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The Sons of Westwood
John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball
By JOHN MATTHEW SMITH
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2013 John Matthew Smith
All rights reserved.
Goodness! Gracious! Sakes Alive!
John Wooden wanted to turn around, but it was too late. Indiana was long gone in his rearview mirror. In the summer of 1948, Wooden and his family packed their car and headed west on Route 66. Over the course of two weeks, they crossed the Mississippi River, traversed the Great Plains of Missouri, and continued through the flatlands of Oklahoma and Texas. Along the scenic route, they saw diners, motels, and ghost towns. They visited Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon and toured the Mojave Desert. From there, they snaked up and down the mountains and valleys of California. The Golden State welcomed them with roadside fruit stands, billboards, palm trees, and plenty of sunshine. When Wooden steered onto the Pasadena Freeway, cars zoomed passed him, ignoring the posted speed limits. Other drivers carelessly wove in and out of lanes. It was no wonder that California led the country in auto accidents. This was nothing like the small-town country roads that he was used to driving. There were no stoplights or police with whistles directing the boundless traffic. It felt unsafe to the father of two children. He nervously gripped the steering wheel a little tighter, his knuckles white. His voice reverberated off the car ceiling as he shouted, "What are we doing here anyway?"
It was a good question. For a long time, he asked himself why he left Indiana. The moment he stepped on campus, Wooden realized that building a basketball program at UCLA would not be easy. The only basketball tradition UCLA fans knew was losing. From the time UCLA joined the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) in 1928 until Wooden took over as head coach twenty years later, the Bruins had only three winning seasons, and they had never captured the conference title. For two decades, the Bruins were considered the doormat of the PCC. The best high school players in the Los Angeles area ignored UCLA and played for their crosstown rival, the University of Southern California (USC). From 1932 to 1943, the Bruins lost thirty-nine consecutive games to the despised Trojans. Thirty-nine straight. It was humiliating.
Before Wooden's first season, local writers predicted that UCLA would finish dead last in the conference, just as they had the year before. After evaluating the ragtag group, the new coach could not disagree with their assessment. All five of the starting players from the previous season were gone, including All-American Don Barksdale. Wooden's first team had less talent than the men he taught in physical education at Indiana State Teachers College. Without a doubt, he thought, his Indiana State varsity team "could have named the score" against UCLA. He was shocked that few of the Bruins had learned the game's fundamentals. When he evaluated the team's equipment, it was clear that the athletic department spent next to nothing on the basketball program. Wooden discovered lopsided basketballs that did not bounce, worn-out sneakers, and frayed uniforms.
Worse yet, the Men's Gymnasium, where the team practiced and played their games, was nothing like the basketball gyms in Indiana. With pullout bleachers, it barely seated two thousand fans, less than half the size of Wooden's hometown high school gym. His team shared the crowded facility with the wrestling team and the gymnastics squad; both left the basketball court caked with rosin dust for Wooden to sweep every day before practice. Amid all the commotion, his players had a difficult time hearing his instructions. With only one window, the poorly ventilated, malodorous third-floor gym earned the nickname the "B.O. Barn." Without private showers or a locker room to wash up, the stench followed the players home. UCLA basketball literally stunk.
Wooden's journey from Indiana to California is more than a story about how one man went from coaching at a small-town teachers college to leading a national dynasty. His life reveals UCLA's ascent as a preeminent academic and athletic institution. From the time Wooden arrived at UCLA in 1948 until the Bruins' first national championship in 1964, Southern California experienced momentous change and economic development, rapidly transforming UCLA from a provincial normal school into a distinguished research university. At the same time, Wooden redefined the importance of college basketball at UCLA by building a respectable program on fundamentals and traditional values—values he learned in Indiana.
* * *
For as long as John Wooden could remember, his life centered on the trinity of family, God, and basketball. The son of a tenant farmer, Wooden was born in 1910 in South Central, Indiana. His parents, Joshua Hugh and Roxie Anna, lived a hardscrabble life on a sixty-acre farm in Centerton, a whistle-stop with nothing more than two general stores, a church, and a three-room grade school. Without electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing, the Woodens raised their four sons in a meager two-bedroom farmhouse. Twice, they suffered devastating losses: one daughter died at birth, and another passed away from diphtheria at age three. In the face of tragedy and hardship, Joshua and Roxie Anna drew strength from family and their faith in God.
Daily life was difficult for the Woodens, but they found a way to survive by relying on each other. Growing up on the farm, John learned the importance of hard work. Without it, his father often said, there was no harvest. Every morning before sunrise, the family rose to do their chores. John milked the cows, picked tomatoes and fruit, and fed the chickens. His mother spent the day attending to domestic duties: ironing and sewing clothes, baking, canning food, and washing dishes; his father cut hay, hunted for food, and plowed the fields with stubborn mules, not a modern-day tractor.
