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Coach Wooden and Me
Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court
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Former NBA star and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explores his 50-year friendship with Coach John Wooden, one of the most enduring and meaningful relationships in sports history.
When future NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still an 18-year-old high school basketball prospect from New York City named Lew Alcindor, he accepted a scholarship from UCLA largely on the strength of Coach John Wooden’s reputation as a winner. It turned out to be the right choice, as Alcindor and his teammates won an unprecedented three NCAA championship titles. But it also marked the beginning of one of the most extraordinary and enduring friendships in the history of sports. In Coach Wooden and Me, Abdul-Jabbar reveals the inspirational story of how his bond with John Wooden evolved from a history-making coach-player mentorship into a deep and genuine friendship that transcended sports, shaped the course of both men’s lives, and lasted for half a century.
Coach Wooden and Me is a stirring tribute to the subtle but profound influence that Wooden had on Kareem as a player, and then as a person, as they began to share their cultural, religious, and family values while facing some of life’s biggest obstacles. From his first day of practice, when the players were taught the importance of putting on their athletic socks properly; to gradually absorbing the sublime wisdom of Coach Wooden’s now famous “Pyramid of Success”; to learning to cope with the ugly racism that confronted black athletes during the turbulent Civil Rights era as well as losing loved ones, Abdul-Jabbar fondly recalls how Coach Wooden’s fatherly guidance not only paved the way for his unmatched professional success but also made possible a lifetime of personal fulfillment.
Full of intimate, never-before-published details and delivered with the warmth and erudition of a grateful student who has learned his lessons well, Coach Wooden and Me is at once a celebration of the unique philosophical outlook of college basketball’s most storied coach and a moving testament to the all-conquering power of friendship.
Instant New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
President Barack Obama’s Favorite Book of 2017
A Boston Globe and Huffington Post Best Book of 2017 Pick
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"A coach's primary function should be not to make better players, but to make better people."
A few years ago I was in Chantilly, Virginia, sitting behind a table signing sports memorabilia. Autographing sessions are tricky because whenever I look up I see hundreds of people who have been standing patiently for an hour or more for just ten seconds of time with me. Some want to tell long stories about how watching me play was a bonding experience with their father. Or that they were at the Boston game in 1971 when I scored fifty points. Some just want to quote Airplane!: "My name is Roger Murdock. I'm the copilot." I always laugh because they get such a kick out of it. I try to engage as much as possible and still keep the line moving. I'd see an elderly man at the back of the line wearing an ancient UCLA jersey, worry about how long he'd hold up, and start signing faster.
I had been signing for about a half hour when a man in a Lakers cap laid down a composite photograph in front of me. "You seen this?" he asked.
I picked it up and studied it. It only took a second before I felt my heart cinch a little.
This composite consisted of two photographs, side by side, of me with John Wooden, my former coach at UCLA, who had died two years earlier. I had seen both photographs, but I had never seen them put together in this way. I was so startled that I forgot about keeping the line moving or the old man in the UCLA jersey. The photo on the left was a posed black-and-white picture taken at center court in the then brand-new Pauley Pavilion in 1966. Coach Wooden is robust and ruddy-cheeked, dressed in a dark suit and tie, looking like the traveling preacher he might well have become in another life. I'm wearing a practice uniform and staring at him devotedly as he pretends to demonstrate some move to me. I knew the photo had been taken in 1966 during my sophomore season because of my stylish two-inch Afro that dipped low over my forehead. I couldn't have even guessed the decade from Coach Wooden's styling. As always, his gray hair was neatly parted on the left side in a line so straight he might have used a ruler with the comb. It obviously was a posed media photo because, as formal as he was, he never wore a tie to practice. Practice was for working hard, and wearing a tie was for game time or sitting behind a desk.
