- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

In the vast pantheon of major team sports through the ages, nobody has been a bigger winner than former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden — not Casey Stengel, not Vince Lombardi, not Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson.

Folks didn’t call Wooden “the Wizard of Westwood” because he did magic tricks, unless you consider collecting 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons (1964-75) a form of magic.

In the latest edition of its outstanding “Sports of the 20th Century” series, HBO examines the Wooden legend in “The UCLA Dynasty,” premiering tomorrow at 10 p.m., on the cable network. The word “dynasty” is often dragged out these days when a team wins back-to-back titles in any sport, but the Bruins and Wooden created an honest-to-goodness one, as the soft-spoken, homespun coach himself might have put it.

These days when too many coaches froth at the mouth on the bench and spew expletives at the zebras at the slightest perceived affront, Wooden’s calm demeanor might surprise younger fans and players. The Wizard never ranted or raved; he simply made sure that every UCLA player did things his way — even down to the proper way to put on shoes and socks. No detail was too small to escape his attention.

Two centers who went on to NBA stardom served as linchpins for the Bruins. Wooden won three national championships with Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and two with Bill Walton manning the paint. Abdul-Jabbar declined to be interviewed for the HBO program, a network spokesman said, but Walton’s enthusiasm and reverence for his old coach adds spice and spark.

Wooden was distinctly an acquired taste for the redhead, who took part in campus uprisings centering (no pun intended) around the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“I wrecked Coach Wooden’s life,” Walton recalls with a broad laugh. “He’s 65 years old and I’m 17 … and I was always arguing with him about every topic: politics, religion, dress codes, hair length — you name it, I was on him.”

Wooden, now 96, tells his own version of the relationship:

“Bill told me after he won player of the year and the national championship team went undefeated that I didn’t have the right to tell him he had to wear his hair a little shorter and couldn’t have facial hair. And I said, ‘You’re correct, Bill, I don’t have that right. I just have the right to determine who is going to play, and we’re going to miss you. And in about 15 minutes, I’m not going to have you unless you go have it taken care of right away.’

“He stood and looked at me. Finally, I said, ‘Fourteen minutes …’ ”

Walton is one of many former UCLA players who appear on the documentary. HBO relates the UCLA story against the backdrop of student unrest in a turbulent era for young people and also posits that widespread interest in the Bruins helped “transform college basketball from a regional game into a national spectacle,” narrator Liev Schreiber notes.

It is not generally known that Wooden, a former All-American player at Purdue, coached UCLA for 16 years before winning his first national title in 1964 with an undefeated team led by guards Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard. After that, the Bruins triumphed every season for more than a decade, except for when Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) broke through in 1966 and N.C. State in 1974. Over an 11-year span, UCLA went 335-22, including a record 88-game winning streak and 38 consecutive NCAA tournament triumphs.

After being usurped by David Thompson’s Wolfpack in 1974, Wooden returned for one more season. The Bruins again made the Final Four and defeated Louisville 75-74 on a buzzer-beater in the semifinals. Afterward, Wooden, then 65, announced that the championship game would be his last.

“I’ve never had a team of which I’ve been more proud,” he told his troops before the grand finale. “You haven’t caused me a problem on or off the court the whole season, and that’s a pretty nice thing to say about the last team I’ve ever teach.”

Note that he said “teach” and not “coach.”

The final result — UCLA 92, Kentucky 85 — surprised no one except possibly the Wildcats. Says Marques Johnson of the Bruins: “There was no way we were gonna let Coach leave without winning another national championship.”

Despite all the success and fame, Wooden never seemed to change. He sat on the bench, rolled-up game program in hand, and watched his teams execute all the things he had taught them in practice after practice after practice, Major college coaches are not known for their humility, but the biggest winner of them all never sought any kind of spotlight for himself. When it came to perspective, he was a winner, too.

“It felt pretty good after winning our first national championship and going undefeated,” Wooden says on the program. “The next morning was Easter Sunday, and we’re waiting in front of the Muehlebach Hotel [in Kansas City, Mo.], and a pigeon flew over and dumped right on top of my head. I thought, ‘Gee, the good Lord is telling me something there — [I] must not let this go to my head.’ ”

Surely John Wooden was one of a kind, and his saga makes for fascinating viewing.

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