At the end of the workday, the family enjoyed the fruits of their labor with a home-cooked meal of roasted chicken, corn, sweet potatoes, warm bread covered with strawberry jam, and pumpkin pie for dessert. When the family gathered around the kitchen table for dessert, Joshua said grace. He was a man of few words, uninterested in small talk or lectures. When he spoke, his boys listened. At the dinner table, Joshua often articulated his "two sets of threes," a moral code that he tried to live by. The first set were principles of integrity: "Never lie. Never cheat. Never steal." The second set served as a reminder of how to handle adversity: "Don't whine. Don't complain. Don't make excuses." What mattered most to Joshua Wooden was character—doing the right thing.
After everyone cleared their plates, the boys gathered around him as he read out loud next to a burning potbelly stove. Shakespeare, Poe, Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley were among young John's favorite authors. On most nights, Joshua read from the Bible, instilling a devout religious faith in his sons. When John graduated from high school, his father did not have enough money to buy him a present, but he found a way to give him a gift that lasted a lifetime. After the graduation ceremony, he handed his son a crisp white three-by-five index card. On one side, he inscribed a poem written by Reverend Henry Van Dyke:
Four things a man must learn to do
If he would make his life more true:
To think without confusion clearly,
To love his fellow man sincerely,
To act from honest motives purely,
To trust in God and Heaven securely.
On the other side of the card, Joshua outlined a six-point creed that reflected his simple moral values: be true to yourself; make each day your masterpiece; help others; drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible; make friendship a fine art; and build a shelter against a rainy day. This last point did not mean that his son should build a home or save money for an emergency. John understood that his father "was talking about faith. Specifically he wanted me to put trust in God to prepare a home for me after this life is over." After reading the card, he tucked it into his wallet and kept it with him at all times for the rest of his life. It served as his moral compass, a standard of values, and the center of his teaching philosophy.
As a teenager, it was not always easy for John to live up to his father's moral code. At times, his temper got the best of him. On one occasion when he and his brother Maurice were cleaning out the horse stalls, Maurice thought it would be funny to flip a pitchfork of manure at John's face. Covered in dung, John dropped his shovel, cursed his brother, and wrestled him to the ground. Joshua immediately separated them and sternly admonished his sons for fighting. He made it clear that he would not tolerate profanity. Losing self-control was unacceptable, he said. Then he punished each boy with an unforgettable whipping. Supposedly, John never swore again.
More than anyone else, John Wooden aspired to be like his father, a man who embodied masculine ideals of the mid–to late nineteenth century. Notions of "manhood" and "masculinity" are socially constructed, dynamic and fluid, shaped and reshaped over time. Joshua Wooden personified the virtues of "a good man"—the self-made man who supported his family with his own labor. He believed that hard work, more than talent, and strong moral habits defined a man's success in life. Whether he cultivated his fields or improved his moral character, the good man was dedicated to self-improvement. "Never cease trying to be the best you can be," Wooden often told his sons. Like all good men, Wooden never fought, never got too excited, and never lost his temper. He was, according to John, "strong enough to bend a thick iron bar with his hands, but he was also a very gentle man who read poetry to his four sons at night." In the Wooden home, Joshua was the authority figure and chief disciplinarian, responsible for teaching his boys industry, ambition, perseverance, and virtue—valuable lessons John later taught as a father and coach.
* * *
Like so many Indiana kids, John Wooden learned how to play basketball on the farm. His father made a makeshift basketball hoop out of an old tomato basket and nailed it to the hayloft where his sons spent countless hours playing with a ball made of rags stuffed into cotton hose. Nothing, except their farm duties and homework, kept them from playing. Basketball, a game that revolved around the rhythms of farm life, was made for Indiana. It was the perfect indoor activity for Hoosiers seeking recreational entertainment during the harsh winter months between harvest and planting. In the early twentieth century, most towns were too small to field a football or baseball team, or too poor to afford all of the equipment. But basketball required nothing more than a ball and a hoop. It could be played on a dirt-covered driveway or inside a church with ten kids or one. Not even nightfall kept boys and girls from bouncing a basketball. Sometimes they checked the Farmer's Almanac to determine when a full moon would appear. A full moon meant that they could see the basket clearly and shoot well into the night, ignoring a farmer's hours.
In the early twentieth century, basketball evolved as a high school sport and as a popular pastime in Indiana. When the boys state tournament began in 1911, the games were played in makeshift venues, school auditoriums, Masonic halls, theaters, settlement houses, churches, and barns—any place with high ceilings. By the 1920s, "Hoosier Hysteria" permeated Indiana popular culture, inspiring a growing demand for the construction of larger gyms throughout the state. Rival communities competed with each other by building bigger and better gyms. In 1924 Martinsville built a massive redbrick gym with fifty-two hundred seats—four hundred more seats than the entire town population. In Indiana high school basketball was more than a sport—it was a way of life.