The candid color photo on the right was also taken at Pauley Pavilion, although by this time the court had been named after Coach and his wife, Nellie. It was shot after a game in 2007, forty years after the first one. In this photo, the two of us are walking off the court hand-in-hand. He is wearing another dark suit, which seemed a little too big for him, but instead of a regular tie, he wore a bolo tie with a large turquoise stone at the throat. He'd taken to wearing those in his last few years because of his love for Western films, which he and I had spent many pleasurable hours watching together. I was wearing jeans, a leather jacket, and a belt with a big silver buckle that looked like a holster should dangle from it. We were an odd pair of desperados.
I raised the photo closer to my face, willing myself back to that moment. That special moment I had never forgotten.
He looked very frail, slightly bent, leaning on a cane, but even in that photograph there is a determination in his posture—and, as usual, every strand of hair is perfectly in place. I let myself drift back to that moment, even as I felt a deep melancholy tighten my throat.
I had been walking quickly after the game, my head bowed, actively oblivious to everything around, like a guy in a prison break, so I wouldn't get stopped. Once that happens, inevitably, a crowd gathers. I always feel like an ungrateful jerk when I'm doing that power walk through crowds, but if I slow down, programs, hats, and jerseys are thrust in my face, and it's at least an hour before I get back to my car and two before I'm home. Sometimes I just want to go home.
But suddenly I heard his familiar voice, and it stopped me dead in my escape. "Hey, Kareem."
I turned with a big grin on my face. "Coach," I said, "How's it going?" I leaned forward to embrace him, but as I did, he took my hand in his and gripped it tightly. His small hand in mine felt like a child's.
"It's going good," he said. Then he added, almost apologetically, "Kareem, would you give me a hand, please?"
He wasn't holding my hand just for affection, he needed me to help him walk. And he trusted me not to make a big deal of it.
"Sure, Coach," I said, as if we'd done this a hundred times before.
We walked off the court together. Fans shouted, "Hey, Coach!" or "Yo, Kareem!" but no one approached us. They could see that it would not be prudent to stop Coach's slow but steady progress. True fans have a sixth sense about these things.
I walked slowly with him through the players' tunnel where his daughter, Nan, was waiting for him. I hugged her, then hugged Coach, a bit more gingerly, and said goodbye.
It was to be our last time together on a basketball court. On the drive home I thought I'd be sad and have to crank up some Miles Davis to get me through the emotion. But I wasn't sad. I felt joy that I was able to be there for Coach the way he had been there for me so often. Walking him across the court, I had felt tenderness, protectiveness, but not pity or sorrow. I was smiling.
I ran my long finger over the photo as if I could touch him one last time. Lend him the strength I tried to give him that night. I'm not one for easy sentiment, but Coach could always bring it out in me, even now. Looking at him in his black suit and with his cane, I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin's irrepressible Tramp, strolling happily through life no matter the hardships and obstacles. And here we were strolling through it together, just as we had for almost fifty years.
I sat there at that table in Chantilly, Virginia, staring at those photographs, the bookends of one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. I cleared my throat before speaking. "No, I hadn't seen this," I said to the man who had put it in front of me. I smiled up at him. "But thank you."
I signed it for him and he moved along, unaware of the effect his ten seconds had had on me. The next person stepped in front of the table and I signed a photo, and then another and yet another. And so it went until the elderly man in the old UCLA jersey shook my hand and said, "You think the Lakers are gonna pull it out this year?" I lingered a little on the handshake, remembering Coach's hand, light and fragile as a hummingbird, and said, "I hope so."
It's appropriate that the first photo is black-and-white. That accurately defined our rigid relationship in the beginning. In this photo he is leading me. He was the coach; I was his player. He made the rules; I followed them. Black and white. Mutual respect but not warmth. It's also appropriate that we were posed, because we both look a little awkward, stiff as mannequins in a store window. As if there were something artificial about the roles we were forced to play in the photo and in life.
The second photo, with its rich, warm colors and candid appearance, more accurately reflected the depth of our friendship. Our two hands—one fragile and one strong, one white and one black—entwined. His white head barely clears my elbow, yet I am standing straight and proud, like a man showing off his hero dad. In that photo, I appear to be leading him. But knowing how much he taught me, I knew I was still following in his footsteps, even though he was beside me.
