I am a peaceful man of faith and daily prayer. I do not smoke or drink or swear, and have kissed but one woman in my life, my lovely wife Nell. I cherish our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren as well as many friends and colleagues through the decades. For me, family and faith will always be foremost, but I must tell you what you may have surmised: there’s an inferno inside that compels me to blow you off the basketball court. One could not otherwise coach 10 college basketball champions in 12 years, capture seven consecutive titles, win 88 straight games, and complete four seasons undefeated.
There are moments when the scale of those achievements embarrasses me, and I remind myself of the times when, in a relative sense, I struggled. Our high school team won the Indiana title but once during my three years as the best player in the state. In college at Purdue, where they called me “The Indiana Rubber Man” because I dove into opponents and on the floor as others do into water, I became the first player named consensus All American three years in a row, but our team only won the national championship, by vote, my senior season in 1932.
My first year as a high school coach, our team posted an appalling 6-11 record. Even family and faith couldn’t relieve much of my pain and embarrassment. “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change may be,” I would one day say. I rededicated myself, and our teams went 212-31 over the next decade. On weekends I played professional basketball for $50 a game, and during a 46-game stretch hit 134 straight free throws. In person I never said it but from here I can: when’s the last time you did that, buster?
World War II pulled me into the navy for three years and during this period I realized how lucky I was not to die like so many others, and particularly so since a ship I was originally scheduled to be on was attacked and several hundred died. In that vein, a couple of decades later, I was booked on a commercial flight in the United States but had to cancel and that plane crashed and killed everyone aboard.
After the war I was playing golf one afternoon in South Bend, Indiana. On a front-nine par 3 about 180 yards I stroked a five iron somewhere I could not see but did notice the group ahead jumping and waving and realized I had an ace. On the back nine I hit a decent drive on a par five but thought I probably couldn’t get home in two. I pulled out my brassie, which today is about like a two wood, and blasted it toward the green, and that same group started whooping again. Goodness gracious – the ball had gone in the hole for a double eagle. To this day only five people, including me, have recorded an ace and a double eagle the same day. And never again did I come close to either feat.
I was lucky. In 1948 the University of Minnesota, where I wanted to coach in the elite Big 10, tried to hire me but I didn’t know since storm-battered phone lines were down between Minnesota and Indiana but functioning from Los Angeles to my home, and I agreed to coach UCLA, provided the Bruins gave me a three-year contract. After two years, the job at my alma mater Purdue opened and I said I wanted to take it. But my bosses, delighted I’d immediately transformed the Bruins with 22-7 and 24-7 seasons, insisted I honor the contract I asked for. I did not fret, though Nell and I were thoroughly Midwestern in style. At prestigious UCLA, which was attractive to many great athletes I knew I could recruit, championships were surely imminent.
In fact, my teams merely hovered between good and pretty good for 15 seasons, save 1960 when we went 14-12 and some said maybe Wooden just wasn’t good enough. That really galled me. I’d already been tired hearing about The Baron, Adolf Rupp of Kentucky, and his greatness and four national titles. I wanted the national titles. By 1962 we were back in the NCAA tournament, the first time since 1956, and made it to the Final Four but lost our first game. I was now in my early 50’s and wondered if I’d ever break through.
My 1964 team had no starter taller than 6-foot-5 but featured a pro-caliber backcourt of Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. We zone-pressed opponents and stole balls and intercepted passes and rolled into the championship game 29-0 against the much larger and favored Duke Blue Devils. I knew we had a better team. I knew we were quicker. Let’s be frank: Duke was all white. Southern teams were going to have to change. I’d been coaching black players since my first collegiate job, at Indiana State in 1946-47, and refused to play anywhere I couldn’t bring Clarence Walker. In 1964 our 16-0 run against heavy-footed Duke propelled us to a 98-83 victory. We repeated as champions in 1965.
Meanwhile, I had recruited the finest high school basketball player in history, Lewis Alcindor of New York City, and if freshmen could’ve played in 1966 we’d have won then, too. Led by Lewis and other fine players in 1967, we both dominated and intimidated everyone – yes, the latter pleased me – en route to a 30-0 record. We would’ve been undefeated the following season but Lewis had a scratched eyeball and shot poorly during a 71-69 loss to Houston and hot Elvin Hayes before 52,000 fans in the Astrodome. A lot of people said Houston was too good, that Lewis was overrated and so was his coach. I may have impersonated a minister-coach before and during our rematch against Houston in the NCAA semifinals, but I felt more like General Patton storming through Europe and made darn sure our troops beat those cocky fellows as badly as possible, which was 101-69 on the scoreboard and worse on the floor. We then manhandled North Carolina 78-55 for the title. The following year we overwhelmed another inherently slow team, this one from my old Purdue.
I’m not going to give you too many more details. I generally sat composed on the bench, gripping a rolled up program, and in a gentlemanly but persistent way scolded the referees for not calling more fouls on the other team. In 1970 and 1971 we won our fourth and fifth straight championships – and sixth and seventh overall – led by Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. Then the big red head Bill Walton, who I told to either cut his hair and shave or I’d miss him, controlled both backboards his first two seasons, undefeated in 1972 and 1973, while making his teammates better. He also converted 21 of 22 shots in the title game against Memphis State. I’m still amazed we lost at all in 1974. Good heavens, we slipped four times, the last being in the NCAA semifinals. In 1975, with a new group of starters, we stood at 27-3 following our semifinal victory when I announced it would be time for me to leave after the championship game. I wish Adolph Rupp had still been coaching when we beat Kentucky 92-85. What really mattered, though, was that we had done our best, and, to a lesser extent, that I got to walk off the court with a tenth net around my neck.
If you watched us play, you know before each game I’d turn to look behind our bench and wink at Nell. She was my ultimate love, and when she died of cancer in 1985 our son and daughter planned to help me want to survive. And I usually did. Whenever I felt I needed to die, I reminded myself of my many aphorisms over the years that urged people to help others and to learn and adapt and persevere. I too bore those obligations. I spoke at clinics. I gave interviews. I attended many UCLA basketball games. I walked a round of golf with Tigers Woods. I spent time with my grandkids and great grandkids. I continued to read the news and history and poetry. For a century I believe I did all right.
Editorial note: Lewis Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar early in his professional career.