Classic Attracts a Legendary Field : College basketball: Kansas faces Massachusetts, then UCLA faces Kentucky in inaugural event honoring former coach.


Has it really been two decades since John Wooden clasped his rolled-up program, shouted from the sidelines and dominated the game of college basketball as no man ever had or probably will?

Has it has been that long since Wooden’s final UCLA team won its final game--and its 10th national title in 12 years--by beating Kentucky, 92-85, and sending him into retirement properly, emphatically, poetically?

Yes, it has. But while others line up to pay him homage in this anniversary season, Wooden, 84, has sidestepped the hosannas.


“I don’t like the word legend ,” Wooden said Friday.

When UCLA Coach Jim Harrick asked him this year to join his staff as an honorary coach, Wooden politely declined, saying he was flattered but never would want to be put in a position where he could overshadow Harrick.

And when his friend Randy Ryan began putting the first plans together for what developed into today’s inaugural John R. Wooden Classic at The Pond of Anaheim, Wooden demurred again.

Said Ryan, the president of the event: “When I first brought this up to him, told him the kinds of teams I wanted to bring in, Coach said to me, ‘I have one question: Why would a team such as Kentucky with its great tradition and history of having a coach by the name of Adolph Rupp want to participate in an event named after me?’

“I said, ‘Coach, you just answered your own question.’ And I think that embarrassed him.”

Ryan’s ambitious plans called for an annual early-season event inviting only the elite teams and elite coaches to, in his words, make sure Wooden’s name never was reduced to a footnote in sports history.

“I was very reluctant at first,” Wooden said. “But they sort of talked me into it, thinking it would be real good for basketball on the West Coast.

“But I don’t know what a footnote is, so it doesn’t really matter. All I know is there will be two exciting basketball games in one day, and that’s pretty nice.”


When he got the go-ahead, Ryan followed a simple credo: Honor him, and they will come. And, despite scheduling complications, four teams ranked in the top seven did.

The first game of today’s doubleheader features Roy Williams’ seventh-ranked Kansas team against No. 1 Massachusetts.

And, in the marquee game, No. 5 UCLA plays No. 3 Kentucky--the first matchup of the two traditional powers since Wooden’s finale.

“No, there’s not really that much significance in it,” Wooden said about the UCLA-Kentucky echoes. “It was 20 years ago. And no one associated, no players or even athletic directors or coaches involved 20 years ago are around now. So, obviously, it couldn’t have any.”

All four coaches involved say their teams are here because of Wooden, and Ryan says he has assurances from coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan’s Steve Fisher and Louisville’s Denny Crum that they will play in any future Wooden Classics any time they are invited.

From the beginning, Ryan said he wanted the event to feature high-level coaches as a tribute to Wooden’s legacy--which, he says, is exactly why he rolled the dice and went after UMass and its young coach, John Calipari, last year, despite the fact that the program lacks the long-term heft of the other three schools.


“They all have a common thread--that’s being sound fundamentally, though their styles of play are somewhat different,” Wooden said of the four coaches.

“I think Roy Williams of Kansas, to me, has done a remarkable job since he’s been at Kansas. From what I’ve observed of his team, I don’t believe any team in the country plays better team basketball. Many have better personnel than Roy has there, but I don’t believe there’s anyone who has their team playing better team basketball--subordinating themselves for the welfare of team.

“(Kentucky’s) Rick Pitino probably utilizes the three-point shot more than any other coaches I know of at the schools getting the most publicity.

“As far as Calipari is concerned, certainly he’s brought Massachusetts up from a few years ago when they were hardly recognized. He had a great team last year, has them all back basically. He plays the same style, eastern play, ballhandling, but will utilize the break and pressure too.

“And of course, Jim (Harrick) here at UCLA is recognized throughout the country as one of the better coaches. He has done a good job at UCLA. Like all coaches, he has come in for some criticism. But these are four of the top coaches in the country.”

Early in the process, Ryan said he explored the possibility of placing the event in a huge, 60,000-plus seat dome.


But Ryan said that although the financial prospects probably would have been far more lucrative in bigger arenas, Ryan, an Anaheim native, wanted to stage the event closer to Wooden and his family.

The Wooden Classic, which Ryan said he hopes will eventually develop into a tournament with the first-day winners playing a prime-time championship game, has a three-year agreement with The Pond, and The Pond’s 18,300 seats have been sold out for today’s doubleheader.

Ryan said he hopes to announce next year’s format and schools in January. UCLA is playing in next year’s tournament in Maui and probably is unavailable for the Wooden Classic. But Ryan said the event has never expected or asked that the Bruins participate every year or even every other year.

Harrick, the sixth man to coach UCLA since Wooden, makes no secret of his pleasure to be involved in the first Wooden Classic.

“I’m not sure you can do enough for the guy who was maybe the best college basketball ever had,” Harrick said.

Said Pitino: “Coach Wooden will never become a footnote. I can guarantee you that.”

Today’s Schedule

At The Pond of Anaheim

* No. 1 Massachusetts vs. No. 7 Kansas, 10 a.m.

* No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 5 UCLA, 12:30 p.m.

* TV: Channel 4.