John Wooden has been honored as the greatest coach in American sports history. He was dubbed "The Wizard of Westwood" (which he hated) due to his unprecedented knack for winning. Before he retired in 1975, he had brought UCLA a total of ten national championships, seven of them consecutively, at one point leading the school to an eighty-eight-game winning streak. That earned him his own place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was very proud of that, although I never heard him mention that he was the first person ever to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and, later, as a coach. The philosophy he crafted for living a full and satisfying life, the Pyramid of Success, has become a widely popular motivational tool that has been taught to thousands nationwide. His coaching methods have been adopted by high schools, colleges, and universities around the world. Even major businesses have used his teachings to build better teamwork among employees. His influence far surpassed the ninety-four-by-fifty-foot dimensions of the basketball court where he lived most of his life.
But for me, he was much more than a basketball guru. He was also my teacher, my friend, and, though I never told him, my role model.
We won three national championships together. I was an All-American each of those years. I set records—not as many as I would have set under another coach, but as many as the team needed set in order to win. I took the game I had learned from him into professional basketball, where eventually I played my way into the Hall of Fame, right beside him.
Our relationship had been born over basketball, but eventually that became the least important aspect of it. Our friendship blossomed and grew over shared values, over complicated loves and devastating losses, over a never truly satisfied search for understanding of this world and our place in it. In later years, I would sit with him at his home, quietly watching a Western movie or baseball game on his small TV, just enjoying the familiar warmth and comfort of his presence. The afternoon would pass in his cozy den, and I would feel ready to face the world outside again. It was like going to church.
I first met John Wooden on a recruiting trip to UCLA in March of 1965. When I saw that his office was in a squat World War II Quonset hut, the bright Los Angeles sun glinting off the shiny corrugated steel, I worried that the campus couldn't afford proper offices for its coaches and was forced to shove them in army huts. At the same time, I thought it looked kind of cool, like a science fiction film: astronauts' living quarters on Mars protecting them from giant mutant Martian spiders. My many hours of reading and watching TV had left me with the knack of romanticizing any situation.
The hut was among several that sat like eggs in a nest adjacent to Westwood Boulevard. On the walk to the huts, I saw various exotic flowers I'd never seen before, all in full spring bloom. "Those are she-oaks," my enthusiastic campus guide said, as she pointed at some plants. "And that's weeping wattle, over there are bristly oxtongue. Those are sausage trees. Indigenous to Africa." She smiled as if the connection to Africa would tip me into choosing UCLA. African sausage trees? Really?
Still, this was more green than I'd ever seen outside of Central Park. I already knew I wanted to come here. The previous summer I'd accidentally gotten caught up in a violent riot in Harlem. Gunshots had popped all around me. Angry protesters had spilled over from a gathering outside the police station where they were demanding answers concerning the shooting death of a fifteen-year-old black boy, James Powell, by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. They had set fires and smashed store windows. Looters had pushed their way through the crowds to grab what they could. I'd run with the other fleeing Harlemites, trying to keep my head low to make myself a smaller target. Even crouching, I still hovered over everyone else. I had never been so scared in my life as that night. But I'd also never been so angry at the police, who dismissed the protesters by shouting, "Go home!" Holding up photos of the young victim, protesters hollered back, "We are home!"
The nation was still in racial turmoil. Malcolm X had just been assassinated the month before my visit to UCLA. A few weeks before my visit, civil rights leader John Lewis had led six hundred marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be met by police who shot tear gas at them and beat them with billy clubs, hospitalizing fifty of the protestors. Quickly dubbed "Bloody Sunday," the march had been televised around the world. Two weeks later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led another group of protestors across the bridge, this time under federal protection. They successfully crossed.
I had been wrestling with my role in all of this. I wanted to do my part for civil rights, but at almost eighteen, I needed some time to think about what my part would be. California seemed like the perfect place to figure that out.
