Those behavioral scientists who argue for heredity over environment, nature over nurture, ought to be able to make a nice little case study of UCLA's Dynasty Dads. These fathers, eight of the most prominent and gifted basketball players ever to win NCAA championships, have produced more than two teams of offspring, a virtual Bruin Baby Boomlet that, as it becomes eligible for scholarships, is likely to establish once and forever the notion of athletic inevitability.
By our count there are 11 boys and girls, either playing college basketball or being recruited to play soon, who are descended from players on those great UCLA teams of yore. Really, how could it be otherwise? If the geneticists are right, then the players who produced 10 NCAA championship teams from 1964 to '75 ought to have begotten some kind of genealogical powerhouse—basketball's Jurassic Park, as it were—where cloned champions scamper up and down the court. Why call it a dynasty if the sons and daughters do not gain, by simple inheritance, their own Final Fours?
You can trace the chromosomal links in a chain that stretches from UCLA's 10th championship, in 1975, to its 11th, in 1995. If Kris Johnson, a forward on the most recent Bruin title team, did not contribute to the extent that Marques Johnson did in '75, well, at least Kris's presence on the team confirms his birthright. These kids may literally have been born to play basketball.
You can see it in the way they move, jump and even talk. What we understand about heredity is pretty much confirmed when we call Adam Walton in his dorm room at LSU, and the answering machine says, "Funkify to the message," followed by perhaps two minutes of funk and then the voice: "I'm still getting down." And more funk. Oh, this would be Bill's boy!
Of course, you could argue that all this talent results more from the law of averages than from heredity. There are a lot of dads from those 10 teams, face it. And you could argue that all this talent is not nearly as formidable as that of the previous generation; so far there are no astonishing players to compare to the originals, with the possible exception of Mike Bibby, son of Henry, who is probably the best prep point guard in the nation and has signed to play at Arizona next season. But past the novelty of all these kids following in their fathers' huge and frighteningly nimble footsteps, something more interesting than heredity is revealed. In fact, if we look closely, heredity seems almost beside the point.
Something has been passed down, all right, but it's not contained in genetic coding, and it isn't being expressed in slam dunks. Oddly, and sweetly, the principal influence at work here goes back to the one basketball ancestor all these players share, a gentleman of 85 who was decidedly unhip even 30 years ago and who ought to seem entirely irrelevant now. Yet John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, architect of sports' most amazing winning streak, dominates these two generations. He's a grandfather to these kids, just as he was a father to their dads; his spirit informs their lives from across decades, whether they know it or not. Strange, not that these kids play basketball but that they play it the way their dads were taught. Let any behavioral scientist study them. These children were not privileged only by phenotype but also by their distant association with an old-time coach, the kind of guy whose poems and maxims and pyramids ought not to have worked on any generation any more modern than, say, the Victorian.
Let's look at Bill Walton and his son Adam, a skinny 6'8" redshirt freshman in Baton Rouge. The two Waltons are determinedly modern in their own different ways, and you wouldn't think either man would be particularly receptive to Wooden's old-fashioned messages. History has it that Bill, who played on the '72 and '73 championship teams, was an aberration in Wooden's career, the rare rebel recruit, a redhead of fiery temperament whose politics might not have been quite so acceptable if he had been, oh, 6'4" instead of 6'11". In fact, Wooden, who was in his 60's then, was quite tolerant of free spirits. And Walton turned out to be surprisingly susceptible to Wooden's conservative philosophies.
"I remember the first day I got there," says Bill, "and Coach Wooden calls the six freshmen together in the locker room. We figured he was going to give us the keys to success and let us go on our way. He sits us down on the stools and says, 'Guys, this is how we put our shoes and socks on.' We thought he was nuts. He's showing us how to put our socks on so they wouldn't wrinkle, how to make our laces perfect so they wouldn't come undone. Then—and then!—he showed us how to tuck our shirts in so they'd never come out."
It must have been a jaw-dropping session for these recruits. But there was something about the old man's modesty, his attention to fundamentals, his command of details, his confidence in such minutiae, that earned his players' forbearance. And, besides, everything he did seemed to work. "It was the greatest gift John Wooden gave to me, once I realized it," says Walton. "The ability to learn to learn. That day he was giving us something to build on, a foundation. And through years of observing him, his attention to detail, all his little things, I realized his teaching was timeless, like a Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan song. Everything went back to the foundation."
The foundation Walton got at UCLA has endured, and he has built his life on it. His rookie season in the NBA was rough, and he spent more than a few weekends consulting with Wooden. Really Walton never stopped going to that well. "I still call him all the time," he says of Wooden. "We talk about everything, personal things, families, achievements, disappointments."