Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar memo­ri­al­izes the bas­ket­ball great John Wooden and their ‘50-Year Re­la­tion­ship’

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Mike James James was sports edi­tor at The Times.

Lew Al­cin­dor had his pick of col­leges as a se­nior at Power Me­mo­rial Academy in New York in 1965. One of the most sought-after high school bas­ket­ball play­ers in his­tory wanted a school where stu­dents were re­spected, where his grow­ing sense of so­cial ac­tivism could be nour­ished and, of course, a place where his al­ready vast skills on the court could be re­fined and taken to a sin­gu­lar level.

He de­cided that UCLA and, par­tic­u­larly, coach John Wooden were the right fit. His re­la­tion­ship with Wooden, the most suc­cess­ful col­lege bas­ket­ball coach in his­tory, be­came al­most life-defin­ing for the young stu­dent who would con­vert to Or­tho­dox Is­lam in 1968 and change his name to Ka­reem Ab­dulJab­bar in 1971. It be­came a guid­ing force, far deeper than he ever could have imag­ined as a self-de­scribed cocky kid from the big city who had headed West to find him­self and play a lit­tle hoops — and who would go on to be­come the lead­ing scorer in the his­tory of the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball Assn.

Ab­dul-Jab­bar can­didly chronicles the evo­lu­tion of their re­la­tion­ship in “Coach Wooden and Me,” an ex­am­i­na­tion of the life lessons Wooden con­sis­tently preached. Part nos­tal­gia, the book is also a reck­on­ing by Ab­dul-Jab­bar of the racism he faced as a young ath­lete dur­ing the tu­mul­tuous civil rights era, of how he and Wooden dealt with that racism and of Ab­dul-Jab­bar’s re­al­iza­tion much later in his life of the ef­fects he had on Wooden’s be­liefs and of the ways Wooden had sup­ported him.

“This book is not just an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of our friend­ship or an ac­knowl­edg­ment of Coach Wooden’s deep in­flu­ence on my life,” Ab­dulJab­bar writes. “It is the re­al­iza­tion that some lives are so ex­tra­or­di­nary and touch so many peo­ple that their story must be told to gen­er­a­tions to come so those val­ues aren’t di­min­ished or lost al­to­gether.”

Their re­la­tion­ship evolved over nearly half a cen­tury. It be­gan as a mostly straight­for­ward coach­player dy­namic at UCLA. It be­came a bit deeper dur­ing Ab­dulJab­bar’s NBA years with the Milwaukee Bucks, though it still fo­cused largely on bas­ket­ball. Then it blos­somed after he re­turned to Los An­ge­les to com­plete his NBA ca­reer with the Lak­ers as the two dined to­gether fre­quently, con­soled each other through the deaths of fam­ily mem­bers and friends, and spent re­lax­ing hours in Wooden’s small, cramped den watch­ing sports or west­ern movies, ar­gu­ing about base­ball teams and rev­el­ing in each other’s com­pany, as close friends do.

“I could feel the dif­fer­ence when­ever I went to sit with him in his den,” Ab­dul-Jab­bar wrote of the lat­ter stage of the re­la­tion­ship. “Be­fore, it had felt like I was vis­it­ing a friend. Now it felt like I was com­ing home.”

Although it was clear that Ab­dul-Jab­bar had an im­pact on Wooden’s life, Wooden re­mained his val­ued teacher and emo­tional guide un­til the for­mer coach’s death at 99 in 2010.

Wooden’s bas­ket­ball knowl­edge was the ba­sis of their early re­la­tion­ship, a coach and a player, mu­tual re­spect but not much warmth. Wooden worked with Ab­dul-Jab­bar tire­lessly to per­fect his sky hook, a shot that through­out his ca­reer was nearly im­pos­si­ble to de­fend. He worked his play­ers re­lent­lessly in prac­tice, re­peat­ing drill after drill, driv­ing them ex­cep­tion­ally hard. Those lessons reaped huge div­i­dends on the court, where the Bru­ins won con­sec­u­tive na­tional cham­pi­onships in Ab­dulJab­bar’s three years, the first three of an un­matched seven in a row Wooden would ac­cu­mu­late. At that time, fresh­men were not el­i­gi­ble to play on the var­sity. His fresh­man team, though, went un­de­feated and eas­ily beat the var­sity in a scrim­mage that opened the new Pauley Pav­il­ion.

“From the first day of my fresh­man year un­til the last prac­tice of my se­nior year, we ran,” Ab­dul-Jab­bar writes. “And then ran some more. There were no short­cuts in John Wooden’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram. You did it un­til you did it right, and then you did it again. The ba­sic phi­los­o­phy that I learned on those long after­noons en­abled me to ex­tend my pro­fes­sional ca­reer to twenty years, longer than any other player.”

Many of the lessons Ab­dul-Jab­bar learned from Wooden were just as rel­e­vant long after he had hung up his bas­ket­ball sneak­ers. And that’s a com­mon theme in this book: It was of­ten years later that Ab­dul-Jab­bar would re­al­ize Wooden’s teach­ings in a bas­ket­ball ref­er­ence ac­tu­ally car­ried well be­yond that.

“Coach Wooden’s phi­los­o­phy has proven to be a life­long les­son for me,” he writes. “When I am sched­uled to give a speech, I write it, then prac­tice it, then prac­tice it some more. … My op­po­nent is now my­self, my in­cli­na­tion to­ward lazi­ness. The dis­ci­pline I learned through those con­di­tion­ing drills has al­lowed me to face my de­vi­ous op­po­nent and beat him con­stantly.”

