- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is tricky. It's uncomfortable. But it's worth discussing anyway.
John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach of all-time, died Friday. The Internet, including on our own blog, was immediately flooded with fond remembrances and heartfelt tributes, all deserved. Wooden was amazing. He wasn't just a basketball coach; he was someone you could look at for advice on how to live. Life's messy and complicated and hard, but like the game of basketball, Wooden mastered it. He defied description. He was the Wizard, a secular saint. The world is a worse place without him.
In other words, I have no interest in denigrating the man's memory. But it is worth discussing the other part of Wooden's legacy, the part that gets lost in the well-trod story of his lifelong brilliance. That other part? When Wooden was at UCLA, UCLA was not a clean program.
This is not news, though fewer people discuss it the more the years go by. Until Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel wrote this column on the eve of UCLA's appearance in the 2006 NCAA title game I had no idea who Sam Gilbert was, or what he had to do with Wooden's glory years at UCLA. But Gilbert was a booster. He furnished championship-era players with cars, clothes, and heaven knows what else, because he had lots of money (some of it allegedly ill-gotten) and he really liked UCLA, I guess. Some have argued that Wooden never knew about Gilbert's gifts, but the coach is on the record as having asked players about the clothes as early as 1969, and it's likely he noticed the excess before then. (Does a man as detail-oriented and intelligent as Wooden miss his amateur players rolling around Westwood in brand new cars? That, uh, seems unlikely.)
This has become the other story of Wooden, especially for detractors of UCLA specifically and the NCAA in general -- yeah, he was great, but he was cheating, too. Which, by the way, heretofore proves that college athletics are always corrupt and that no one, not even one of the greatest men the game has ever known, is above the fray.
Maybe that's true. But that doesn't mean Wooden owes his success to Sam Gilbert.
Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway is spending the entire week reflecting on Wooden's legacy, and Tuesday's rather lengthy post focused on Gilbert. Gasaway studied the history and concluded a couple of important things. One: That pretty much everyone knew about Gilbert's role in the UCLA program, from Wooden to his successors, all of whom, rather than cooperating, worked to keep their players away from the booster. And two: That Wooden would have won without Gilbert's influence anyway:
In short, as amazing as it may sound, it’s possible to recruit about as well as Wooden-era UCLA and not win ten titles in 12 years. Far more extreme than the talent Wooden had at his disposal was the success he achieved with that talent in a sport where championships are awarded to the winner of a single-elimination tournament.
Some have sought to explain that success after-the-fact by saying simply, “Sam Gilbert.” I recommend starting instead with, “Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, and no three-point line.” A quarter-century after the three-point shot’s debut, it’s hard for us to have a proper conception of just how dominant Alcindor, Walton, and their ilk could be in the sport as it was then constituted. [...]
By violating eligibility rules that had long been in place, a generation of Bruin players did cheat, and thus a goodly number of their championships would have been vacated had the NCAA been endowed with both perfect knowledge and the political courage to confront a program led by an esteemed legend like Wooden. At the same time I doubt that non-amateur UCLA truly gained any tangible advantage over their opponents expressly because Sam Gilbert had showered gifts on players who didn’t know who he was until they arrived in Westwood. Gilbert made Wooden’s teams ineligible, not better.
It's an important distinction, and Gasaway, as usual, is adept in making it. There's much less evidence that All-American recruits were funneled to Wooden-era UCLA teams on behalf of Gilbert than there is evidence that once those recruits arrived, Gilbert brought them into the circle. Maybe the word spread. Maybe the player grapevine was deep enough to pass along the news that being at UCLA meant new clothes, new cars, and championships to boot. Maybe the recruiting trips hit a little too close to "He Got Game" for comfort.
But to retroactively stamp the entire Wooden legacy with the word "cheat" doesn't do anyone justice. It exaggerates the reality of the situation, turns it into black and white, inversely simplifies it every bit as much as asserting that Wooden was a perfect man who never did anything wrong.
Wooden taught many lessons, and that was one of them: Nobody's perfect. Sometimes, it's nice to have a reminder.