Thursday, April 18

Q&A: Sports history professor talks about UCLA’s John Wooden

Georgia Tech sports history professor John Matthew Smith wrote a book detailing how John Wooden's teams in the 1960s got involved in the various political and social movements of the time. He described how players like Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor and Andy Hill at times clashed with Wooden because of their activism and political beliefs.

Georgia Tech sports history professor John Matthew Smith wrote a book detailing how John Wooden's teams in the 1960s got involved in the various political and social movements of the time. He described how players like Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor and Andy Hill at times clashed with Wooden because of their activism and political beliefs. Courtesy of John Matthew Smith

For nearly 30 years, John Wooden roamed the sideline as UCLA’s men’s basketball coach. During his tenure, he amassed the most outstanding resume in the history of college basketball, winning 10 national titles in 12 years. As UCLA’s coach, he also navigated the 1960s, arguably one of the most tumultuous decades in American political history. Wooden grew frustrated at times with a generation he was not a part of.

In his book The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA and the Dynasty that Changed College Basketball,John Matthew Smith, a sports history professor at Georgia Tech University, chronicled that important decade in Wooden’s coaching career, as well as his upbringing and the UCLA basketball dynasty he built and ultimately left in 1975. The Daily Bruin’s Andrew Erickson spoke with Smith and discussed his book, as well as some of the major turning points and characters involved in the creation of college sports’ most prolific program.

Daily Bruin: You talked about Wooden’s time at Indiana State, where he was the only coach of a major Indiana basketball program to recruit black players. He actually pulled his team from a tournament when its directors said lodging accommodations would be segregated. Can you talk about Wooden’s mindset when it came to race and where that set of beliefs came from?

John Smith: That’s one of the questions I was really interested in. John Wooden is a man who is born and raised in Indiana. In the 1920s, Indiana is a state that is controlled politically by the Ku Klux Klan. In Martinsville, where Wooden grew up, he remembers there was a Klan rally in the town square. What’s remarkable is that this man, whose life is segregated as he grows up – he played high school basketball in Indiana, he played college basketball at Purdue in the Big Ten, which reinforce these segregated boundaries. As a high school coach, though, he has African-American players. … There were occasions when they would travel in the state of Indiana, which is a segregated state, when they would be denied service and Wooden was a man who believed firmly in team unity, and so for him, when he took a stand on segregation as a high school coach and later on at Indiana State – this is a principle that his father taught him, and that’s that nobody should be treated better than anybody else. For Joshua Wooden and for John Wooden, they were taking the position of a moralist. It wasn’t that Wooden was a liberal, but he was more like (Brooklyn Dodgers owner) Branch Rickey in that he held a moral view about race. He felt there was a moral right and a moral wrong, and for him it was wrong to treat blacks as second-class citizens. I think it was reflected in his coaching. He was one of the first coaches in America in the mid-1950s with Willie Naulls and others to start three black players and two whites when it was considered taboo. There was this ridiculous thinking at the time that with more black players on the court, that the players wouldn’t be able to make decisions because you need more white players to think clearly and call the plays, which is complete nonsense. Wooden’s teams defied these myths by being successful.

DB: When you look back at how born-and-raised in Indiana John Wooden was, how lucky and unbelievable was it that John Wooden ended up at UCLA and not Minnesota or potentially Purdue?

JS: It is remarkable. I’ve always wondered if it would be possible to get more information about that story and it’s hard because it comes from Wooden. I wasn’t able to get any documents that verified the details or the timing of it but what I think is even more interesting is that he stayed at UCLA. When he came to UCLA, he wasn’t really happy. He felt like this was not the kind of place he could raise a family. UCLA didn’t have a winning tradition and – he had an offer from Purdue at one point to come back to Indiana. But he stayed, and I think that was important. He had committed himself to the fact that he was going to build something at UCLA because when he was there, even into the early 1960s, UCLA didn’t have a great basketball gym, a great facility. Southern California was not yet known as a place where you could recruit great basketball players, so it really is remarkable the way the dynasty started at UCLA. When he was in California in 1948, there was no Major League Baseball team there, the Lakers weren’t there. The whole culture of Los Angeles sports as we know it today was different and he couldn’t have seen too many changes on the horizon. It’s remarkable the way things turned out for him once he came to California.

DB: You mentioned how in the middle of his career, Lew Alcindor maybe started to second-guess his decision to come to UCLA to the point of transferring. What thought process did he go through both in terms of basketball and politics?

JS: When Lew Alcindor grew up in New York, he grew up in Manhattan, but he spent a lot of time in Harlem, which is the center of black culture and, in many ways, America at the time. He had an experience with his high school coach and his parents were a little overbearing, so he wants to get away. He imagines California as this racial paradise, this California dream world where he can go there, play ball, go to classes, hang out with pretty girls and it’s going to be fun. … But when he gets there, he finds that California is a lot like the rest of America. Racism didn’t just exist in the South, it existed in the North. It existed in New York, it existed in Chicago. I think he has a hard time adjusting. He’s far away from home, he doesn’t really know his teammates. And I think he’s a little frustrated by the culture that surrounds him. This a guy that’s (7-foot-2) , he’s intelligent – he’s also very sensitive about his size and his race, so at times he felt like an object at UCLA. But of course if he went to Michigan or if he went to NYU or anywhere else, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a (7-foot-2) black man who would be a victim of stares and glares and racist remarks no matter where he went. In December of 1968, UCLA goes back to New York and during a game, Alcindor hears all sorts of racial epithets and it was as if he could never get away from that. When he’s at UCLA, he and Lucius Allen, they talk about maybe enjoying it more somewhere else. I think they also felt a bit restricted by Wooden’s rules, but Wooden certainly bent a lot of his rules for Lucius Allen, for Alcindor. But ultimately he stayed.

