Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Wisdom of John Wooden
Mike McPhate, 6-1-17, California Today email newsletter of NY Times
He’s been called college basketball’s greatest coach.
John Wooden led the University of California, Los Angeles, to 10 national titles in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975.
But to many of his former players, Mr. Wooden, who died in 2010, was more than a winning coach — he was an exemplary man.
Bill Walton regards him that way. So does Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose new book “Coach Wooden and Me,” chronicles their relationship, first as player and coach, then as lifelong friends.
When the pair met in 1965, they could scarcely have seemed more different: Mr. Wooden a 55-year-old, 5-foot-10, white Hoosier, and Lew Alcindor — who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — an 18-year-old, 7-foot-2, black New Yorker.
But the partnership thrived, and over time the player grew to see in the coach’s example of humility, selflessness and hard work a template for how to live.
For his part, Mr. Wooden once called Mr. Abdul-Jabbar “the most valuable player in the history of the game.”
We caught up with Mr. Abdul-Jabbar by phone. Some excerpts:
Q. Do you see Mr. Wooden’s philosophy as representative of a different generation?
A. I think it’s classic America. That was him. He volunteered in World War II. He was in the Navy. He had to have an appendectomy. So one of his best friends had to take his place on the ship and ended up getting killed in a kamikaze attack. Coach Wooden remembered that his whole life, that it could have been him.
You’ve said Mr. Wooden wouldn’t thrive today as a college coach. Why?
I don’t think he would have been happy in today’s environment, with people that didn’t want to be educated — this one-and done thing. People came to U.C.L.A. for an education. He considered himself to be a teacher. He wasn’t a coach.
How have his lessons shown up throughout your life?
I started noticing it when I had to parent and some of his tactics ended up being some of my tactics. My kids would think they knew everything and try something and fail. But I’d let them do it. Then when they’d fail, I had a moment to teach them. I remember inwardly smiling to myself while I was doing that and saying, “Yeah, well, there’s coach.”
What’s on your mind politically right now?
I’m just worried about all the division, all the divisive talk and actions to tear us apart. I hope it stops soon. This is a great nation. We don’t need to try to tear it apart.
Is it different than in the past?
It’s totally different. It’s coming from a different place. It’s more despair than anything else. And that’s the last thing that we should be worrying about here in America. This is the land of the free and we can solve our problems when we pull together. It happens every time.
Who’s your pick in the N.B.A. finals?
The Golden State Warriors.