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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wooden: Basketball & Beyond Documents a Life Well Lived

Today is the official release date for WOODEN: Basketball & Beyond: The Official UCLA Retrospective, a 212 page book containing hundreds of photographs plus plays diagrammed in Wooden's own hand. The production of books about Wooden has become a cottage industry in recent years but WOODEN stands out from the pack because it contains previously unpublished material culled from the Wooden family archives; the project was originally intended to create a special 100th birthday gift for the legendary coach who won a record 10 NCAA basketball championships but Wooden passed away in June 2010--just months before reaching the century mark--and the book instead became a unique tribute to Wooden's legacy.

Basketball fans who are younger than 45 probably do not remember Wooden's coaching career--Wooden coached his final game (a 92-85 victory over Kentucky in the NCAA Championship) in 1975--but even fans who are collecting Social Security checks would not remember (and may not realize) that before Wooden became a sideline icon he was a great player; Wooden earned All-America honors three times at Purdue in the 1930s, leading the Boilermakers to the 1932 National Championship. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Wooden as a player in 1961, 12 years before the Hall inducted him as a coach; Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman are the only other Hall members who were honored as both players and coaches.

One of Wooden's trademarks as a player was his superb conditioning and as a coach he emphasized the importance of making sure his teams were more fit than the opposition. "The fast break is my system," the 37 year old Wooden explained after being hired as UCLA's coach, "and we'll win 50 percent of our games by outrunning the other team in the last five minutes." It may sound simple and obvious to say that, all other things being equal or at least close to equal, the better conditioned team will generally prevail but think about how many players and teams fall apart in the clutch due to mental and/or physical fatigue.

The classic chicken/egg argument regarding championship-winning coaches revolves around the talent on those squads. "Anyone could win multiple championships with (fill in the blank--Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, etc.)," the critics squawk. It is obvious that a certain talent baseline is essential to win a championship--no one would deny that, least of all any coach who has won a title--but it is foolish to discount the value of leadership. Consider the great loyalty and even affection expressed by those who played for coaching icons like Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach and John Wooden; the day to day working relationships with those coaches may not have always been easy or pleasant but almost without exception anyone who played for the Browns, Packers, Celtics or Bruins says that those coaches not only built dynasties but shaped their players' lives away from the field/court.

Great coaches set themselves apart with thorough preparation, dedication to core principles and adaptability. Wooden demonstrated all three traits. It is well known that Wooden taught each of his players how to put on socks so that blisters would not form; this may seem like a trifling detail but anyone who has played basketball knows that a player will not be very effective if his feet hurt. Wooden's Pyramid of Success has become the quintessential example of dedication to core princinples. Before Wooden won titles with teams focused around dominant centers Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton he led UCLA to the top in 1964 with a team that did not have a starter taller than 6-5--and then, despite losing three starters and still not having a dominant big man, Wooden's Bruins claimed the 1965 title, becoming just the sixth team (at that time) to win back to back NCAA Division I basketball championships.

Wooden received just two technical fouls during his coaching career (and he insisted that one of them was undeserved). The enduring image of Wooden at work is of the great coach sitting placidly on the bench with a rolled up program in his hands. He did not call many timeouts nor did he make a spectacle of himself to attract attention from TV cameras; most of the coaches who prowl the sidelines ranting and raving are full of sound and fury signifying nothing--Wooden, like Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick after him, understood that games are won in practice with meticulous preparation: once the game begins the coach has done most of his work and now the outcome is largely in the hands of the players, a fact that all the screaming in the world will not change.

WOODEN, a beautiful and detailed depiction of a life well lived, is written by Richard Hoffer, with a Foreword by Denny Crum, an Introduction by Dick Enberg and original first person "Reflections" from many key figures in Wooden's life--including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Marques Johnson, Walt Hazzard, Sidney Wicks and Jamaal Wilkes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 PM

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