Players Broke Rules, but They Didn't Break Wooden's Bruins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are crises now, and there were crises 30 years ago--even at the height of the John Wooden run, even during the dynasty's finest hours.

Wooden, though voicing empathy for Coach Steve Lavin's predicament, did not want to comment specifically on UCLA's indefinite suspension of starters Kris Johnson and Jelani McCoy for unspecified violations of athletic department policies and team rules.

But Mike Warren, a key member of the 1967 and 1968 national-title teams, chuckled when he was asked what Wooden would have done had he been faced with a similar situation.

"I don't want to influence what happens by saying this, but it wouldn't be very difficult to try to guess what he would do," Warren said. "He definitely had his rules, and if you went astray of those rules, you definitely suffered the consequences."

During moments of trouble, Wooden said he focused on keeping the UCLA basketball program moving forward, adapting to the currents, and he avoided dwelling on the human frailties that created the crisis in the first place.

But anyone dealing with college students is going to face unexpected jolts and surprise departures, and coaches have to learn how to deal with it, said Wooden, who turns 87 on Tuesday.

"Forgetting how it affects the strength of the team, it just hurts you to have this happen," Wooden said. "It's like your own family, your own children. Because if it's your own, it hurts personally. You wonder if there's anything I could have done or should have done? You always think of that.

"They hurt a lot of other people when this happens, it's not just them. It affects a lot of other people. You must have empathy for them. But they must also understand that when they do wrong, they must pay the price."

For those who remember every detail of the Bruins' golden age, the UCLA family's dysfunctional moments are integral pieces of the era, alongside the seven consecutive national titles and long unbeaten sprees:

* Forward Mike Lynn, about to begin his senior campaign, was suspended for a season after being charged with (and later convicted of) illegal use of a stolen credit card a few days before the 1966-67 opener. He came back to play in the 1967-68 season.

* Forward Edgar Lacey, after sitting out a season because of an injury, quit the team in the middle of the 1967-68 season, soon after UCLA's 47-game winning streak was ended by Houston.

* Star guard Lucius Allen left the school before what would have been his senior season in 1968-69 after academic troubles and an arrest for marijuana possession that was later thrown out of court.

"Those things happen," said Wooden, whose Bruins survived those departures well enough to win the national title in all three seasons with Lew Alcindor, before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). "You just have to go ahead. You can't whine or complain about it, just play the cards that are dealt you and do the best with what you have.

"The team may not be as good, but you can only be judged with what you do with what you have. That doesn't change."

For many past Bruin basketball mainstays, the current controversy won't badly tarnish the program as long as it remains true to one principle: If players need to be disciplined, discipline them, regardless of the effect on the quality of basketball.

You don't maintain a legacy by catering to misfits.

"One of the beautiful things about UCLA basketball is that the program, the integrity of the school and the development of individual people has always been bigger than the needed skills of any player," said Bill Walton, who led UCLA to national titles in 1972 and 1973.

"And my experience has always been that the quality people that win you the championships are the same people that want the discipline, that want the organization, and that are the first to modify their behavior to the rules."

There was never a question, Walton said, that Wooden's rules could not be bent or broken without consequences.

When Walton was beginning his senior season, he came to the first day of practice with his hair a little longer than usual, which did not go unnoticed.

"I was taped and in my practice uniform ready to go," Walton said, "and Coach Wooden says, 'Bill, your hair's too long.' I said, 'Come on, Coach, I just got my hair cut.' Everybody got their hair cut on Oct. 14 on our way to his birthday party.

"He said, 'It's not short enough. You can't practice.' We argued and argued. And Coach Wooden closed every argument the same, whether it was with me or anybody else, 'Bill we sure enjoyed having you here at UCLA, but we're going to miss you.'

"So I just jumped on my bike and pedaled it right down to Westwood in my practice gear, jumped in the barber chair, got the hair cut shorter, got out of there, dumped my bike on the practice floor and jumped right into the drills.

"Being part of the team, that's what it's really all about."

Lynn Shackelford, a starting forward for all three of the Alcindor years, said that Lacey's leaving the team, given the timing and the implied rebuke of Wooden, was the most serious threat to team chemistry during those seasons.

"We hadn't lost in a while, and then to lose midway through my junior year, and then to have someone quit was, I think, a little confusing to everybody," Shackelford said. "And the fact that he was pretty well liked by Kareem. . . . I think there was some question as to how Kareem was going to act, was he going to be upset and all that.

"I think Wooden was very hurt by Edgar Lacey quitting. Somebody got hold of Lacey on the phone, I remember this quote to this day, it was: 'I never did like that man.' How do you feel if you're the coach and you feel like you had relationship with the guy and he quits and says that?"

The other controversies--Allen's arrest and departure, Lynn's one-year suspension--really didn't rock the boat in Westwood, according to Shackelford. Because there was enough talent and enough pride to keep the team in a dominant position nationally, the absences only meant other players could step forward, including Shackelford, Kenny Heitz and Jim Nielsen.

"At UCLA, when I was there, the issue was not winning," Shackelford said of the teams that went 88-2. "The issue was who was going to get to play the most--that's what we were striving for. The issue of winning was a foregone conclusion in most people's minds."

Which is a marked contrast with the current situation, Warren points out. There is no Alcindor in Westwood now.

With Johnson and McCoy, UCLA is considered a top-five team with a realistic chance at a national title. Without them, the Bruins have a nearly bare frontcourt and are counting on a large number of newcomers.

"Without the two of them, I think it has a stronger impact on the team than when Mike Lynn was suspended for the year from our team," Warren said. "They don't have the balance. Mike Lynn was a terrific inside-outside player, but without him we still had the outside threat with Lynn and myself, Lucius and Kenny Heitz; and with Kareem on the low post, you've got a major threat from the inside.

"This team, there's a possibility of chemistry problem when they come back. . . . I have not spoken to them. I wonder how they feel. I know I would feel like I let my teammates down.

"This is a big year for the seniors--those guys came back for another shot at a championship. It's just really unfortunate--as a fan, as a former player, I feel bad for the coaches."

This is, of course, a team that rallied back from the emotional trauma of watching Jim Harrick get fired two weeks before the season, a team that lost to Stanford by 48 points then turned around to beat California two days later on its way to an Elite Eight appearance.

Asked if this year's Bruin team might find motivation in the face of this new adversity, Shackelford put it into the perspective of the Wooden era.

"That was not Coach Wooden's style," Shackelford said. "His style was you do your job because you're supposed to do your job, not because you got inspiration from something off the court. We were never taught that."

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