Piggie Lambert, Wooden's coach at Purdue, preached that the team making the most mistakes would win, for good things come to those who risk error by taking the initiative. Thus, initiative is part of Wooden's Pyramid. You would think, given his success, that someone might still coach his way today. But rare is the coach who doesn't have a tight rein, a hard derriere or both. How can a real teacher not indulge mistakes? " George Patton is not my idol," Wooden says. "I prefer Omar Bradley."
As he sees all the games the networks satellite-dish out. Wooden concludes that, besides turning the young men into dogs and ponies, television has transformed the coaches into showmen. Coaches today overcontrol. Instead, they should teach players the game and let them play it. Goodness gracious sakes alive—you may hear that truncated to Gracious sakes, but from Wooden you'll hear no stronger oath—coaches nowadays haven't even hit their 40's before they're writing books with titles like A Coach's World and Born to Coach.
Wooden's first book is still in print. Published in 1966, it's called Practical Modern Basketball. Read it and you'll learn that basketball is a game of threes: forward, center, guard; shoot, drive, pass; ball, you, man; conditioning, skill, teamwork. These last three elements made up Lambert's hoops trinity, and they are the three blocks at the heart of the Pyramid. The Wooden text also holds that the way to play the game—soundly, and with balance—isn't a bad way to live your life.
"You might have thought of that as a golden time, when you've climbed to the top of the mountain. But we were at the top of the mountain when we showed up." Greg Lee is talking about the Walton era, the three seasons Lee played at guard, between 1971 and '74. "Half the time we didn't even know who our opponent would be." he says. "Winning 88 straight games—that's not normal. It would have been better if we'd have struggled."
When Lee and his classmates were precocious sophomores. Wooden warned them that, as seniors, they would be intolerable. Headstrong young men like Walton, guard Tommy Curtis and Lee—"I'd like to be able to say I didn't contribute to the problems," Wooden says, "but I did"—didn't prove him wrong. But Wooden bent too much, and his normally steady hand seemed to waver. He relaxed some of the inviolable principles on which he had always insisted. He excused Walton from practice on Mondays and Tuesdays because of the center's aching knees. Detecting inconsistency, the team took advantage.
That March, as if to vindicate 25 years' worth of strictures suddenly allowed to go flaccid, UCLA squandered a seven-point lead in the second overtime of the NCAA semifinals and lost to North Carolina State. "Bill was such a megastar he probably didn't need to practice," says Lee. "But may be the team needed him to practice"
Lee, now coach at a high school near San Diego, has learned that lesson in discipline in retrospect. But Wooden, even if he denies it today, re-learned it then and there. The next season, with the Bruins again playing on his exacting terms, they became champions once more.
Since his retirement, the catty strains of Wooden revisionism have made their way through the coaching fraternity. Unlikely as it may seem, between 1948 and 1963 Wooden did not win an NCAA crown at UCLA, and during this period the critics accused him of being a jockey of referees and opposing players. They said that he overheated the old "B.O. Barn," the Bruins' second-floor gym. because he knew his teams could stand it. They said that he had two sets of standards, one for stars and another for everybody else. But the most persistent whisper has always been that the cornerstone of the Pyramid was no middle-American verity, not conditioning or skill or teamwork, but a Los Angeles contractor and UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert.
Gilbert was everything Wooden wasn't. Worldly and wealthy, he offered players advice and, in violation of NCAA rules, gave them gifts and paid for their girlfriends' abortions. Black players, in particular, received healthy doses of his street wisdom and regular invitations to the lavish spreads at his house on Sunday mornings. "I remember we were on a road trip in Chicago, and five guys all got on the bus together wearing matching coats with fur-lined collars," says Lee. "It was pretty conspicuous. It's not like Coach was an ostrich about Sam, but he wouldn't confront the problem."
Wooden insists that no one enrolled at UCLA because of Gilbert. But once a player became a Bruin, few were denied his largess. With the inertia born of a successful program, and with Wooden's lack of interest in matters outside the gym or the classroom, Gilbert went unchallenged. After becoming the UCLA coach in the late '70s. Larry Brown, who resented Gilbert's sway with his players, tried to run him off. Gilbert responded by threatening not only to cut off Brown's testicles but also to do it "without him even knowing it." In 1987 a Florida grand jury, unaware of Gilbert's death four days earlier, indicted him in a drug-money-laundering scheme.