That same year, the Woodens' hogs caught cholera and died, making it impossible for Joshua to pay the mortgage. The bank repossessed the farm, and the family moved to Martinsville, where Wooden played for the high school team. In Martinsville the townspeople followed high school basketball religiously. On Friday nights, every town shop and restaurant put up signs in the front window that read, "Sorry, we're closed. Gone to the game." Indiana's most famous thief, John Dillinger, would have had no problem robbing a Martinsville bank. Everyone in Martinsville had a ticket to the game, and everyone had an opinion about the team. On the courthouse steps, at the lunch counter at Riley's Café, at the Blackstone pool hall, and at the barbershop, people debated the team's chances of winning the state title. Even on the most bitter cold winter nights, a long line of headlights motored along icy country roads following the team bus wherever it went.
Wooden was the pride of Martinsville, considered by many as the best player in the state's history. For three consecutive seasons, from 1926 to 1928, he led Martinsville to the state championship, winning once during his junior year. After graduation Wooden enrolled at Purdue University in West Lafayette, where he earned a reputation as the most intense competitor in the Midwest. Strong, skilled, and quick, there was nothing he could not do on the court. A writer from the Lafayette Journal and Courier observed that his speed and sensational dribbling allowed him "to do things with a basketball that few players ever did unless they carried the leather sphere under their arm." Athletically built at five-foot-ten and 183 pounds, Wooden had broad shoulders, thick wrists, and springs for legs. He played relentlessly, banging into other players and bouncing off the floor. Sometimes he drove so hard toward the basket that his momentum carried him into the stands, where Purdue officials stationed two men to catch him. At the end of each game, his body was covered with bruises, bumps, and floor burns. But the pain was worth it. In 1932 Wooden shattered the single-season scoring record in the Big Ten Conference and was named a consensus All-American for the third consecutive year. Many writers, including one from the Chicago Daily Tribune, praised him as "the greatest player of the decade." That season, before there were any national rankings or postseason tournaments, most scribes viewed Purdue as the best team in the country.
When Wooden enrolled at Purdue, he dreamed of becoming a civil engineer, not a basketball coach. Unfortunately, he could not afford an engineering degree. Long before the days of athletic scholarships, Wooden had to pay his own way through school. Purdue required all engineering students to attend summer school, but Wooden needed the summertime to earn a living. So he pursued his passion for literature and became an English major. With encouragement from his coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert, Wooden began taking physical education electives, planning a career as an educator and high school coach.
More than anyone else, Piggy Lambert shaped Wooden's coaching philosophy—a philosophy centered on fundamentals, team unity, and conditioning. Lambert believed that if his players were in better condition than the opposition, then his team would have an advantage at the end of the game when most players fatigued. Like many coaches of his time, he not only addressed his players' physical conditioning but also expressed concern for their mental and moral conditioning. In the early 1900s, Lambert learned the game at the Crawfordsville Young Men's Christian Association. At the YMCA, ministers and educators taught basketball to develop "the whole man": the physical and spiritual well-being of male youth. These "muscular Christians" used basketball to promote Victorian values, religious faith, health, and manliness. As a coach, Lambert conformed to the muscular Christian tradition and prescribed "right rules for living," a strict code of behavior that required players to refrain from using tobacco and alcohol, overeating, and staying out late. For Lambert, basketball served a larger moral purpose of teaching young men self-control, order, and character.
His practices were meticulously organized around learning fundamentals. He drilled the team on the proper techniques of shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, and defense. Controlled and intense, the short, stocky coach paced throughout practice, barking out instructions to his team. During every drill and scrimmage, Lambert demanded precision, enthusiasm, and speed. At a time when most teams played a slow, methodically choreographed, start-and-stop style of basketball, his teams employed a furious fast-break offense. With only a few diagrammed plays, his players exercised freedom within structure, an approach that Wooden later adopted. Lambert's offensive plan was simple: get the ball, run and shoot; then do it again.
As a young coach at Dayton High School in Kentucky, Wooden adopted Lambert's practice methods. In 1932, after graduating from Purdue, he accepted his first job teaching English; coaching basketball, baseball, football, and track; and serving as the school athletic director. His eighteen-hundred-dollar salary was barely enough to support him and his new bride, Nellie Riley, so he played semiprofessional basketball on the weekends for the Kautsky Athletic Club. He quickly learned that playing basketball was much easier than coaching. In his first season as a coach, Wooden's team lost eleven games and won only six. He often lost his patience, disgusted at the sight of errant shots, sloppy passes, and careless mistakes. The following season, with a little more tolerance for error, Wooden focused more on teaching the basics, drilling the players over and over again until they got things right. The Dayton Green Devils showed great improvement, finishing the season 15-3, but it was not enough to keep him in Kentucky.
Excerpted from The Sons of Westwood by JOHN MATTHEW SMITH. Copyright © 2013 John Matthew Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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