"Welcome, Lewis," John Wooden said as I entered his office. He wore a pressed white shirt almost as bright as the California sun outside and a black tie. His sport jacket hung on the hat rack in the corner. His short hair was parted almost down the middle, reminding me of Alfalfa, the squeaky-voiced kid in the Little Rascal movies I used to watch on TV. His voice had a nasally Midwestern lilt that I found amusing after the harsh New York accents I was used to.
Over the years, people have asked me if I was nervous that day meeting the great John Wooden. I probably should have been, but I wasn't. Instead, I was anxious and impatient, ready to get my college life going. Ready to start playing serious basketball. I didn't doubt my ability to do well playing with college-level players, and I was ready to prove it to him and anybody else. I might have borrowed my attitude from Marlon Brando as the motorcycle rebel in The Wild One. "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" To which Marlon as Johnny says, "Whadda ya got?"
"I'm impressed with your grades, Lewis," he said as we sat across from each other, his crowded desk between us.
Grades? I thought. You're the coach of one of the best basketball teams in the country and you're talking grades? What about my impressive stats?
He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I knew he was serious. "For most students, basketball is temporary. But knowledge is forever."
I nodded agreement. "Yes, sir." I hadn't expected academics to be the first thing we'd talk about, but I came to learn that academics, not basketball, were the first priority on Coach Wooden's agenda for his players. His players would graduate with grades that would give them career opportunities beyond sports. He was worried about our long-term happiness, not our win–loss record. I had visited other universities and talked to lots of coaches who touted their schools' sports programs, comely coeds, and national reputation, but Coach Wooden was the first to make a point of talking about grades and classes. He didn't treat me as a basketball player, but as a student who would be playing basketball on the side.
We talked for about thirty minutes, only briefly touching on basketball. He told me that most often he recruited players for quickness rather than size, and he had never coached someone as tall as I was, but he added, "I'm sure we will find the proper way to use you on the court. I am looking forward to coaching someone like you."
We stood and shook hands again.
"Freshman year can be very difficult," he warned. "Making that transition from high school isn't easy. There are a lot of adjustments, especially for athletes, who have to train every day for several hours."
I nodded again.
He smiled. "But you seem like the kind of young man up to the challenge."
The challenge. That's what I was looking for in a school, and somehow he knew that. Rather than tell me how easily I would fit in and how smoothly everything would go, he appealed to the competitor in me. And, to quote one of his favorite Robert Frost poems, "That has made all the difference."
As I learned later, our first meeting was perfectly representative of his philosophy of recruiting: "I wanted young men who wanted to play for UCLA, and not one that I had to talk into playing for UCLA. I always believed that the way to build a great team is to find the kind of people you want to work with and tell them the truth."
He certainly told the truth. In fact, he may be the only coach in college basketball history who recruited a talented player by telling him he would rarely play. Playing for Coach Wooden made you a member of his team forever. Through the years, through reunions and at events, eventually you got to meet and often become friends with people who had played for him at different times. It was like joining an exclusive club. Among the former players I've met and have become friends with is Swen Nater.
Swen Nater was a six-foot-eleven-inch Community College All-American in 1970, averaging twenty-six points and fourteen rebounds. Nater had been transformed from a big clumsy kid to a talented player by Don Johnson, his coach at Cypress College, who years earlier had been Coach Wooden's very first All-American at UCLA. Nater had become a very desirable transfer student and was being strongly recruited by several major programs. But Johnson had filled Nater's head with tales of John Wooden and UCLA basketball, then talked Wooden into offering him a scholarship. Wooden actually tried to talk him out of accepting it, telling him, "Swen, if you come to UCLA, you're probably not going to play much because we've got this big redheaded kid from San Diego named Bill Walton coming in, and he's quite a talent." Then he added, "But you'll have the opportunity to play against the best center in the nation in practice every day. And I believe that is going to give you a better chance of becoming a professional basketball player than if you were to go to another school."
