John Wooden, the legendary Wizard of Westwood, sadly passed away on Friday at age 99.
ESPN and other news outlets have rightly praised the best leader in men’s college basketball history. Remembrances have come from his greatest players, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton, other members of the basketball fraternity, from President Obama.
The tributes speak to Wooden’s greatness as a coach, and, perhaps more importantly, his ability to instill character in young men. His pyramid of success, with its basketball and life lessons dealing with dedication, integrity and fair play, has also been lauded. Others segments have put a more human face on the saintly image of a genteel teacher, painting an image speaking to his fiery competitiveness on the bench (and as a championship caliber player back in his day) and someone who also valued winning highly, along with his noted regard for preparation.
Through it all, one has to wonder what Wooden thinks as he gazes from the heavens above. He largely shunned the spotlight since retiring after leading UCLA to its final national title under his watch in 1975. His clubs won 10 championships in 12 years, including seven consecutively from the 1966-67 through the 1972-73 seasons and 88 games in a row from 1971-74. Their excellence, like that of Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, was a polarizing hoops force, depending on which sideline you supported.
I remember fervidly rooting against UCLA as they won year after year, game after game. I exulted when John Shumate, Dwight Clay and Digger Phelps’s Notre Dame team ended the 88-game run, 72-71 in South Bend on Jan. 19, 1974, in a contest presented by syndicator TVS Television. My heart was also with the NC State team, featuring 5′7″ Monte Towe, 7′4″ Tom Burleson and the David “Sky Walker” Thompson, that took down the Walton Gang , 80-77 in double OT in the national semifinals a little over two months later, to end UCLA’s seven-year title skein.
I also remember the relative lack of noise generated by the upset. That was well before the dawn of ESPN and the 24-hour news monster. College basketball and March Madness didn’t really explode on the national consciousness until five years later, inspired by two guys named Magic and Larry. Now, it’s a national obsession, with Turner and CBS paying $10.8 billion for its TV and digital rights over the next 14 years.
Imagine how UCLA and Wooden’s run, which included four undefeated seasons, would have been scrutinized and celebrated under the more modern media microscope? How would Coach Wooden’s humility have played today, where Coach K, Bobby (”The General”) Knight and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson have been certified as geniuses, if not media stars.
As Wooden is laid to rest, the sporting world will refocus on the NBA and NHL championships and the upcoming World Cup. The great coach’s name and legacy will be invoked again come fall and winter as the UConn women try to extend their 78-game winning streak and challenge UCLA’s mark. And down the road UConn coach Geno Auriemma (with seven women’s titles) and Tennessee’s Pat Summit (eight) could stir his ghost if those programs continue on their championship ways.
Wonder what he might be thinking then.