So much of John Wooden's legacy stems from building college basketball's greatest dynasty by instilling discipline in his players and emphasizing teamwork over individual heroics that occasionally other aspects of his life are overlooked.
Among those is his impact in race relations.
He declined a bid to the 1946 NAIA tournament while coaching at Indiana State because the lone African-American player on the team wasn't permitted to play. He connected with players of all races, backgrounds and belief systems at UCLA using his Midwestern values and homespun sense of humor. And he annually helped black and white players come together for a common purpose in an era of great racial tension in the United States.
To honor Wooden's impact on diversity in sports, the UCLA Black Alumni Association will have several of his former players speak at an event on Saturday before screening a film featuring a never-before-seen interview with the legendary coach. Proceeds from the event will raise money for a scholarship fund for black students at UCLA, an important cause to Wooden after African-American enrollment at the school dwindled to its lowest point in decades in 2006.
Ex-UCLA star and current Fox Sports analyst Marques Johnson is one of the organizers of Saturday's event. He spoke with me Thursday about why it was important to Wooden to get involved and about some of his memories of how Wooden cultivated a strong bond among players of different backgrounds.
JE: How did you persuade Coach Wooden to get involved in this event?
MJ: Sporting News named him the greatest college coach of all time, so they had a reception luncheon in Encino about a year and a half ago. I was seated next to Coach and I mentioned what we were doing and asked if I could get him involved in some small way. He was very enthusiastic about participating, so that's when myself, my sons Kris and Josiah and (former UCLA guard) Quinn Hawking, we got to go out and interview him and get his feelings on the subject of diversity and race relations.
JE: Describe your conversation with Coach Wooden. What subjects will viewers see him discuss in the film?
MJ: We visited him at his condo in Encino, sat down with him for about 45 minutes and just got some great stuff. He talked about being exposed to the first couple black families that moved into Martinsville, Ind. in the 30s. He talked about his connection with Negro League players when he played semi-pro baseball. And the most important thing he talked about was the Clarence Walker story. When he was at Indiana State, he had a black player named Clarence Walker who was the seventh or eighth man off the bench. They got into the NAIA tournament in Kansas City and the committee refused to let a black player come, so Coach Wooden refused to take his team. The same thing happened the following year, so he was going to boycott the tournament again until some NAACP people told coach to bring Clarence down there, they'd find housing for him and feed him and Coach relented and took him on the trip. But that was the first stance he took in a race-related scenario/
JE: Why do you think Coach Wooden was willing to stand up for Clarence Walker in an era in which many other coaches might not have?
MJ: What he basically said was that he always preached about how there was no individual that was more important than the team, so what I got from it was that it would have hypocritical of him to preach, "team, team, team" and then all of a sudden have one of the team members excluded. I told him, 'Coach, this guy wasn't a starter, you weren't dependent on him for success or failure.' He said, 'Yeah, but he was part of my team. Either my whole team or I wasn't taking them.'"
JE: One thing that has stood out to me from conversations with you and other former UCLA players is how Coach Wooden used his sense of humor to bring guys of different races and backgrounds together. Was that one of his biggest tools as a coach?
MJ: It's funny you mention it because I often tell the story of what happened in practice in Nov. 1973. A bunch of black players were shooting at one end of the floor and the other group happened to be all white. It just kind of shook out that way. It wasn't deliberate on our part. And coach Wooden told Tommy Curtis, 'Hey Tommy, you think you can go down and integrate that group down there,' and he pointed to the white guys. Everybody kind of got a tickle out of that. I don't know what was going through his mind, but the way he handled it, it kind of broke everybody up and we laughed like crazy.
JE: What other examples can you recall of Coach Wooden's humor helping him relate to different guys?
MJ: Coach Wooden would have everybody on the team get these haircuts, and remember hair was part of our identities. The bigger the hair, the better. But for the white guys, it couldn't grow below their ears. For the black guys, the afros could only be a certain length. But as black players, we would wet our hair so it would shrink and then we'd pack it down as much as possible. He would walk by me, run his hand through my hair and a big glob of hair would shoot up showing it's real length. He'd look at me with a smile or a little funny frown on his face and shake his head. He didn't have to say a word, and you knew that a haircut was soon in the making.
JE: Do you agree that his ability to unite guys of different backgrounds in that era might be one of the more overlooked aspects of his legacy?
MJ: Without question. It was a volatile era with the cities burning, the protests going on, the anti-war movements and the demonstrations. You think about the era and all the craziness going on at the time. Disrupting the status quo was the biggest thing going on at that time, and nobody could be more status quo and conservative-minded than John Wooden. He was this christian, straight-laced guy with all these wannabe-rebels on his basketball team of many races and beliefs, but because of the example he set, you knew that there was so much integrity with him as a person that you never thought of going against the grain with him.
JE: Were there any instances of racism that you recall during your playing days, and how did he handle those?
MJ: Not when I was there, but the one that stands out to me is the handling of Kareem Abdul Jabbar. They were together in Westwood, and it's interesting to hear the two of them and their memories of the episode. Kareem remembers, a lady saying, '"ook at that big, black N-word" and Coach Wooden remembers it as, "Look at that big black freak." It was interesting to hear the back and forth between the two of them discussing the incident in this film. Kareem thought it was racially-tinged. Coach Wooden thought it was Kareem's overall size that intimidated people and had them act out of character. He tried to assuage Kareem, who he knew to be emotionally sensitive about his size and sensitive about the racial issues at the time. He didn't want him to get upset and turn it into a major situation.
JE: Anything else you'd like to share before I let you go?
MJ: This event was something Coach Wooden was really enthusiastic about at a point when he was 98, 99 years old. I think he embodies this whole aspect of people of different backgrounds, beliefs, sizes, shapes and colors being able to come together and find some common ground. His big thing was family, being a strong unit. And in a lot of ways, as a UCLA basketball player who played under Coach Wooden, I'm a family member of Kareem or Bill Walton or guys that played long before me. To me that's the embodiment of the spirit of Coach Wooden. He was a teacher first. He always imparted some type of knowledge that made people better in some fashion. To be able to do something like this for a cause like this, it fits perfectly with the way he lived his life.