Everything Wooden said came true. Nater didn't play very much at UCLA, but eventually became the first player never to start a college game to be drafted in the first round by the National Basketball Association (NBA). And as Coach Wooden had predicted, he eventually played twelve seasons of professional basketball, even leading the NBA in rebounding one year.
Coach Wooden recruited character as much as ability. He wanted a certain kind of person, so he studied the background of potential recruits, explaining, "I could learn so much about each individual by studying the environment that he had been around before I would have him come to UCLA." To find out as much as possible, on occasion he would make home visits. He told me once that during one of those visits—although, as typically, he never mentioned this person's name—a potential recruit snapped at his mother for a comment she made, and at that moment lost his chance to play for John Wooden. He explained, "I did not want a person who was that disrespectful on my team."
As impressive as Coach Wooden was, I was equally persuaded to go to UCLA when assistant coach Jerry Norman showed me the new arena that would be Pauley Pavilion, then under construction. "The first event at the new arena will be the annual varsity-freshmen game," he said as casually as he could. I knew what he meant: if I came to UCLA, I'd be playing in that game.
The next time we met was in May at my home in Manhattan. We lived on the fifth floor in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on Nagle Avenue in the Dyckman Houses project. With all the offers I had received, Coach Wooden was the only coach my parents invited to our apartment.
Coach Wooden arrived with Jerry Norman, both wearing sport coats and ties. I introduced them to my parents, and the four of them sat in the living room to discuss my future. I had already decided to attend UCLA, so this meeting was a formality to make my parents feel good about me moving three thousand miles away from their domineering presence into the care of total strangers.
I seemed to be the only person in the room who was nervous. I needed this to go well.
My dad was a cop, and he faced them with his cop's poise. My mom was devoted to protecting her only child, and she would face down armies to do so. Tough audience.
"Lewis," my mom said, "why don't you go wait in your room while we talk."
Sure, Mom, I thought with some annoyance. I'll wait in my room like a Jane Austen heroine while the grown-ups discuss my future. But I went without a word. In a few months I'd be out of the house and living free in glorious California.
For the next hour I strained to listen through the walls to what they were saying. Unsuccessfully. When I was finally called back into the living room, we shook hands and said our goodbyes.
Whatever Coach Wooden had said impressed my parents. "He's very dignified," my father said.
"A gentleman," my mom said. "Not the kind of man who'd take advantage of you." She was worried that a school might try to exploit me. We'd heard stories about college athletes who got injured and lost their scholarships. Coach Wooden had assured them he would look out for me, and they believed him.
My parents weren't pushovers. I remember how amazed I was that Coach Wooden, through his quiet integrity, was so easily able to assuage my parents' fears for their child. The more I got to know him, the more I would try to emulate his understated poise, which would sometimes be mistaken for aloofness.
Years later we were sitting in his den, and I asked him if he even remembered that visit. "Well, of course I do," he said.
"Really?" I found it hard to believe.
"Oh, yes. I remember being quite impressed by your apartment."
"Now I know you don't remember. That apartment was small and cramped."
"Not how I remember it," he said. "Everything was neat and clean and well organized. The carefully framed family photos on the walls showed a loving family and a stable environment. Care had been taken." He smiled. "It was all pluses."
My parents must have made an impression on him, too. When I announced my decision to attend UCLA at a press conference about a week after his visit, Coach Wooden told the media, "This boy is not only a fine student and a great college basketball prospect, but he is also a refreshingly modest young man who shows the results of excellent parental and high school training.
"After meeting Mr. and Mrs. Alcindor, I could easily understand the fine impression Lew made on all of us when he visited our campus. Their guidance has enabled him to handle the fame and adulation that has come his way in a most gracious and unaffected manner."
When my parents heard that, they were ready to adopt him into the family. I admit to feeling proud that he saw me as modest and relieved that he had complimented my parents so publicly when he didn't have to. As far as coaches went, all pluses.
