UCLA Bruins basketball is a shadow of its former self right now, and the rumors we hear about poor discipline and lack of leadership are very troubling to those of us who helped build the extraordinary tradition of achievement that defined the John Wooden era. The challenge for UCLA is one of recognizing the best way to restore the focus on the ideals that were central to Coach's success. It is no easy task, but until it happens, those of us who bleed Bruin Blue will feel an extreme sense of loss.
At various times over the past year, I've had personal conversations with other former Bruins players such as Keith Erickson, Mike Lynn, Kenny Washington and Lucius Allen, and we would speculate about the reasons for the decline of UCLA basketball.
In the past, even when UCLA wasn't expected to win it all, the Bruins were taken seriously as contenders. The teams of the past couple of years have not lived up to those expectations and have been a disappointment for UCLA fans who expect more because of the incredible history of the program.
Unfortunately, the downside of human conduct has now become a prominent part of what the UCLA basketball program is all about. The recent Sports Illustrated article in the news last week details some really poor conduct on the part of several UCLA players and some questionable decisions by coach Ben Howland. Coach Howland was able to get the Bruins hoopsters into the Final Four in three of his first five seasons as coach, but after those early successes, the program has gradually declined to the point where it has become a non-entity in the Pac-12.
The initial achievements of Howland's teams came on the strength of athletes who were hard-working, humble individuals who bought into the coach's leadership style and played the game with an emphasis on teamwork. They played for each other in the unselfish way that Coach Wooden taught the game. More recently, the program chose to recruit players who were very gifted athletes but lacked the maturity and discipline that makes for good team play.
According to SI, Reeves Nelson was the poster boy for this trend. People who witnessed his conduct both on and off the court say he was a bully who defied his coach and physically intimidated his teammates. Howland was said to have tolerated this type of behavior because the talent Nelson brought to the program was worth the damage he caused to team unity and the reputation of the program. Quotes from Coach Howland suggest he feels he might not have made the best decisions when dealing with disruptive players.
When I was on the New York Knicks' staff, I had the opportunity to interact with Trevor Ariza. Trevor felt he did not fit in Coach Howland's system very well, so he left for the NBA instead of trying to deal with his coach's way of doing things. He indicated that if he had to deal with a personality such as Howland's, he preferred to get paid for doing so. This trend appeared to continue as the program recruited more players who would rather leave than deal with Coach Howland's personality.
It's been reported that some players who joined the program became involved in various types of substance abuse and showed no respect for the coaching staff. The ideals of the Wooden era could not survive in this type of climate, and in a short period of time, the program was not winning games or the hearts of Bruins fans.
I know that rebellion is part of the growing-up process. It shouldn't surprise anyone that young men in every athletic program test the limits of discipline. Many times, they go too far and hurt themselves and the college they represent. I am very much aware of this trend because I went through the same process. I was fortunate enough to have Coach Wooden's example to emulate and his direct guidance to help me pull back from the edge.
Coach Wooden enjoyed the time he spent with his players. During these times, he was able to get to know them and engage in the mentoring role that really was his primary objective in coaching. So many of today's college hoopsters have no real desire to graduate from college. That makes for a very reduced window of time to impart the life lessons that were so important to Coach Wooden.
It doesn't seem that Coach Wooden's wisdom has survived his passing. He was one of a kind. It will be nearly impossible to replace him, but the values he established should be foremost in the minds of those who run the UCLA program.
The story of how Coach Wooden was completely comfortable with letting Bill Walton leave the team if he didn't want to conform to the rules (short haircuts) that were part of his regimen is a great example of how he put the integrity of the program over the demands of a star player.
Howland has not earned a reputation for being a nurturing type of coach who caters to the players. If I were in Coach Howland's position, I would have cleaned house much earlier, eliminating players who did not respect other players or the coaching staff. That type of attitude is something a coach cannot tolerate if he wants to maintain control of his team. Self-control is one of the key disciplines that coaches must teach. It is essential for any sport.
I know we cannot demand that Coach Howland transform himself into Coach Wooden, but Coach Wooden's ideals are a great starting point for a revival of UCLA's unique legacy.
As a former UCLA Bruin, these recent problems in the program add to the very tough moments I've been through during the past year.
For me, it started last March with the death of my good friend and former teammate Edgar Lacey. I had reconnected with Edgar after a gap of some 30 years. Unfortunately we were not able to see each other face to face before Edgar died unexpectedly. We had been close and had developed an ongoing friendship that started when we were high school All-Americans who appeared together on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1963. Edgar went on to attend UCLA and played on the NCAA championship team of 1965. That fall, I enrolled at UCLA, looking forward to having a first-rate experience as a student and an athlete.
Edgar's path, at that point, became a rocky road. He had a knee injury during the '65-66 season and did not get back on the team until the '67-68 season. Coach Wooden decided to adjust the rotation that year to make room for Lynn Shackelford, which severely cut Edgar's playing time; he reacted strongly. Finally, after feeling that he had been snubbed and had not played enough minutes in UCLA's loss to Houston in the Astrodome, Edgar quit the team and never returned. Coach Wooden regretted the way he handled the situation with Edgar for the rest of his life.
Then in November of last year, Walt Hazzard, the hero of UCLA's first NCAA championship in 1964, died after a long decline. He had a stroke in 1996, and in June 2011, he was placed in intensive care at the UCLA Medical Center. I got a chance to visit him in October, and I was shocked to see how much his health had deteriorated. At that point, he had only a few more weeks to live. Walt led a charmed life because he was able to live his dreams as a parent, a player and a coach. After his funeral, we had a wonderful celebration of his life at a memorial service. Coach Wooden, who passed on in June 2010, is always on our minds, and especially so that day as we reviewed the highlights of Walt's wonderful career as a player and his successes as a parent and a coach.
When I first entered the NBA, I was fortunate to have friends like Walt. He would come to the hotel where my team, the Milwaukee Bucks, was staying and take me to his home for a great meal prepared by his wife, Jaleesa. We shared a love of jazz and black history, and would share books and albums. The tips on NBA life that he gave me were very helpful.
These setbacks, although sad, were unavoidable, and those of us in the Bruins family had to accept them because they are part of the ebb and flow of life. Death is a part of what we all must deal with on our journey through this world. For the UCLA basketball program, I am hoping for a rebirth.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's career leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books, is an ESPN.com columnist. Recently, he was appointed as a U.S. global cultural ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. His official website is www.kareemabduljabbar.com, and you can follow him @KAJ33 on Twitter and at Facebook.com/KAJ.