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Wise In The Ways Of The Wizard
Curry Kirkpatrick
November 30, 1981
Three rushed in where Wooden used to tread—then split. Now comes the fourth, Larry Farmer, truest of true believers
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November 30, 1981

Wise In The Ways Of The Wizard

Three rushed in where Wooden used to tread—then split. Now comes the fourth, Larry Farmer, truest of true believers

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All things considered, it would be folly for the confident Farmer to allow himself any other posture. A guy who was 89-1 has every reason to suspect he is something special. "Larry knows who he is," says Pete Newell, the longtime guru of California basketball.

For one thing, Farmer is a boy scout. Direct, warm, articulate. Smart, friendly, honest. Thrifty, brave and true. He was "Thunderbolt King" at Denver's Manual High School. With A's and B's in his classes. For another, he is an ornery customer on the basketball court. In the early '70s he was one of the enforcers for UCLA's Walton gang, a cop who used his elbow to open up the face of a Notre Dame player who had taken liberties with the Bruins' redheaded star. Once an offensive rebounder, always an offensive rebounder. "The sucker can still go to the rack," says O'Connor. In addition, Farmer is a humorist.

Farmer on his playing career: "They retired my number by giving it to Marques Johnson." Farmer at practice (shouting): "You hear that whistle—you stop. You stop even if you're in midair." Farmer at a coaches' clinic: "I hope you'll all read my new book, How to Get Rid of Head Coaches." Farmer at a boosters' meeting: "I'd hire John Wooden back as my assistant, but he's too expensive. Maybe I can get his seat moved down closer to the bench. Or install a TV monitor close by so I can watch his face."

Farmer to a grade school basketball team: "When I played here under Coach Wooden, we did things over and over and over. You'd think it would get boring, but it helped so much. When you see our players sprinting after the drills in practice, that's punishment. That's because I thought they were coasting. There is no wasted time in a UCLA practice. When we're not drilling, we're shooting free throws or 'game shots.' Basketball practice is a precious time. If a player misses a class, he doesn't get to practice. If he's late for a tutoring session, he doesn't get to practice. Basketball becomes more and more precious here. This is UCLA, guys. See those banners up there? They are the reminder."

The banners. Always the banners. They are the ghosts of UCLA past. Goodrich and Hazzard—the zone press. Alcindor (truly a ghost of a name)—The Triple. Wicks, Rowe—Heckle, Jeckle. The Walton-Wilkes juggernaut—radicals on parade. All the NCAA first-place trophies won by UCLA are over in the Ackerman Union now, in a narrow trophy case tucked between a bowling alley and a travel agency. The zone press is just another defense. Walton is in Stanford law school. Wooden is taking his daily five-mile walk in Encino. Still, the banners hang from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion, mocking everything that has come since, and is yet to be.

And what of Wooden, the ultimate shadow? As his years of triumph have fallen away, the 71-year-old former coach has become less visible around Westwood, although he still does his banking there, lunches there at his favorite haunt, Carl Andersen's Chatam (where Mrs. Andersen calls him "Johnny"), and attends most of the Bruin home games. On occasion, Wooden also handles the color announcing for UCLA cable TV showings.

Much of the external pressure that attends the UCLA head job has been flung at Wooden's doorstep, but it is difficult to imagine how the man could have handled such a delicate situation any better. He has never criticized the stratagems of his successors. He has never attended a practice without being asked. Surely he has not requested the TV cameras to flash to his reaction every time a Bruin play results in a turnover. "John is a UCLA fan," says Newell, an old friend. "He'd grimace at mistakes even if Nell [Mrs. Wooden] were coaching. About the only thing he could have done to avoid this controversy would have been to sail off to some desert island."

"Or die," says Wooden, with a grin.

Fred Slaughter, the hulking center on Wooden's first NCAA championship team in 1964, says, "If he's been a cloud at all, Coach Wooden is a positive cloud."

More than any of Wooden's successors, Farmer has taken advantage of Wooden's proximity. Over the summer he spoke during four separate sessions of Wooden's basketball camp and visited his mentor's home for lunch several other times. The two men are often in touch by telephone. Some of Farmer's coaching regulations are positively Wizardish in form. UCLA players must carry 3 x 5 cards that list all important phone numbers—the coaches' offices and homes, the training room, dressing quarters. "If they're going to be late, I want to know about it first. They're going to learn responsibility," Farmer says. In practice nobody dunks unless it is specifically allowed. At training table nobody eats until the whole team is ready to eat. On the road, coats and ties are mandatory.

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