It was a virtual once-in-a-lifetime experience: John Wooden sitting alongside Jim Harrick and listening as a UCLA basketball coach discussed the travails of attempting to defend an NCAA championship.
Oh, it can be rough, you know, especially when last season's three senior leaders are now starting in the NBA and this season's junior leader is out for a month with a pair of disabled pinkies and everybody's gunning for you and three opponents out of your first five have already found the mark.
Wooden is familiar enough with the story line to interrupt it before Mach I bellyache warp speed could be attained.
"We the alumni, Jim--we the alumni expect you to abide by three rules my dad gave us when we were children," Wooden deadpanned.
"The first is: Never whine.
"The second is: Never complain.
"The third is: Never alibi."
Besides, Wooden needled, "Those three guys you lost weren't too good . . . Very definitely, that's how we, the alumni, feel."
Finally, Wooden grinned, which Harrick took to be a signal that it was all right for him to do the same. A joke--it was a joke. Harrick had to be relieved.
Just a little good-natured banter between the two guys who combined to win 11 NCAA basketball titles for UCLA.
On the eve of the second annual Wooden Classic, a roomful of writers and broadcasters congregated at The Pond in hopes of hearing some classic Wooden. Wooden, as always, was graciously accommodating.
First off, Wooden made all four of the participating coaches stand up next to him. Harrick, Steve Lappas of Villanova, Gary Williams of Maryland and Gene Keady of Purdue.
Get shorty, four times over.
"I'm glad they're all here," said Wooden, standing tall in their presence. "I wouldn't want them around me when I was coaching, but thank you all for being here now."
Considering his ties to half the field--Wooden made the Hall of Fame as a coach at UCLA and a player at Purdue--Wooden was asked if he had a rooting interest in today's doubleheader.
"I'll try to hide my feelings best I can," he replied. "I wish all four could win, but unfortunately, two of them won't. It's like the last year I taught--we played Louisville, in the semifinals, in overtime. It was really a terrible shame that Louisville lost, a terrible shame. But it would have been more terrible if we had lost. In the end, I think it was a good and proper result."
Today's games will be nationally televised, which Wooden frankly considers a mixed blessing at best.
"Television has made actors out of coaches, players and referees to some extent," he said. "Today, the game is about showmanship. If I want showmanship, I'll go watch the Harlem Globetrotters. I was never big on showmanship.
"For instance, I don't like the dunk. I was on the rules committee that voted to [briefly] outlaw the dunk. Lew Alcindor thinks that rule was directed at him. I told Lewis--he was always Lewis to me, and he still is--that it wasn't aimed at him. It was because at that particular Final Four, they had to bend the rims back because of all the dunks Houston attempted. And I think [outlawing the dunk] made him a better ballplayer. It forced him to work on his hook shot and his soft bank shots around the basket.
"I told Lewis then, 'I guarantee you'll have no problem dunking once you get to the pros.' "
But that's what the nightly highlight shows give the people--a freshman tomahawk-jamming in Kentucky, a sophomore hoisting up a trey in Missouri.
And, for the record, Wooden isn't very keen of the three-point shot, either.
"They give three points for scoring from 19-9," Wooden said, incredulous at the notion. "I say, if you work a good give-and-go, that ought to be worth five points. And a dunk, I wouldn't give more than one for that.
"But that's progress. There is no progress without change. But, not all change is progress."
Twenty years passed between Wooden's last championship at UCLA and Harrick's first. For the first 19, Wooden loomed as the specter his first half-dozen successors could neither run down nor avoid. Last April, Harrick finally proved it could be done, a feat Wooden described as "not personally rewarding--I was just glad to see UCLA win.
"Would it have been more rewarding if Gene Bartow had won? Or Gary Cunningham? I just want to see UCLA win. Bartow came close his first year, but lost to a great Indiana team. [Larry] Brown took them to the Final Four, although he finished fourth in the conference. He was fortunate you didn't have to finish first in the conference to make the tournament then . . .
"Brown got UCLA into some problems with recruiting and [Larry] Farmer couldn't take his team to the tournament because of that, but you look at Farmer's record. He had some fine seasons. [Walt] Hazzard came in after that and his overall record was not that good, but he did take them to the NIT [championship].
"So when people say, 'Finally, UCLA did something,' I tell them, 'UCLA has always done something.' You hear, 'It's nice to see them back.' Where have they been?
"In the 20 years since I retired, I bet UCLA has won the conference championship as much or more than any other team in the Pac-10. That isn't bad. To say they've been away, that's not fair."
But no one said coaching basketball at UCLA, post-Wooden, ever had to be fair. Wooden won 10 titles in 12 years. Now Harrick has one, a career achievement unequaled by almost 300 active Division I coaches, and yet, five games into his title defense, his ears are already burning with the onset of rampant widespread panic.
"It's always a challenge," Wooden allowed, "but which would you rather have--experience or talent? I'll take talent any day."
This UCLA team, Wooden said, "didn't lose anybody comparable to Lewis. I doubt any team has lost anybody comparable to Lewis . . . Do they have the talent? Yes, they do. I think they showed that talent during the first half in Kansas. They led by 19 points with a minute to go in the half, playing at a very difficult place to win. In the second half, they got a little rattled, which can happen at Kansas.
"They played two totally different halves of basketball. But they couldn't have had that first half if they didn't have a considerable amount of talent."
Today, the ball bounces back into Harrick's court. Never whine. Never complain. Never alibi.
* EARLY SEASON TEST
The Wooden Classic will be a test for UCLA, Maryland, Purdue and Villanova. C4