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Coach Wooden Sized Up 5-8 Goodrich Right Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a 5-foot-8, 145-pound junior guard at Poly High, Gail Goodrich hardly resembled a future Hall of Fame basketball player--except in the eyes of John Wooden.

Wooden, the UCLA coach, had never seen Goodrich play when he went to scout another player in a City Section playoff game in 1960.

“I was seated there with my closest friend,” Wooden said. “As they were playing, I said to my friend, ‘That little fellow from Poly is the smartest player on the floor. He’s quick and he’s just a junior and I’ll be watching him next year.’

“Right after that, a couple tapped me on my shoulder. ‘Coach Wooden, did you really mean what you said about that little guard?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They were his parents. They said, ‘Could we bring him over to talk to you.’ ”

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Later, after reviewing Goodrich’s transcripts, Wooden told his parents, “From what I see, I’ll undoubtedly give him a scholarship.’ I definitely felt he was going to grow.”

A year later, Goodrich was 5-11 and leading Poly to the City championship with an unforgettable performance on a broken ankle in the final against Manual Arts. He chose UCLA over USC, the school where his father, Gail Sr., had been team captain in 1939.

“If [his parents] hadn’t been there, we undoubtedly wouldn’t have gotten him,” Wooden said.

Wooden saw in Goodrich special skills that others might have missed because of his size.

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“I thought he had a feel for the game,” Wooden said. “It makes you feel good when you really have that feeling [about somebody] and they come through.”

Goodrich would become one of the few players in basketball history to win championships at the high school, college and professional levels.

He helped UCLA win its first two NCAA championships in 1964 and ’65. And he was the leading scorer on the Lakers’ 1971-72 NBA championship team that won a record 33 consecutive games.

Growing up in North Hollywood, the left-handed Goodrich practiced his shooting skills anywhere and everywhere.

“I grew up with a basketball in my hand,” he said.

His backyard, the park, the local high school--they all served as Goodrich’s sandbox. As a young boy, he’d tag along with his father, a basketball official, to small college games and shoot between breaks.

“When I was small, I’d take a volleyball because a basketball was too big and I’d shoot at halftime,” Goodrich said.

As a senior at Poly, Goodrich scored 232 points in the 10-game East Valley League season. In four playoff games, he averaged 22.5 points. In the City final, he injured his ankle in the third quarter, got it taped and returned to complete a 29-point performance that brought Poly its first and only City title.

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“I thought it was a sprained ankle,” Goodrich said. “We had come too far to see it slip away.”

His ankle was later placed in a cast for six weeks. His gutsy performance ranks as one of the greatest in City championship history.

He also played baseball at Poly and UCLA. His former basketball coach at Poly, Nelson Burton, who turns 81 in February and lives in Medford, Ore., said Goodrich always did this best “with what he had to work with.”

“He was a great ballhandler, a great shooter and absolutely terrific under pressure,” Burton said.

Goodrich, 56, runs a golf management consulting company in Greenwich, Conn. He remembers his Poly days as a time of fun, excitement and camaraderie.

“We practiced hard, we played hard,” Goodrich said. “We really played to the best of our ability and had fun doing it. We weren’t thinking about success. We would go to the gym and spend an enormous amount of time practicing. We played three on three, two on two, one on one.”

In 1996, Goodrich was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

It was the greatest tribute of all for a Valley boy who mastered a game normally reserved for tall people.

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