DB: Another moment of politicization was the anti-Vietnam War letter that the players sent to president Richard Nixon in 1970. Can you talk about how that came about and what that meant for college basketball?

JS: May 4, 1970 is an important day in the history of the Vietnam War because it’s a day that four students at Kent State were killed by National Guardsmen. Students were protesting because Nixon had announced he was expanding the bombing campaign into Cambodia. … UCLA, like many campuses across the country, has massive demonstrations. UCLA is more volatile, because when the police arrive, they’re wearing riot gear and gas masks and innocent people are attacked by LAPD. The UCLA athletes – and Andy Hill is one who stands out – they saw themselves as students, not just basketball players. … Andy Hill and a number of players feel compelled to act, and Andy Hill comes up with the idea to write this letter. … Throughout the season, coach Wooden had made it clear to a few of the white players that he didn’t approve of their political views. That it was not in their best interest to get involved in the anti-war demonstration on campus, that it was a distraction, and he was tested in numerous ways throughout the 1970 season. On May 4 – the same day as the Kent State Massacre – it’s also the day of the UCLA championship team’s annual banquet. Bill Seibert gave a very critical senior speech about coach Wooden and a number of players applauded what Seibert said. He said Wooden was a hypocrite and he had double standards and all he cares about is winning. In the aftermath of this speech, Wooden called a number of players into his office who he felt were “troublemakers,” who were radical and really disruptive on the team. He basically suggested these guys – Andy Hill, some other guys – that maybe they should leave the program and that UCLA wasn’t the place for them.

DB: You mentioned a definitive point in knowing that the UCLA basketball dynasty was definitively over, where you could see that the trials and tribulations and the over-examination of the team took a toll on Wooden. Can you talk about Wooden’s stresses and why he ultimately decided to retire from UCLA?

JS: What Wooden had in 1973 was really a heart attack, but they didn’t use that because they didn’t want to scare people. His wife was very honest with the press that during the late ’60s and early ’70s – winning all the time wasn’t enough to keep Wooden happy. Once he won national championships, it only elevated expectations. I think Wooden felt that. I think it affected him mentally, it affected his health. I think Wooden is a guy that was incredibly competitive. From the time he played high school basketball, he was someone who wanted to win at everything he did. Bill Walton described him as a caged tiger roaming the sidelines. If you ever watch clips of Wooden, he has his basketball program rolled up, he’s pacing the sidelines, yelling out instructions. That program was rolled up and his fist was crunched around it because he was so intense. By 1975, I think coach Wooden is burnt out mentally. He had nothing left to prove in terms of success and I think he felt that deep down it was time to go.

DB: From all your research and your perspective, how difficult is it to construct a dynasty? Especially when you look at college basketball today, will we ever see something like this again?

JS: I think in the end we won’t see it again. The difference from what coach Wooden was doing then is that players stayed longer so he could develop the continuity that was often required. Sometimes you really count on teams that can make a run at the national championship – you look at some of the Michigan teams with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose – they advanced to the national championship as freshmen and sophomores. There’s a lot of talk about John Calipari’s team at Kentucky having the best recruiting class ever. A lot of these guys are one-and-done. The best, most talented players are leaving early. They don’t stay around long and so it makes it more difficult. The other challenge for today’s coaches is that they play more games in the tournament. When coach Wooden won his first national championship in 1964, there were only 25 teams in the tournament – now there are 68. So there are more teams in the tournament, more games played, and we’ve seen in the last few years that the programs we see as the national powerhouses – Duke, North Carolina – they’re not invincible. Coach K at Duke has the second-most NCAA championships, and he only has four. Four is a lot, but compared to Wooden, it doesn’t seem like a whole lot. I don’t think we’ll ever see it again. I don’t think we’ll see an 88-game winning streak. I think we also forget that UCLA won 38 straight NCAA tournament games and I don’t think we’ll see that again, either.

DB: In the beginning of the book, you mention how players Willie Nauls, Jackie Robinson, and he wasn’t a basketball player, but Rafer Johnson as being essential in establishing UCLA’s basketball dynasty and getting some of the top-tier athletes to come to the school. Can you talk about what they meant to UCLA both as a brand and as a school?

JS: UCLA had a history of integrated athletics that goes back to Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson, and certainly Rafer Johnson on a global scale as a great Olympic athlete. And so UCLA was a model of racial cooperation in athletics, and because many of those teams were so visible and successful, it attracted the attention of a lot of athletes throughout the country. One of the things I argue in my book is that the dynasty – when Wooden becomes successful – is because of an infusion of white players and black players. Exceptional black players like Walt Hazzard and Lew Alcindor. You have to remember this is a time of segregation in the South. The last time a segregated team won the national title was Kentucky in 1958. One of the things that UCLA demonstrates is that recruiting talented black players can change the fortune of a program. Coach Wooden of course was not someone who deliberately went out of his way to recruit black players because ‘The South isn’t going to do it, I’m going to do it.’ He was looking for the best basketball players. But I will say this: Jerry Norman, who was his assistant, said he needed to expand his recruiting radius. He said they should look beyond California’s borders and certainly many African-American players, like Hazzard, like Alcindor, they came from outside of California and came to UCLA. That was important, their ability to build relationships with black players who saw UCLA as this kind of racial promised land was important in building the dynasty.

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