of a — did you see the movie "Blazing Saddles?' "
"Yeah, when Cleavon Little is talking to the lady — had the pies. And she uses the N-word like that. It’s kind of the same thing, you know?"
Thus began this development of a lasting friendship between a coach who didn’t know what to do when an old lady referred to his player and dinner guest with a racial slur, and a player who could appreciate and empathize with his coach’s discomfort.
'It's Tough Being No. 1'
John Wooden was in his mid-50s when he recruited the 18-year-old Kareem. I was beginning to understand how the older man, who was supposed to be the teacher, learned from the younger one. Which was part of what Kareem had on his mind when we spoke. Because in 1966, when Kareem, still known as Lew Alcindor, began carrying the UCLA basketball program to heights previously unimagined, John Wooden found himself in a position he’d never experienced.
"I think I took some of the fun out of it for him," Kareem says. "Because prior to me coming to UCLA — UCLA, the first year they won the NCAA tournament, they were underdogs. And then the second year, everybody was excited to see them repeat. And then, here I come along, and the three NCAA tournaments that I played in were the first three of seven in a row, and people got sick of UCLA at that point. And instead of playing to win, Coach had to coach in a way not to lose.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- then Lew Alcindor -- after the 1968 NCAA championship. (AP)
"And it’s tough being No. 1. It’s tough to stay up there and maintain that excellence and try to extend your ability to dominate."
So there was pressure, even with the best player in the country piling up points while UCLA overwhelmed opponents by scores like 116-78 and 122-57. But Kareem also recalls that during those days, for the players and their coach, there was time for learning — yeah, that word, again — sometimes during games, and on one especially memorable occasion in early December 1968, after they’d put another win in the books.
"Well, we were on a bus trip, going between games that we had to play in the Midwest," Kareem says. "We were driving from Columbus to Notre Dame. And we just kind of backed into a conversation, me and some of the guys, about our various religious beliefs. And we had a pretty varied group of guys. We had two Jewish guys on the team, and a couple guys in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And then I had converted to Islam, but I hadn’t told anybody about it. And I started to talk about my religious beliefs, and we kind of got to the point where we started to listen to each other. You know, we didn’t try to dominate the conversation with proselytizing and demanding that everybody see it the way one or the other of us wanted to see it. And it was a nice experience.
"Coach Wooden kind of came and stood on the periphery and listened and kind of edged us on in order to give everybody the opportunity to speak. And it really brought us close together."
"Did that ever happen again?" I ask.
"No, I don’t think it did, 'cause, you know, the time, and the quiet and just no interference," Kareem says. "Good ride, you know?"
So there was all that winning — UCLA won 88 regular season games and lost just two while Kareem was there — and there was learning. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Some of Kareem’s teammates took issue with John Wooden’s rules, which they felt were arbitrary. It was the '60s, after all.
One Wooden mandate: short hair, allegedly because the coach thought otherwise his players might leave the gym after showering with wet hair and get colds.
But Kareem was able to see beyond Wooden’s rules and motivational sayings to the coach’s deeper purpose.
"He didn’t see himself as someone who dehumanized the people that he had to work with in terms of coaching them," Kareem says. "How did Coach describe it? He said, 'A coach is someone who can criticize without creating resentment.' "
"And you’re laughing," I say. "It sounds like maybe it didn’t always work."
"No, it did! He knew how to do it."
Lessons, 'From Day 1 Until The Day He Passed'
And sometimes Coach Wooden surprised Kareem with how well he knew how to do it. In 1968 Kareem was urged to join the U.S. team that would be competing at the Olympics in Mexico City. As a patriot, Coach Wooden expected no less. Kareem was not receptive.
"For me, that was an especially sore issue," he says. "Dr. King had just been assassinated. I wasn’t feeling very patriotic. But what really affected me was the fact that I was going to have to work with Avery Brundage. Avery Brundage is the individual who told the Jewish players on the 1936 Olympic team that they couldn’t compete because it would annoy Mr. Hitler. And, you know, he was still the chairman of the [International] Olympic Committee, and I wasn’t gonna do anything with him. So, for me, it was an easy decision."
An easy decision that Kareem thought might cause a rupture in his relationship with Coach Wooden. But Wooden never mentioned it. And then, many years later, Kareem learned that John Wooden had recalled and processed the lessons he’d begun learning at that dinner at The Bat Rack.
"Yes. John Wooden received a letter from a woman that was upset that I was considering a boycott of the Olympic Games," Kareem says. "And then Coach Wooden wrote back to her and said that he had seen firsthand what black Americans have to deal with at times, and he understood why a protest would be something that any black American with common sense might want to consider. He got that. I have that letter, and, you know, I printed it, and it’s published."
"How did you come into possession of that letter that Wooden had written in response to the woman who wrote him?" I ask.
"Coach Wooden gave it to me. He had saved it, and he said that he thought I should have it. It’s one of my prized possessions, you know, because it’s written in his hand."
As a very large black man and an astonishingly successful player in hostile arenas, Kareem was often the target of abuse. From time to time, John Wooden witnessed it. He tried to reinforce the idea that Kareem should try to refrain from judging everybody on the basis of the actions of those who insulted him.
"Coach Wooden and Me," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But Kareem didn’t realize how deeply some of those incidents had affected his coach. As Kareem has recalled, "It wasn’t until years later that I found out that because of me, he’d begun to question his own belief in the innate goodness of people."
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s mother died in 1997, he and John Wooden talked at length, as they had when John Wooden’s wife passed away in 1985. And when John Wooden emerged from the depression into which the death of his wife of half a century had plunged him, it was Kareem he called to say, "I’ve found my sense of purpose again."
It must have felt like particularly good news. Certainly John Wooden, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, had a lot to do with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s ongoing discovery of his own sense of purpose as a teammate and a man.
"And I'm so thankful," Kareem says. "You know, I learned from this man from Day 1 until the day he passed, and since he has passed I'm still learning from my experiences with him. He was an incredible human being."