So far, there was no reason to think that this middle-aged white man with the 1930s haircut would become the greatest influence on my life. I was Lewis Alcindor, an eighteen-year-old seven-foot-two-inch black kid from New York City. I was all about fast subways, hot jazz, and civil rights politics. He was John Wooden, a fifty-five-year-old five-foot-ten-inch white man from a hick town in Indiana. He was all about, what? Tractors, big bands, and Christian morals? We were an odd-couple sitcom waiting to happen.
Our only common denominator was the game of basketball. At first, that was enough.
When we first met, I was a very shy young man. The basketball court was the one place where I was assertive and capable of being aggressive. Beyond that, I was trying to deal with a society changing rapidly around me. I was learning how to be a black man in America at a most difficult time in our national history. I felt guilty that I was living a privileged life playing basketball in California, studying at a top university, while other kids my age were being denied the same opportunities because of the color of their skin. Watching Dr. King's marches, I itched to do something to join the fight. But I didn't want to sacrifice my future. Was I being a hypocrite or helping the cause by getting my education?
My parents, as well as Jack Donahue, my coach at Power Memorial Academy, were hardworking people who expected me to do well, and that required discipline and application on my part. They taught me that it was cool to be smart and gave me the support that I needed. They made it very clear to me that playing basketball was not my goal, it was a means to achieve my dreams. Even after it had become obvious that I had the talent to play basketball professionally, they reminded me how easily I could get hurt and that the only thing I could depend on was a good education.
Here's how serious I was about education: When I was in fourth grade my parents sent me to the Holy Providence School. The other kids did not appreciate the fact that I was a good student, so I was singled out as a nerd. They called me the egghead. Honestly, I sort of liked that—it was nice drawing attention to myself because I was smart rather than because I was tall.
My mother was a seamstress who had grown up in the Jim Crow South in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and had, at most, a junior high school education. We never talked about it, we never talked about the life she had lived in Wadesboro, North Carolina. But she pushed me, she continuously pushed me to be better, to work harder. She was a very pragmatic woman, and she had dreams for me long before I had my own. Education mattered in our home. I remember her pointing out to me that the great boxing champion Joe Louis did not speak very well. He stuttered when he spoke and at times had difficulty expressing himself. "I don't want you to be like him," she told me. "I want you to be like Jackie Robinson." It often was pointed out to me that the Dodgers' great Robinson was a college graduate. My parents were far more proud of the fact that I made the honor roll in grade school and high school than the fact that I scored a lot of points on the court. They gave me ambition and direction.
My father was a New York transit police officer, eventually becoming a lieutenant in the department. But his real passion was music; that was his world. My father was not an especially social person; he lacked the social graces that my mom had in abundance. Instead, he expressed his feelings through his music. He played in local groups in Harlem, although he was never able to make a living at it. He was a fine section player, a team player, but he was not a memorable soloist. He was the type of musician who would have done well in the trombone section of a big band. He never really got the opportunity. I remember him telling me a story about a missed audition. He loved Count Basie, who apparently needed a trombonist for his band. Playing for Count Basie would have been his dream come true. He had been at work, though, and didn't learn about the audition until he got home. He grabbed his trombone and ran down to the audition hall. But by the time he arrived, Count Basie had already hired someone and left.
"This latest masterpiece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is even better than all the rest... I'm captivated, enthralled, educated, and entertained as The King's words roll off the page even smoother than his skyhook did off his fingertips."—Bill Walton
"A pleasant expression of deep appreciation for a man who changed the author's life by enriching it."—Kirkus
"Anyone inclined to dismiss John Wooden and Abdul-Jabbar's relationship as merely coach and player... will rethink that miscalculation after reading this compact, engaging memoir."—Publisher's Weekly
"Abdul-Jabbar and Wooden shared a priceless friendship, and this sensitive, sharply written account brings it to full, vivid life."—Booklist (starred review)
"I always knew my Daddy felt this way about Kareem, but I never knew Kareem ever felt this way about my Dad."—Nan Wooden, Coach Wooden's Daughter
"This stunning eulogy will appeal to readers far beyond the confines of sports. Highly recommended."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- May 16, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing