Everyone loves a winner
INDIANAPOLIS – UCLA has the greatest, grandest tradition in college basketball: 11 national championships, 34 first-team All-America selections, an 88-game win streak and on and on. All run by perhaps the most wonderful gentleman the game has ever known, John Wooden.
But then it has this:
"I hate to say anything that may hurt UCLA, but I can't be quiet when I see what the NCAA is doing (to other coaches) only because (they have) a reputation for giving a second chance to many black athletes other coaches have branded as troublemakers. The NCAA is working night and day trying to get (them), but no one from the NCAA ever questioned me during my four years at UCLA."
That quote comes from none other than Bill Walton, maybe the greatest Bruin of them all, in a 1978 book "Bill Walton: On the Road with the Portland Trail Blazers," which went on to detail how Sam Gilbert, a Los Angeles contractor the feds allege made millions laundering drug money, bought a decade worth of recruits for UCLA.
"It's hard for me to have a proper perspective on financial matters, since I've always had whatever I wanted since I enrolled at UCLA," Walton said.
That is the conundrum of UCLA and college sports as the Bruins go for their 12th NCAA title here Monday against Florida.
On one hand, UCLA has a tradition rich with success, class and glory. Good people, great stories, wonderful memories. On the other is the fact the Bruins eviscerated the rule book like no program before or after, but went largely unpunished by a NCAA that wanted no part of taking down its marquee team.
And the truth is, neither image is wrong. And neither one is right. This is college athletics, yesterday, today and probably forever, no matter how sweet the package, now matter how pretty the bow.
It is how Wooden, universally hailed for his remarkable grace and humility, has wound up seemingly beyond reproach. No matter how dirty his program, today he sells books, speeches and financial planning commercials based on his image of trust and honesty.
The question is always why would UCLA have to cheat, what with its tremendous academics, beautiful campus and proximity to talent. But it is telling that it took Wooden, arguably the greatest coach of all time, 15 seasons to win a national title. Before Gilbert got involved and the talent arrived, the Bruins weren't the best. Which ought to tell you what the competition was up to.
Maybe it is Wooden's class that has kept talk of tainted titles to a minimum. But none of this is a secret in basketball. In the late 1970s, after Wooden retired, the Los Angeles Times did an investigation of Gilbert and the NCAA was forced to sanction UCLA, but never vacated any championships. Then there is Walton's book, which couldn't be more damning.
The NCAA never bothered to investigate UCLA during Wooden's time, part of its history of selective enforcement. During the 1960s and '70s, the organization, run by old white men, was too busy going after small, upstart programs that dared to play too many African-Americans, launching inquiries into Texas Western/UTEP, Western Kentucky, Centenary and Long Beach State.
Apparently a team capturing 10 titles in 12 years, putting together undefeated season after undefeated season, recruiting high school All-Americans from all over the country to sit on the bench, yet never having them transfer or declare hardship wasn't enough for it to dawn on anyone at the NCAA that, gee, maybe they're cheating?
But that is your NCAA.
And that is your college athletics, where corner cutting doesn't make a guy a bad person; it makes him a successful coach.
In Wooden's defense, some, including Walton, have argued that he wasn't aware of Gilbert's largesse, or at most just looked the other way. But other coaches in Southern California at the time, most notably Jerry Tarkanian, laugh at that, claiming Gilbert proudly boasted of his payouts. Tark claims Gilbert once offered to pay one of his Long Beach State stars, Robert Smith, just because he liked the way he played.
"You couldn't be more obvious than Sam," said Tarkanian. "He just laughed about it. Everyone in America knew."
Moreover, in a striking 2004 interview with Basketball Times, Wooden described confronting players Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe in 1969 about expensive new clothes he suspected Gilbert had purchased. "Did you get this from Sam Gilbert," he asked. "I don't like this."
"People want to say this is tainted," Wooden told BT, before folding his arms in a rare bit of anger. "I don't care. I don't believe that."
The truth of college athletics is that winning, let alone at the championship level, without rule breaking is nearly impossible. Fans and apologetic media don't want to admit this about the icons of the games, but nothing about this has changed for decades. And it probably never will.
There are no angels in this business, no white hats and black hats as the NCAA would like people to believe with its public relations campaign of a rule book. Everything is a shade of grey. Everything is situational ethics. Everything is pick your poison.
Even the great UCLA legacy. Even the great John Wooden.