Wil Haygood, author most recently of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America,” and scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio), is at work on a book about a high school in Columbus, Ohio.
Athletes rarely write books about their coaches. That relationship — player and coach — is often fraught and adversarial. Rare, also, is the college athlete who devotes time to becoming a writer. It helps mightily, of course, to have a story to tell, a celebrated season of glory or even one of unforgettable heartbreak. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has plenty to tell, and it’s a story of stardom and glory, all against the backdrop of a racially charged America.
Abdul-Jabbar was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who had a phenomenal career at UCLA and then with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. (He remains the National Basketball Association’s all-time leading scorer.) He has since gone on to carve out an eclectic career as essayist, pop-culture critic, commentator and author. He’s written many books, sometimes with a co-author. In “Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court,” he goes it alone in writing about his relationship with John Wooden, his college coach and a legendary figure in his own right.
The UCLA coach and his extraordinary player couldn’t have been more different. Wooden was born in 1910 in Indiana, and like all young whites of his era in that state, he knew the powerful influence of the Ku Klux Klan. He had a decency about himself and concluded that the group of vigilantes was nuts.
Abdul-Jabbar (born Lew Alcindor) was raised in the Harlem section of New York. As a teen, he found himself caught in the throes of the infamous Harlem riot of 1964. A white police officer had shot a black kid dead. (Yes, that story again.) Abdul-Jabbar at the time was already more than seven feet tall. The Harlem scene, all four days of it, was horrific. “Even crouching,” Abdul-Jabbar writes of the riot, “I still hovered over everyone else. I had never been so scared in my life as that night. But I’d also never been so angry at the police, who dismissed the protesters by shouting, ‘Go home!’ Holding up photos of the young victim, protesters hollered back, ‘We are home!’ ”
His college choice — as the most highly recruited high schooler in the country — was UCLA. The West Coast school was seen by many as progressive. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson had attended at a time when most major colleges rarely bothered to recruit black athletes. Abdul-Jabbar entered college in the fall of 1965, an Afro-wearing black hipster. “I was all about fast subways, hot jazz, and civil rights politics,” he writes, and of his coach he adds: “He was John Wooden, a fifty-five-year-old five-foot-ten-inch white man from a hick town in Indiana. He was all about, what? Tractors, big bands, and Christian morals? We were an odd-couple sitcom waiting to happen.”
Abdul-Jabbar didn’t play varsity until his sophomore year because of nationwide NCAA rules at the time, but when he did play, the winning seemed unstoppable, and the reign of national championships began. He perfected his “sky hook” with Wooden’s help. The NCAA nincompoops, however, outlawed the dunk; many felt it was a punishment inflicted on the tall kid from Harlem.
Real life and protest intervened in that la-la land of make believe and running up and down a basketball court. The ’60s, the movement, black power were erupting right alongside the sky hook. For all his decency, and his homilies about winning not being all that important, Wooden most certainly wanted to win. The suffering of the black athlete did not really move him. Abdul-Jabbar touches upon this, but far too delicately. The scenes of fans spearing him with the n-word after games — or in public, with Wooden standing close by in shameful silence — are stomach-churning. Wooden later apologizes in private to his star player about these incidents, but it’s too late indeed. Coaches are teachers, too. “When it came to racism, I thought Coach Wooden had a good heart, but he was on the sidelines in this game,” Abdul-Jabbar admits.
“Friendship” can be a tricky word. There are trade-offs in many human relationships. Abdul-Jabbar became a Muslim; didn’t wish to play in the 1968 Olympics — where Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised a black fist and stirred controversy; and got involved in political causes. They were all moments of his life when Wooden was not very visible. Abdul-Jabbar realizes in these pages that many whites viewed him as some sort of “mythological beast” as they ignored the battles of everyday black lives: “I couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t how Coach Wooden saw me, too.”
Wooden was no Al McGuire, who became the Marquette University basketball coach in 1964 and gained insight into his black ballplayers and the politics of the nation. When many had lashed out at Jim Chones, one of his star black players, for announcing that he was jumping to the pros, McGuire explained that he had looked in Chones’s refrigerator, saw it empty and shoved him out the door toward the pros so he could feed his family. McGuire simply seemed to say: Damn the wickedness of poverty.
Still, even if there is some hagiography in this chronicle, there is much to admire. There is a host of lovely revelations of how player and coach managed to stay in touch and connected after both left the game. Here they are, time and time again, sitting in the coach’s den at his home watching old western movies, talking about aging and life. And sometimes history as it relates to black Americans. Who knew that Wooden could easily quote Langston Hughes?
Wooden lived to be 99 years old. One of his unforgettable players — the tall black kid from Harlem — has bequeathed him an eloquent book about the mysteries of time and remembrance. The coach would be proud.
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Grand Central. 290 pp. $29