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Friday, October 12, 2007
Consider the Legacy of John Wooden

I'm roughly a year late to this article.

But it's something really worth knowing about.

John Wooden, in basketball circles, walks on water. He's simply as unimpeachable as one can be.

(A couple of times I have crossed paths with him, and felt compelled to ask him questions, but stop short of "hello," befuddled, not knowing, exactly, how one is meant to approach an oracle.)

It is not without merit. Not only did he win a fantastic number of games, but he even managed to do so as Mr. Straight-Laced, while leading (among others) Mr. Counter-Cultural, Bill Walton.

And I know they had their battles, but Walton loves the guy! That implies a certain pleasing flexibility.

But was that flexibility really there? If you look at the evidence, it's entirely possible that Coach Wooden was about as controlling as any coach has ever been. Was he one of those coaches who stripped all the fun right out of the game?

Is it really reasonable to be against dunks?

In December 2006, on Slate, Tommy Craggs examined how Wooden is revered:

Wooden, now 96, was indisputably a great coach. His teams, always fit and energetic, won a fat load of games and championships. (Though it bears noting that UCLA benefited not only from the services of the best talent of the day, but also from the largesse of an especially oily booster named Sam Gilbert, a moneylender, as it were, whom Coach Christ forgot to cast out of the temple). But it's time we retire this notion of Wooden as basketball's wise old man and see his legacy for what it is: a triumph of rigidity, bureaucracy, paternalism, and anal retentiveness. The sorts of things, in other words, that James Naismith would hate about his game today.

Last month, Wooden was inducted, along with Naismith, into the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Joined forever in hoops iconography and at least superficially alike -- both men of the cloth, both nonsmokers and noncussers -- in reality the two couldn't make an odder pair. Wooden was a relentless taskmaster who counted discipline among the game's most important tenets. He had a hand in everything, from his players' grooming habits down to the wool content of their socks (50 percent). In one incredible passage in his coaching textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, Wooden details the Bruins' eating routine: "The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail. Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best."

But Naismith, as art critic Dave Hickey has noted, was wonderfully Jeffersonian. He set down only five guiding principles-discipline not among them-to govern his game, which he was delighted to point out did not need a coach. The beauty of Naismith's invention is that it foresaw, even insisted upon, its own evolution-why else put the hoop in the air? And why else include, in those earthbound days, a goaltending rule? He once wrote: "Each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me."

Basketball's innate progressive spirit is what makes Wooden's sainthood so galling. Hoophead reactionaries, those joyless old prigs who despair that their game doesn't look more like a Gil Thorp panel, have always found in Wooden a sort of patron saint. Not, say, the late Red Auerbach, a man who won as much in the NBA as Wooden did in the college game. Auerbach, no bleeding heart himself, at least recognized the plates shifting under his feet, and is now credited with ushering the pro game into the modern era.

But Wooden has never budged.

Really encourage you to read the whole article. Interesting stuff.