Like most sports fans I was saddened yesterday by the news of the death of John Wooden at the age of 99. He indeed was deserving of all the accolades thrown his way over the years.

My history with college basketball goes back to the early or mid 1960’s. Baseball had been my major sports spectator interest since falling in love with the Pirates around 1955, when I turned 8. Football got my attention during the appropriate season which, back then was limited to late summer and through the fall, with usually only the college bowl games taking place after the winter solstice. No spring mini-camps, OTA’s no year round conditioning.

Like major league ballers, NFL players had to actually work during the off-season. They didn’t have time to go to Vegas and gamble thousands, which they didn’t have anyway. They didn’t tour Georgia college bars with an entourage. they were back in their home towns selling insurance or appliances or, fortunate enough to have a business owning father-in-law, they might even earn $75 a week simply adding a little “class” to the office atmosphere for potential clients.

But as I began to play more basketball myself as a young teen, I found time to watch games on TV. That rapidly grew to include college ball. At the same time and at the same age Lew Alcindor was already a legend in schoolboy basketball circles in New York and a looming collegiate career.

Lew chose UCLA and, as we had gone to different schools together, I followed his ascendency. Of course at that time that meant no varsity play as a freshman, but constantly hearing how well Lew and the other UCLA freshmen did in scrimmages against the varsity, already possessing national championship hardware, I looked forward to the ensuing three years.

As UCLA’s championship collection grew, so did the fame and aura of John Wooden. You don’t need me to provide the details, but he has been regarded as the best college coach, if not the best coach altogether. Not just in basketball but possibly, some argued, in all team sports.

Thirty-five years after his retirement that aura and reputation had become so strong as to be virtually unassailable. But not completely. Today, while reading a couple of articles about Wooden, one I found was not quite so flattering.

The  link is to FoxSports which invokes the typical tone of praise.

The story below comes from and is reprised from about three years ago. Read both, consider, cogitate and decide where Wooden falls on the spectrum.


John Wooden
What the ! legendary coach got wrong about basketball.
By Tommy Craggs
Posted Saturday, June 5, 2010, at 9:50 AM ET

Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden died on Friday night at the age of 99. Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 national championships in the 1960s and 1970s, is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. But in a 2006 essay, Tommy Craggs wondered if Wooden had helped the game flourish or held it back. The original article is reprinted below.

In December 1973, John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach and cornpone oracle, was coming off his seventh consecutive NCAA championship. He was by then very much a legend, a walking Father’s Day card, and every word out of his mouth seemed destined to be cross-stitched onto a throw pillow. The press had genuflected at his feet ! many times over. That month, however, there appeared in the New York Times Magazine a most remarkable declaration. “John Wooden,” hymned the writer, Arnold Hano, “comes as close to an embodiment of Jesus Christ as anyone on the current sporting scene.”

It has always been Wooden’s singular talent to induce otherwise sane people to say preposterous things about him. To The New Yorker, Wooden was “an island of James Whitcomb Riley in a sea of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern, and Jerry Rubin.” To Hano, in the Times Magazine, he was “a moral island in a sea of savage rip-off tides.” And Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly, all but taking up a chisel and making for the Black Hills, called Wooden, simply, “the best man I know.” (The Wooden Story has fossilized to such an extent that a Ho! uston Chronicle columnist, Mickey Herskowitz, was suspended in 20 04 after writing a column about Wooden—”an almost biblical figure”—that borrowed liberally from an earlier column about Wooden. Written by Mickey Herskowitz. In 1990.)

This week, which is bookended by two basketball invitationals named in Wooden’s honor, will doubtless see more fattening of sports’ most sacred cow. We will almost certainly hear the story of the great coach teaching his players how to put on their socks and shoes. Or the time he threatened to bounce Bill Walton out of the gym if he didn’t shave his beard. Somewhere, someone will slaver over Wooden’s tour de force of banality, the Pyramid of Success, a pile of exhortative nouns like Industriousness, Intentness, Enthusiasm, and Cooperation, whose mystifying popularity has occasioned the destruction of several screech-owl habitats.

Jesus Christ, indeed.

