Posted: Friday June 4, 2010 10:22PM ; Updated: Friday June 4, 2010 10:30PM
Alex Wolff
Alex Wolff>VIEWPOINT

How the 1964 UCLA Bruins made John Wooden (cont.)

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John Wooden won his first of 10 national championships (in 12 seasons) without a starter taller than 6-foot-5.
Rich Clarkson/SI

In the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel, the wise Serb, was reiterating his "is team!" incantation for anyone who would listen. Not many did. "There is no way for UCLA to beat Duke," wrote Dick Wade of the Kansas City Star on the eve of the game. "The Blue Devils simply have too much -- height, shooting ability, rebounding ability and defense." (The first of those four, as UCLA demonstrated all year, brings its own problems. Duke coach Vic Bubas had asked the Muehlebach to supply seven-foot beds for his 6-10 frontliners, Hack Tison and Jay Buckley, but the request went unfulfilled.) At least Wade had been smart enough to preface his prediction with this: "If you're silly enough to apply logic to basketball."

Logic fled the arena late in the first half, shortly after UCLA found itself trailing 30-27 and Erickson had just picked up his third foul. Here came the Blitz by which all others would be measured. Three times Hirsch stole the ball. Goodrich scored eight points. Washington, playing before his Marine dad for the first time, knocked down two jumpers, and Erickson shook off those fouls to block several shots. Twice Duke called timeouts, but neither could stay the unraveling. By the time the stretch had ended -- after one Blue Devil turned to Slaughter and said, "Hey, can you guys slow down?" -- UCLA had scored 16 unbroken points in slightly more than two and a half minutes to take a 43-30 lead. Off the bench, McIntosh and Washington would combine for 23 rebounds. Duke's two big men, roused from their procrustean beds, would collect only 10 between them. UCLA had forced 29 turnovers and coasted, 98-83. "Don't let it change you," Wooden told his players in the locker room. "You are champions and must act like champions."

Five times during the season the Bruins had scored more than 100 points. Only four times did a team stay within five of them. Over the ensuing months Wooden would field some 700 inquiries from coaches asking how the press worked. He would always call that first title team the one that came "as close to reaching its potential as a team could come," and given his definition of success, that was the highest praise he could deliver. There was indeed something very special about the first.

Today the regulars on that team almost uniformly confess that they didn't then realize the full dimensions of the man they played for. "He was wasted on us," Erickson says. They regarded as silly his preseason lecture about how to put your socks on, and snickered behind his back at the Pyramid of Success. The homilies, the poetry -- "You hear," says Hirsch, "but don't listen."

But nowadays all swear that they routinely dip into his teachings. "He understood that life is about simplicity," Hirsch said before Wooden's death. "Look in his eye today, and a certain peace comes over you."

"If you ever had a need to test him, like I did, you usually found out you were wrong," Slaughter says. "And two things he did made it work. One was that 'Goodness gracious sakes alive' bit. Nobody wanted to hear that. It was worse than what you heard on the street. The other was what coaches miss today: 'You can do it this way, or you can come over and sit by me.' No need to argue, no need to throw chairs. And eventually you'd look around and realize that damned if his way didn't work out."

Says Washington, who shot 11-for-16 in the championship game: "Part of his genius was that he taught preparation, and once you started playing he left you alone. Basketball is a dynamic game, and players have to have the freedom to react, to be allowed not to follow the general rule, because stuff happens.

"This human being grew. He was powerful enough that he didn't have to grow. But to teach people from these multiple cultural backgrounds, and keep this philosophy, so universal and functional, that transcended all differences, and to be able to laugh at yourself and not be judgmental, yet maintain high standards and do critical analysis -- it isn't about basketball. That's not what it's about. It's bigger than that."

"People say he didn't have the horses before us," says Hirsch. "No -- he didn't win because he wasn't a great coach. He was a good coach who filled in all the blanks."

Wooden agreed. "We'd have had a little better chance in earlier years," he told me, "if I'd have known a little more."

Who knew? The Wizard of Westwood was really the Master of the Midcourse Correction. The '64 title team stands as both a summation of everything he had learned to that time, and a grand experiment in the coaching arts he would apply to win nine more championships. Precept after precept was tonged and tempered in the crucible of that season: That the game rewards quickness above all; that, as much as you'd like to, you can't treat every player the same; that victory begins with defense; that it's what you learn after you know it all that counts. Step back to take in the sweep of Wooden's career, and '64 stands as both valedictory and harbinger.

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, someone whose vocation Wooden worshiped, urges others to cultivate the kind of attitude that would make the phrase "continuing education" a redundancy. "Experience," Collins likes to say, "holds its graduation at the grave."

In February 2004 I called Wooden to tell him that editors wanted to use an account of the '64 title team as his obituary. He found the humor in this, as I figured he would. We had talked about death; he brought the subject up, actually, insisting that he had no fear of it, for Nell would be waiting there and then -- "out yonder," he called it, or "th'inevitable hour," quoting one of his favorite poems, Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Besides, death hadn't exactly rushed to claim him. During World War II, after being conscripted to serve in the Pacific on the U.S.S. Franklin, he had ruptured his appendix and had his orders cancelled; the Purdue fraternity brother who replaced him was killed in a kamikaze attack. Years later, after being delayed en route to a speaking engagement in North Carolina, he had just missed finding himself on a plane that crashed upon leaving Atlanta. The coach of the '64 champs outlived his student manager, and it was the team leader, Walt Hazzard, who suffered the stroke in middle age.

It's hard for anyone, even a skulking sportswriter, to visit the home of a nonagenarian who lives alone, as I did after breakfast that September day, and not ask if there's a chore to do or an errand to run.

"No, nothing, thank you," Wooden said.

I asked him again later, as I prepared to leave.

"You know, actually, if you don't mind ..."

He needed a lift to the post office. It was deep in his small-town, English-teacher bones: If you wrote John Wooden, he wrote back. Some people had figured out how to take advantage of this. They'd pluck stuff off eBay, old Purdue yearbooks and UCLA memorabilia, and send them off for his autograph, often with no return postage, surely sometimes (Wooden suspected) with an eye toward turning around and selling them.

But if you're the kind of man who writes back when written to, even into the final years of your life you gamely lug several heavy padded envelopes to the post office several times a week. While some things about a man are subject to revision, others are immutable. For all his principled malleability, our trip to the post office will stand as a fitting final memory of John Wooden -- one way this man so open to change never changed at all.

He will be buried alongside his beloved wife, Nell. "If I am through learning," goes another of his favorite aphorisms, "I am through."

Now, after taking lessons from the Cori Nicholsons and Pete Newells, the Jack Hirsches and Jerry Normans, he is through. May there be a band graveside to play Pomp and Circumstance.

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