Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Wizard of Westwood

Generally, when coaches or managers take on almost messianic proportions, an out-of-control ego accompanies their status.

Bill Belichick? He's never been Mr. Warmth, but it's kind of obvious in the last couple of years he's been reading his press clippings a little coo closely.

Bobby Knight? Vince Lombardi? Red Auerbach? Pat Riley (blech!)? What do all these icons have in common? Simple. Despite their successes (which were, obviously very real and very praiseworthy) they had a disheartening way of making it all about them. They were the story. And not only that, they worked feverishly to make themselves the story.

Once in a while, though, you run across someone who just seems genuine. I always thought that despite the sin he committed of being the manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Torre was that type of guy. Sure, he could drive you nuts. It would take a snail less time to circumnavigate the globe than it takes Torre to walk out to the pitcher's mound.

But despite all that, Torre seemed like a regular guy who did, and said, all the right things as manager. I do not feel the same way about his successor, however.

But in the history of professional and collegiate sports, one man stood out, and he died Friday at the age of 99.

First, it wouldn't be fair to say that John Wooden was totally devoid of ego. We all have egos. It's just that some are healthier than others (and by healthy I mean balanced, in check, and in control). The Bruins of UCLA managed to win 10 national championships (which is seven more than Knight), and -- at one point -- 88 straight games. Twelve times UCLA made it into the Final Four.

Yet for all the times you saw UCLA on TV during the Wooden era (which ended in 1975), you never saw any histrionics out of the coach. He was always calm ... always respectful ... always in control. No chairs went flying across the gym. There were no technicals. No deranged rantings.

And not once, in all his time as coach, did any of John Wooden's teams run afoul of NCAA regulations. He did it well, but more importantly, he did it right.

Wooden's ego ran the other way in that he knew his strengths and played to them. He also knew his weaknesses and stayed away from them.

He was a detail-oriented man ... sometimes anally. His players love to tell the story of how, on the first day of practice, Wooden would give a clinic in how to put socks on. It sounds silly, but not if you've ever walked around for a day with bunched up socks and got a blister as a result.

He never believed in scouting opponents. Didn't feel he had to. He was confident that his exhaustive preparation would be enough to win games, feeling that his skill in meshing the strengths of his players into a cohesive unit on the floor outweighed any advance knowledge he may have of his opponent.

Of course, Wooden had the luxury of coaching in an era where it was a lot tougher to get instant analysis of your opposition. In that sense, he was like Auerbach. It took the NBA years to catch up with Auerbach's way of doing things, and he -- and the Celtics -- ran roughshod on it until that happened.

Same thing with UCLA.

But Wooden's qualities as a person certainly helped keep his team dominant too. Two of the most brilliant athletes college basketball history -- Kareen Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor when he was in Westwood) and Bill Walton -- are effusive in their praise for him, not just as a coach, but as a man.

Walton, in particular, benefited from Wooden's stern, but fatherly, approach to discipline. He once showed up for practice with the same flowing red hair, and beard, that he later wore in the NBA, and said it was his right to look however he pleased.

Instead of berating him, Wooden used a different tactic. He told Walton how much he admired people willing to stand up for what they thought was important ... and then said that he, and the Bruins, would miss him tremendously, because the team rule was no long hair.

About a half hour later, or so the story goes, Walton came back to practice clean shaven and with his hair well within Wooden's parameters.

Now, let's not be totally naive here. Raise your hand if you think Wooden knew he'd win this argument in the long run.

Wooden had his pyramid of success, which worked well whether you were talking about basketball or the proverbial "game of life." And as Abdul-Jabbar said, Wooden always knew that he wasn't just coaching kids about basketball, he was coaching them about how to be successful in their lives ... success being defined solely as the ability to achieve whatever any of them really set out to do.

While someone with Wooden's philosophy, and work ethic, probably could have been president of a multi-national company (and done a much better job than some of the people who have such jobs), he was, in the end, a basketball coach. For all his talk about pyramids and success, nobody would have listened to any of it, or remembered any of it, had he been a buffoon as a coach. You only develop such cachet if you achieve success in your own life.

I'd say Wooden passed that test. And he passed it because of the amount of attention he payed to discipline and fundamentals.

Now, discipline is a funny thing, because there are still, even in this day and age, people who feel "discipline" means "screaming, ranting, raving authority figure."

No. Discipline does not mean that at all. Discipline means training people to acquire healthy habits that result in success ... and it means stick to those habits, and never forgetting what you did, and what it took, to make you successful.

Generally, discipline in one aspect of your life leads to discipline in all others. I cannot think, for example, of a single Wooden-coached athlete who has ever -- even after college -- been embroiled in any kind of a scandal. Even Walton, easily the freest of spirits during the Wooden era -- bought into the program and was almost John the Baptist-like in preaching it afterward.

(And that year he spent with the Celtics gave us some of the most incredible basketball we've ever seen, too).

Wooden taught his players that discipline and hard work were the only to ingredients needed to play stellar defense in basketball ... and that, unlike shooting, defense could be sustained on a nightly basis.

He didn't like statistics at all (except W's and L's), and -- unless a lot of organizations who talk this talk but never seem to walk it -- was quick to give credit to non-scorers on his team who did all the little things that spell the difference between good and great. He understood, perhaps better than most, what "team chemistry" meant.

There will probably never be another coach like him, because his era, and the era he ushered in, have long-since passed. When Wooden coached, freshmen didn't play on the varsity and kids stayed in college for the entire four years. Can you imagine how long it would have taken, for example, for Alcindor to go pro if he could have? The pressure that he'd have been under to do it?

On the other hand, Bill Russell was at his incisive best once on TV when he said that because he played for Wooden for the whole time, and because -- while he was a UCLA -- dunking was not allowed, Abdul-Jabbar was able to develop that devastating sky hook that defined his professional career.

Today, the best kids are one-and-done. And the entire industry is a cesspool of corruption, cheating, and sneaker contracts (for the coaches, not the kids). I don't know how Wooden would have thrived in such an environment, but I'm sure he looked at the antics of Rick Pitino and John Calipari, not to mention guys like Knight, with sadness and dismay.

The good news is that Wooden coached in an era that suited him perfectly and because of that we were able to appreciate him, and his teams, without being encumbered by anything approaching today's atmosphere. He successfully merged his small-town, mid-American values with inner-city cultures that surely must have clashed with his own sometimes.

He was stern enough, and principled enough, to stick to his guns. But he was also smart enough to know what he was there for ... to teach kids how to be better players, sure ... but more importantly, better people.

He died four months and 10 days short of his 100th birthday. Do you remember the "big countdown" back when George Burns was heading for No. 100? You never heard any of that stuff with Wooden. Maybe he deserved one ... maybe he didn't. But the beauty of the man was that it didn't matter to him. He almost certainly wouldn't have thought himself worthy of it.

Ironic thing? He was.

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