Saturday, June 05, 2010

Looking back

(I went back into the scrapbook and found the story I did on John Wooden when I was a senior in college in 1977. Syracuse was playing in Rupp Arena in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and Wooden was a TV analyst. It's fun to read it now. Consider it a tribute to the best coach ever. And I hope the Daily Orange doesn't mind the reprint...)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A casually dressed man in his late 60's strolled quietly into Rupp Arena last Wednesday afternoon. He saw a University of Detroit team busily practicing for the next night's game against arch-rival Michigan. Titan coach Dick Vitale apparently was oblivious to anything else in the 23,000-seat facility. A large group of sportswriters was milling on the sidelines.

But just by walking near the court, this man became the center of attention. He received more stares than "Charlie's Angels" do in a week. Vitale immediately halted practice and introduced the players to him, hoping some of the magic would rub off.

The man was John Wooden. The country gentleman from Indiana casts a large shadow.

John Wooden. Ten NCAA basketball championships in 12 years. Winning streaks of 88 and 47 games. The only man elected to the Hall of Fame as both player and coach.

Wooden coached the UCLA basketball team for 27 years, retiring two years ago. Many people believe his coaching record will never be matched -- except for Wooden himself.

"I think there could be another dynasty," Wooden said. "If you have the talent, it's not as difficult to win as it appears."

But Wooden believes that first national championship is very difficult to achieve.

"I think a lot of [my] teams in the early year could have won, but I wanted it too much. After that first year, I let the pressure off the players. Because of that, they more consistently played up to their abilities more than anyone else."

That consistency especially showed in the NCAA playoffs, as Wooden's teams won 44 of his last 45 games.

"Since the tournament is sudden death, it's crucial to get off to a good start. And it becomes more important with each round. The opposition is theoretically better in each succeeding round," said Wooden, apparently foreseeing Syracuse's game against North Carolina Charlotte.

The ex-coach finds a paradox, however, in the play of the finalists.

"You'll find that had teams in the championship game played that way in the regular season, they wouldn't be in the tournament. We've been miserable in national championship games, but so have our opponents," he said.

Part of UCLA's success in those championship games may have contributed to their later wins.

"A reputation of a team can have a great psychological effect on an opponent," Wooden said. "A number one ranking might be part of it. I place tremendous importance on subconscious aspects of the game. Basketball teams all have different personalities."

While others might be in awe of the wire service rankings, Wooden does not put much credence in the polls.

"I don't think the polls mean that much, even though there is more talk about national rankings today than a few years ago," he said. "The big difference between the football and basketball polls is that we end up with a champion. Football's is just what some personalities and coaches believe is the best team."

The best team in the 1964 basketball season was UCLA, Wooden's first national champion. He believes its style of play was responsible for that squad's explosive offense.

"In every game our '64 team played, we had a two and one-half minute period where they outscored the other team by 10 to 20 points. We played one game where we trailed by one with eight minutes left, and then scored the next 18 points in two minutes. But if we hadn't pressed for the first 32 minutes, it never would have happened."

One of Wooden's players was the target of a new rule before the 1968-69 season - the no-dunk law.

"The rule was put in before Lewis Alcindor's (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's) senior year. I told him then I doubted if he'd need to practice that shot to become a professional.

"By the way, I mean no disrespect when I say Lewis Alcindor. I knew and coached him under that name, and it is difficult for me to break the habit. But I certainly respect his wish to be called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."

Wooden has mixed emotions about the restoration of the dunk -- "The shot takes the team concept away from the game somewhat, but the dunk is great for the fans -- it generates tremendous excitement."

Some of those fans have packed Manley Field House many times to watch the Orangemen this year. Wooden was impressed with the current SU squad.

"I've only seen Syracuse play once this year," he said. "They have better depth than the team that competed in San Diego [in 1975]. Syracuse also has the big center this year.

"I am impressed with Eastern basketball. I have noticed that all of the teams seem to have similar styles," added Wooden, who gets to see them now that he works for NBC.

Despite his announcing role with the network, Wooden does not hesitate to criticize television.

"It's hurt the game with changing the starting time and time outs. But it's been partly responsible for the tremendous national growth of the game."

And Wooden says he could have predicted the sport's growth.

"This type of arena for basketball doesn't surprise me at all," he said, referring to the massive hall here. ""When I was playing back in Indiana, there was a 5,200-seat gym built just for a very small town's high school games. And the state championships were played in the 13,000-seat gym of Butler University. So I could see the potential growth of the sport."

Some of that growth has been due to Wooden and the great tradition of exciting teams he was associated with.

1 comment:

Elmer Ploetz ... aka Mister E said...

Who was that reporter again? Maybe the News should hire him.

Nice read 33 years later!