Once Upon a Time . . . : The 'Wizard of Westwood' Keeps Alive the Dreams of UCLA's Glorious Past


Twenty years ago, John Wooden left his profession on top. That Monday night in San Diego, he walked away with his 10th national championship in 12 years.

Twenty years later, John Wooden is still considered a voice in his profession and his record at UCLA stands unapproached.

He still goes to games at Pauley Pavilion, signing autographs and keeping alive the hopes of a program trying to return to its glorious past.

Opinions flow freely and are usually qualified as only opinions, but they are John Wooden's opinions.

"There are modern things I disagree with but that doesn't mean they're wrong," Wooden, 84, said. "If we all agreed on everything this would be a dull, monotonous world, but there's no reason to be disagreeable."

He'll tell you in a hurry he hates the baggy-shorts look, but he's even quicker to let you know the players of today are much more talented than the players he played with or coached.

He doesn't regret anything and doesn't begrudge the coaches of today anything. He quotes Shakespeare, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Abraham Lincoln, and hasn't forgotten a name or face from the days of his boyhood in Indiana through his years of UCLA dominance.

That Monday night in San Diego 20 years ago capped a career that brought him admittance to the Basketball Hall of Fame a second time. His 10 national championships are matched by the total of the schools tied for second place in titles won: Kentucky and Indiana.

"I'm no legend and I'm embarrassed about that. I don't like the 'Wizard' at all. I don't like false modesty," he said. "I'm proud of the fact I was fortunate to have a lot of wonderful players who brought about national championships and I'm a part of that. I know that and I'm proud of it, but I'm also realistic and I know without those players it wouldn't have happened. No coach wins without them and not every coach wins with them."

His coaching career started as a sidelight.

"They didn't have coaches in my day. I was hired as a teacher. You coached because you loved it," he said. "I was an English teacher. All the coaches I knew in my day all taught. Today, I think they should all teach. They would have a better concept that would help deflate some egos and give them better standing on the faculties and a better understanding on why the youngsters are there to begin with. I think they'd do a better job coaching because coaching is teaching, nothing more."

Wooden stopped teaching in a classroom when he took the coaching job at UCLA in 1949. He had spent the previous two seasons at Indiana State and 15 before that in high schools in Indiana.

It was far from instant success in California.

"My first four years at UCLA, I worked in the mornings at a dairy from six to noon then I'd come into UCLA," he said. "Why did I do it? Because I needed the money. I was a dispatcher of trucks in the San Fernando Valley and was a troubleshooter. After all the trucks made their deliveries and came back, I would call in the next day's orders, sweep out the place and head over the hill to UCLA."

The work didn't stop then.

"Every day before practice, I and the managers swept the floor," he said of the old gym. "When we got Pauley Pavilion I had six baskets instead of two and gymnastics and wrestling weren't practicing on the side."

He started attracting high school players from around the country and in 1964 won the NCAA championship. It's a team Wooden obviously has a fond spot for since it was the first, but it was a team that changed his life.

"Before we won our first national championship, I can't remember any criticism. There was some, but not much," he said. "After we won, there were so many suggestions. People just wanted to be associated with you as a winner."

There were plenty of chances to jump on the bandwagon. UCLA repeated as champion, skipped a year, then won seven in a row. A semifinal loss to North Carolina State ended the run in 1974, but the Bruins were back the next year. And after they won title No. 10, John Wooden was gone.

It was 20 years ago in San Diego. He made his mind up after the semifinals. No one, not his players, his assistants, his boss or even his beloved wife, Nell, knew.

"We had just defeated Louisville and at that time I had no intentions of retiring," he said. "I met (Louisville coach) Denny (Crum), a dear friend, at the end of the floor and I knew I had to go and face the TV lights. I wasn't feeling well. I had had heart trouble and my wife wasn't feeling well. I found myself suddenly dreading to face that, and I found myself walking off the floor alone and walked in the dressing room first to talk to my players and tell them how proud I was and regardless of how the Monday night game came out, 'I want you players to know I was never prouder of any team I ever coached than of this least team I'll ever coach.' Nobody moved.

"Then I went to the press conference and I made much the same statement when someone asked me to compare this team with other teams that had won the national championship. My athletic director was stunned."

So was college basketball. John Wooden would be leaving, leaving on top in so many ways.

"My highest salary was $32,500 in my last year and that was after nine championships. There was $8,000 more in outside interests," he said. "I was offered more money than that to switch shoes but I could not take money to make my players wear shoes. I should have had the school take the money for scholarships if I switched. I couldn't live with myself if I did take it and what I think of myself is a lot more important that what you think of me. I'm not critical at all of those today as far as shoe contracts go, not at all. I have my feelings and I stood up for it."

He always let others stand up for theirs as well. He wanted his players to experience all of college and that included letting one of his best players, Bill Walton, protest the Vietnam War.

"He was always there for practice," Wooden said with a laugh.

There were always problems. That's part of teaching.

"There were the veterans returning after World War II. The gambling era of the 1950s. The drug use era of the 1960s. The kids remain the same basically, just with different problems just as it in our personal and professional lives."

In December, Wooden was honored with the inaugural John Wooden Classic, a four-team event played in Anaheim. At first he declined, then relented.

On the day before the doubleheader was played, Wooden was praised at a ceremony that included state proclamations, a key to the city and a basketball signed by those involved. As he left the room and headed down a long hallway at The Pond, he balanced the picture frame and ornate box holding the oversized key under his left arm. As he walked, he started bouncing the ball with his right hand. He looked like a teacher leaving school on the way to practice.

"I don't say I wish I hadn't done that, I just say I wish I had known more. Whatever I did I thought I was right. You have to stand by the decision and learn from it. I don't look back. That's not one of my weaknesses. I have a lot of them, but that's not one of them."

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