Ab­dul-Jab­bar en­tered UCLA at a time of in­tense racial strife in the United States. Mal­colm X had just been as­sas­si­nated, civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., had been at­tacked and beaten by po­lice, the Watts ri­ots erupted. His sen­si­tiv­ity had been height­ened in 1962 on a trip to North Carolina where he first de­vel­oped an un­der­stand­ing of “sep­a­rate but equal.”

Two ex­pe­ri­ences were par­tic­u­larly painful for Ab­dul-Jab­bar. He was called the “n-word,” first by an­other boy he con­sid­ered his best friend, later when Jack Don­ahue, his coach at Power Me­mo­rial and a man the player con­sid­ered pro­gres­sive in his racial views, used the term dur­ing a half­time rant in an ap­par­ent ef­fort to mo­ti­vate his young player after a lack­lus­ter first half.

“It was be­cause of the fresh scar of Coach Don­ahue’s be­trayal that I kept my­self a lit­tle aloof from Coach Wooden,” Ab­dul-Jab­bar writes. “I had been trust­ing once and had my heart bro­ken. I wouldn’t let it hap­pen again. … I would force my­self to be wary, es­pe­cially of older white men pre­tend­ing to be my friend.”

Ab­dul-Jab­bar was fre­quently the sub­ject of racial ep­i­thets from crowds while at UCLA, and he writes of sev­eral in­ci­dents in which he and Wooden faced racism.

After din­ner to­gether in a restau­rant to cel­e­brate the un­de­feated sea­son of 1966-67, an el­derly white woman ap­proached them and asked how tall Ab­dul-Jab­bar was, adding, us­ing a racial ep­i­thet, “I’ve never seen a ... that tall.” Also, his sopho­more year after a game in Cor­val­lis, Ore., he signed au­to­graphs for 30 to 40 kids be­fore he needed to leave, at which point a man used the same racial ep­i­thet.

In each in­stance, Wooden said noth­ing, though it was clear he was trou­bled by the re­marks and had to re­strain his anger against the man at the au­to­graph ses­sion, where chil­dren were present. But his com­ments to Ab­dul-Jab­bar af­ter­ward were that he be­lieved in the good­ness of most peo­ple and that he hoped the ig­no­rance of a few wouldn’t change that.

It wasn’t un­til well after those mo­ments that Ab­dul-Jab­bar learned how much they af­fected Wooden. Years later he read an in­ter­view with Wooden in which he ques­tioned his own phi­los­o­phy of the good­ness of his fel­low men.

Ab­dul-Jab­bar quotes Wooden from that in­ter­view: “I had no idea how tough it was for him at times. I learned more from Ka­reem about man’s in­hu­man­ity to man than I ever learned any­where else. … I had never imag­ined that peo­ple could feel or talk like that.” Ab­dul-Jab­bar was moved and a bit shaken. “I felt a deep sad­ness after read­ing that,” he writes, “know­ing my pres­ence had caused him to doubt his fun­da­men­tal be­liefs.”

As was of­ten the case, Wooden had not con­fided in Ab­dul-Jab­bar while he was one of his play­ers. There was a great deal of back­lash after Ab­dul-Jab­bar de­cided not to play on the 1968 Olympic bas­ket­ball team be­cause of racial in­equal­ity in this coun­try. One woman crit­i­cized him in a let­ter to Wooden.

It was only after Wooden’s death that Ab­dul-Jab­bar saw a copy of the let­ter Wooden had writ­ten the woman in re­sponse, de­fend­ing his player’s po­si­tion. Wooden had never men­tioned the let­ter. “Coach Wooden didn’t care about re­ceiv­ing credit. A good deed was its own re­ward,” Ab­dulJab­bar writes. “Coach had been dead for sev­eral years and I would never get to thank him. Even then, at my age of sixty-seven, he was still teach­ing me about hu­mil­ity.”

Into Wooden’s fi­nal years, Ab­dul-Jab­bar con­tin­ued to learn about the man he would call a se­cond fa­ther and the great­est in­flu­ence in his life.

In 2008, Ab­dul-Jab­bar in­ter­viewed Wooden for a doc­u­men­tary he was pro­duc­ing on the Har­lem Rens, what he called the best bas­ket­ball team no one had heard of. Dur­ing that in­ter­view, Wooden told him of his first coach­ing job at what is now In­di­ana State Univer­sity.

The team had been in­vited to the Na­tional Assn. of In­ter­col­le­giate Ath­let­ics na­tional tour­na­ment, but the NAIA in­sisted that Clarence Walker, the team’s one African Amer­i­can player, would not be wel­come. Wooden re­jected the in­vi­ta­tion. The next year, the NAIA changed its pol­icy and al­lowed Walker to play. He be­came the first African Amer­i­can to play in a post­sea­son col­lege bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment. Wooden also ex­plained that when restau­rants re­fused to serve Walker, the team went else­where.

“I couldn’t have been more sur­prised,” Ab­dul-Jab­bar writes. “Coach had been an early pi­o­neer of civil rights, risk­ing his own ca­reer, and he’d never told me about it. Any other coach would have used that as a way to gain my loy­alty and re­spect.… What made Coach’s stance all the more ad­mirable, I found out later, was that Clarence Walker wasn’t even a starter.”

And he con­tin­ues. “I looked at the shrunken ninety-eight-yearold man sit­ting there … and felt a ten­der­ness for him that I had taken for granted.… I was still learn­ing how deep his in­flu­ence ran.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

LEW AL­CIN­DOR, later Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar, tow­ers over UCLA bas­ket­ball coach John Wooden as he dis­penses ad­vice in 1969.

Gus Rue­las As­so­ci­ated Press

GESTURING from back row left in 2007, Ab­dul-Jab­bar helps Wooden, fac­ing cam­era, mark an­niver­sary of 1967 NCAA vic­tory.

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