He had a way of taking off near the foul line and sailing up to the basket "as smooth and pretty as a bird." Or he would drive in for a layup with such determination that his momentum would carry him into the fifth row of the school band at the end of the court. He bounced off the floor so often that people called him the India Rubber Man.
That was John Wooden 35 or 40 years ago. Today he is known mainly as the coach at UCLA—the lucky man who won the Lew Alcindor recruiting sweepstakes and thus practically sewed up three straight NCAA championships for the Bruins. And that in a way is a shame. So obscured is he by the telephone-pole shadow cast by his center that only the few fanatics who keep the Encyclopedia of Basketball out on their coffee tables seem to know there is a niche—maybe even a whole room—reserved for John Wooden in the sport's Hall of Fame.
Wooden was an outstanding professional player for six years. Before that he was a consensus All-America guard at Purdue for three straight seasons. And before that he starred on one of the finest high school teams ever to play in Indiana. As a coach, he has had only one losing season, his first. His UCLA teams won two national titles before Alcindor, and they are likely to win some more after he leaves.
Away from games, the former India Rubber Man is a soft-spoken gentleman with a trace of homespun Hoosier in his voice, a human Poor Richard's Almanack who has inspirational sayings filed in a loose-leaf notebook, taped to his pencil box, framed on his walls, tucked away in his wallet: "Make each day your masterpiece." "Build a shelter for a rainy day." "It's better to go too far with a boy than not far enough."
Somewhere between "Be true to yourself" and "It's the little things that count," a visitor begins to think it is all just a giant put-on. Nobody could be that square. But Wooden is real all right, sitting there in his office overlooking UCLA's new basketball palace, Pauley Pavilion. He can thumb quickly through a notebook and find his drill-by-drill plan for a practice 17 years ago or he can flip through another one and find a short essay on how the world today maybe could use a few more squares. His Pyramid of Success chart ("industriousness," "loyalty," "self-control" are some of its building blocks) hangs on the wall near his desk; he once talked about it on his local TV show and was buried under 7,000 requests for copies.
When Wooden gets off a small joke or receives a compliment, he does not flash a white-neon smile, he ducks his head and grins sheepishly. It is easy to imagine him as a deacon of his church or a kindly grandfather, both of which he is. Not so easy to imagine, but real nevertheless, is the intensely competitive John Wooden of the Bruin bench whose angry, sometimes scathing comments can melt a referee's whistle in mid-tweet. He sits there wielding a rolled-up program and, like most members of his ulcerated profession, suffers while an entire year's work, or maybe more, is compressed into an hour-and-a-half game.
"I've seen him so mad that I've been afraid he'd pop that big blood vessel in his forehead," says a Pacific Coast official, "but I've never heard him curse."
"Dadburn it, you saw him double dribble down there!" hollers Wooden, now about as soft-spoken as an electric guitar. "Goodness gracious sakes alive! Everybody in the place saw that."
Eddie Powell, a former assistant who moved with him from Indiana State to UCLA in 1948, learned some psychological tricks from the past master.
"Usually sometime during the first half he would choose one incident, a close call, and jump all over the referee," said Powell. "Just chew him out in a gentlemanly manner, if there is such a thing. But let him know that there was that side of Wooden. During the half he'd seek out the referee and apologize to him. He'd say, 'I know I should have known it was a close call. I was wrong. It's just a job and you're doing the best you can.'