The dark side of the UCLA basketball dynasty
John R. Wooden, who died Friday at age 99, left for the ages an exemplary body of work in which the rewards, ten-fold, outweighed the trials.
No rendering of Wooden’s legacy, though, is complete without mention of a man who influenced one of sport’s most unimpeachable dynasties:
If Wooden was the father figure of UCLA basketball, Gilbert was its shadowy one.
Gilbert was a small, burly, self-made man with unfettered devotion to the Bruins. He could be benevolent yet, to nose-poking reporters, a bully. He attended UCLA in the 1930s but did not graduate, later to make his fortune as a contractor.
UCLA players recalled his showing up after Bruins games in the 1960s, dispensing apples and oranges.
He forged bonds with many Bruins who helped hang 10 national championship banners from 1964 to 1975, the year Wooden retired.
Gilbert held dinners at his home, provided UCLA players with advice, counsel and much, much more. He was “Papa Sam” to UCLA’s parade of All-Americans — he even negotiated contracts, usually taking only a dollar, when the NBA beckoned various Bruins.
“There were two people I listened to,” former UCLA star Lucius Allen once told The Times. “Coach Wooden as long as we were between the lines. Outside the court — Sam Gilbert.”
Wooden was wary of Gilbert but generally turned a blind eye.
“Maybe I had tunnel vision,” Wooden once said. “I still don’t think he’s had any great impact on the basketball program.”
Gilbert’s influence ultimately helped land UCLA basketball on NCAA probation. In December 1981, UCLA was cited for nine infractions and received two years’ probation, which included a one-year NCAA tournament ban and an order to vacate its 1980 NCAA national title game appearance against Louisville.
The most serious allegation levied against Gilbert was that he co-signed a promissory note so a player could buy a car. The NCAA ordered UCLA to disassociate Gilbert from its recruiting process.
Larry Brown was UCLA’s basketball coach in 1980; none of the violations were tied to Wooden’s era.
A 1981 Times investigative series, which interviewed 45 people connected with the basketball program, established Gilbert as “a one-man clearing house who has enabled players and their families to receive goods and services usually at big discounts and sometimes at no cost.”
The paper quoted Brent Clark, an NCAA field investigator who said that, in 1977, he was told to drop his case in Westwood. “If I had spent a month in Los Angeles, I could have put them on indefinite suspension,” he said of UCLA. An NCAA spokesman disputed this claim, saying that Clark was living a “fantasy world.”
The Times established that Gilbert, during Wooden’s heyday, helped players get cars, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers’ prices for UCLA season tickets. Gilbert allegedly even arranged abortions for players’ girlfriends.
One former UCLA All-American told The Times: “What do you want me to say? That’s my school. I don’t want to see them take away all those championships.” Gilbert considered many NCAA rules arcane and silly.
Larry Farmer, who played for Wooden and later became head coach, remarked of Gilbert: “I saw him move mountains.”
The Times’ investigation concluded Gilbert probably committed several NCAA violations in his dealings with UCLA players.
Wooden, in 1981, told The Times: “There’s as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said — he’d rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time. Maybe I trusted too much.”
Times reporters Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg opined:
" . . . Wooden knew about Gilbert. He knew the players were close to Gilbert. He knew they looked to Gilbert for advice. Maybe he knew more. He should have known much more. If he didn’t, it was only because he apparently chose not to look.”
Gilbert died, at age 74, in 1987, four days before federal prosecutors, unaware of his passing, indicted him for racketeering and money laundering.
“I tried my best,” Wooden told the Basketball Times in 2005, ". . . My conscience is clear.”