Sports Nut

John Wooden

What the legendary coach gets wrong about basketball.

In December 1973, John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach and cornpone oracle, was coming off his seventh consecutive NCAA championship. He was by then very much a legend, a walking Father’s Day card, and every word out of his mouth seemed destined to be cross-stitched onto a throw pillow. The press had genuflected at his feet many times over. That month, however, there appeared in the New York Times Magazine a most remarkable declaration. “John Wooden,” hymned the writer, Arnold Hano, “comes as close to an embodiment of Jesus Christ as anyone on the current sporting scene.”

It has always been Wooden’s singular talent to induce otherwise sane people to say preposterous things about him. To TheNew Yorker, Wooden was “an island of James Whitcomb Riley in a sea of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern, and Jerry Rubin.” To Hano, in the Times Magazine, he was “a moral island in a sea of savage rip-off tides.” And Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, all but taking up a chisel and making for the Black Hills, called Wooden, simply, “the best man I know.” (The Wooden Story has fossilized to such an extent that a Houston Chronicle columnist, Mickey Herskowitz, was suspended in 2004 after writing a column about Wooden—“an almost biblical figure”—that borrowed liberally from an earlier column about Wooden. Written by Mickey Herskowitz. In 1990.)

This week, which is bookended by two basketball invitationals named in Wooden’s honor, will doubtless see more fattening of sports’ most sacred cow. We will almost certainly hear the story of the great coach teaching his players how to put on their socks and shoes. Or the time he threatened to bounce Bill Walton out of the gym if he didn’t shave his beard. Somewhere, someone will slaver over Wooden’s tour de force of banality, the Pyramid of Success, a pile of exhortative nouns like Industriousness, Intentness, Enthusiasm, and Cooperation, whose mystifying popularity has occasioned the destruction of several screech-owl habitats.

Jesus Christ, indeed.

Wooden, now 96, was indisputably a great coach. His teams, always fit and energetic, won a fat load of games and championships. (Though it bears noting that UCLA benefited not only from the services of the best talent of the day, but also from the largesse of an especially oily booster named Sam Gilbert, a moneylender, as it were, whom Coach Christ forgot to cast out of the temple). But it’s time we retire this notion of Wooden as basketball’s wise old man and see his legacy for what it is: a triumph of rigidity, bureaucracy, paternalism, and anal retentiveness. The sorts of things, in other words, that James Naismith would hate about his game today.

Last month, Wooden was inducted, along with Naismith, into the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Joined forever in hoops iconography and at least superficially alike—both men of the cloth, both nonsmokers and noncussers—in reality the two couldn’t make an odder pair. Wooden was a relentless taskmaster who counted discipline among the game’s most important tenets. He had a hand in everything, from his players’ grooming habits down to the wool content of their socks (50 percent). In one incredible passage in his coaching textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, Wooden details the Bruins’ eating routine: “The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail. Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best.”

But Naismith, as art critic Dave Hickey has noted, was wonderfully Jeffersonian. He set down only five guiding principles—discipline not among them—to govern his game, which he was delighted to point out did not need a coach. The beauty of Naismith’s invention is that it foresaw, even insisted upon, its own evolution—why else put the hoop in the air? And why else include, in those earthbound days, a goaltending rule? He once wrote: “Each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me.”

Basketball’s innate progressive spirit is what makes Wooden’s sainthood so galling. Hoophead reactionaries, those joyless old prigs who despair that their game doesn’t look more like a Gil Thorppanel, have always found in Wooden a sort of patron saint. Not, say, the late Red Auerbach, a man who won as much in the NBA as Wooden did in the college game. Auerbach, no bleeding heart himself, at least recognized the plates shifting under his feet, and is now credited with ushering the pro game into the modern era.

But Wooden has never budged. Periodically, the old coach will issue, ex cathedra, a cranky pronouncement about the state of basketball. More often than not, it’s another call to ban the “dunkshot,” which should be enough to get him laughed out of Pauley Pavilion but is nonetheless greeted with a solemn nod and another kiss of the ring. In his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, Wooden predictably decries the current emphasis on “showmanship” at the expense of the fundamentals. He writes: “Perhaps this showmanship is epitomized by the various dunkshots. Some are marvels of aerial gymnastics. But how often do they miss those dunks—the ball ricocheting off the rim or the board and setting up a fast-break basket the other way?”

This would be merely risible if there weren’t something uglier lurking here. To sportswriters, he has always offered a perfect foil for whatever pernicious elements happen to be ruining basketball at the moment. They always look to Wooden, a fixed point from which to plot the sport’s fall from some imagined (and, let’s be honest, whiter) state of grace. He is their reminder of a time that never really was, a Hummel figurine of the hardwood. “[S]ometimes,” Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated, “when the Madness of March gets to be too much—too many players trying to make SportsCenter, too few players trying to make assists, too many coaches trying to be homeys, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men—I like to go see Coach Wooden.” You don’t exactly need a decoder pin to get his drift.

Wooden, and our beatification of the man, has had its toxic effect on the game. It’s certainly there in the NBA, which over the past year or so has hired a chief strategist of President Bush’s re-election campaign to win back Middle America; instituted an absurd and paternalistic dress code (glossed nicely here); and stood idly by while Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles benched Ben Wallace, one of the hardest-working players in the game, for wearing a headband.

It is another Wooden contribution, however, that I fear will endure. He has given us the basketball moralist, someone for whom the fundamentals are themselves a kind of faith. Wooden provided a framework for linking on-court play with virtue. A bounce pass is not just fundamentally sound, but somehow morally exigent; a missed dunk is a straight path to damnation. Leave aside some of the more repellent conclusions this might lead one to—it is simply a boring and blinkered way of watching a basketball game. This, ultimately, is John Wooden’s legacy: He taught us to take a profane bit of beautiful exercise and turn it into church.