Wooden, now 96, was indisputably a great coach. His teams, always fit and energetic, won a fat load of games and championships. (Though it bears noting that UCLA benefited not only from the services of the best talent of the day, but also from the largesse of an especially oily booster named Sam Gilbert, a moneylender, as it were, whom Coach Christ forgot to cast out of the temple). But it’s time we retire this notion of Wooden as basketball’s wise old man and see his legacy for what it is: a triumph of rigidity, bureaucracy, paternalism, and anal retentiveness. The sorts of things, in other words, that James Naismith would hate about his game today.

Last month, Wooden was inducted, along with Naismith, into the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketb all Hall of Fame. Joined forever in hoops iconography and at least superficially alike—both men of the cloth, both nonsmokers and noncussers—in reality the two couldn’t make an odder pair. Wooden was a relentless taskmaster who counted discipline among the game’s most important tenets. He had a hand in everything, from his players’ grooming habits down to the wool content of their socks (50 percent). In one incredible passage in his coaching textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, Wooden details the Bruins’ eating routine: “The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail.! Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best.”

But Naismith, as art critic Dave Hickey has noted, was wonderfully Jeffersonian. He set down only five guiding principles—discipline not among them—to govern his game, which he was delighted to point out did not need a coach. The beauty of Naismith’s invention is that it foresaw, even insisted upon, its own evolution—why else put the hoop in the air? And why else include, in those earthbound days, a goaltending rule? He once wrote: “Each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me.”

Basketball’s innate progressive spirit is what makes Wooden’s sainthood so galling. Hoophead reactionaries, those joyless old prigs who despair that their game doesn’t look more like a Gil Thorp panel, have always found in Wooden a sort of patron saint. Not, s ay, the late Red Auerbach, a man who won as much in the NBA as Wooden did in the college game. Auerbach, no bleeding heart himself, at least recognized the plates shifting under his feet, and is now credited with ushering the pro game into the modern era.

But Wooden has never budged. Periodically, the old coach will issue, ex cathedra, a cranky pronouncement about the state of basketball. More often than not, it’s another call to ban the “dunkshot,” which should be enough to get him laughed out of Pauley Pavilion but is nonetheless greeted with a solemn nod and another kiss of the ring. In his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, Wooden predictably decries the current emphasis on “showmanship” at the expense of the fundamentals. He writes: “Perhaps this showmanship is epitomized by the various dunkshots. Some are marvels of aerial gymnastics. But how often do they miss t! hose dunks—the ball ricocheting off the rim or the board and setting up a fast-break basket the other way?”

This would be merely risible if there weren’t something uglier lurking here. To sportswriters, he has always offered a perfect foil for whatever pernicious elements happen to be ruining basketball at the moment. They always look to Wooden, a fixed point from which to plot the sport’s fall from some imagined (and, let’s be honest, whiter) state of grace. He is their reminder of a time that never really was, a Hummel figurine of the hardwood. “[S]ometimes,” Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated, “when the Madness of March gets to be too much—too many players trying to make SportsCenter, too few players trying to make assists, too many coaches trying to be homeys, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men—I like to go see Coach Wood! en.” You don’t exactly need a decoder pin to get his drift.

Wood en, and our beatification of the man, has had its toxic effect on the game. It’s certainly there in the NBA, which over the past year or so has hired a chief strategist of President Bush’s re-election campaign to win back Middle America; instituted an absurd and paternalistic dress code (glossed nicely here); and stood idly by while Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles benched Ben Wallace, one of the hardest-working players in the game, for wearing a headband.

It is another Wooden contribution, however, that I fear will endure. He has given us the basketball moralist, someone for whom the fundamentals are themselves a kind of faith. Wooden provided a framework for linking on-court play with virtue. A bounce pass is not just fundamentally sound, but somehow morally expedient; a! missed dunk is a straight path to damnation. Leave aside some of the more repellent conclusions this might lead one to—it is simply a boring and blinkered way of watching a basketball game. This, ultimately, is John Wooden’s legacy: He taught us to take a profane bit of beautiful exercise and turn it into church.

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