(Recorded in February 2003)
John Wooden: The Wizard
He’s still quick, but never in a hurry. The greatest basketball coach of all time admires Gonzaga, dislikes the dunk and loves his oatmeal.
Pete Newell, the great coach and teacher of big men, says that today there is a new generation of coaches who never learned essential basketball fundamentals who are coaching a generation of players who will consequently never know those fundamentals. Is he right about that?
Well certainly I wouldn’t disagree with him because I think he’s one of the finest coaches the game has ever had. And, I don’t think as much time is spent on the fundamentals as many of the coaches like Pete once did. However, the athleticism of the players is superior than it used to be and so I feel that coaches have a tendency to let ‘em go on their own so much and let ‘em do many things we didn’t permit them to do. That is a concern for me. I believe it’s more of a show now than just fundamental basketball in many respects.
Is that good for the game of basketball?
Well if you’re thinking it’s for spectator, yes, because they continue to draw more and more. I think that would certainly be true from the professional point of view. I don’t think it should be true for collegiate, but it is.
The great Oscar Robertson recently criticized the NBA in the New York Times article, saying: “I pity coaches at any level who believe in and want to teach fundamentals, when youngsters see players on TV with no fundamentals being paid huge sums of money.” Therefore, he says, the NBA has been reduced to 3-pointer and dunks, with little else in between. I know you share his dislike for 3-pointers and dunks, but are fundamentals gone in NBA?
The fundamentals have to be taught at the interscholastic and intercollegiate levels. They’re not teaching fundamentals when they reach the pro level. I don’t think there can be that much teaching as far as fundamentals — not that there isn’t any teaching because there is. But I don’t believe that they can change the fundamentals that the players have by the time they get them at the professional level. Remember the pros is definitely based on the income. They want to let the stars travel a little more and they enjoy the fancy stuff because the spectators do.
If a twelve year old child wanted to learn basketball, which level of play would you tell him to watch?
I would tell him to watch probably the collegiate more than any other. Although he’s going to get it at the interscholastic level too. I think that some of the absolute best teaching is done at the interscholastic level. There’s no better basketball teacher in the world than Morgan Wooten Dematha High School. But there are many others just like that. They’re going to see the collegiate level more and I think they should pick out certain teams at the intercollegiate level.
Well, many of them people don’t know about because their not in the limelight but there’s no question that Mike Krzyzewski’s teams at Duke are always fundamentally sound. I think right now I don’t see many more fundamentally sound than Mike Montgomery’s at Stanford.* There are just so many not in the limelight. Out there on the coast this think Mark Few — his teams are so fundamentally sound — that’s why they’re doing so well at Gonzaga. Now this is not to say that you’re not seeing it in many of the top named coaches but think I the better the players are individually from their own athleticism the more difficult it is to teach them to accept the fundamentals.
It’s a shame it’s not the other way around.
Yes it is.
You’ve often said you enjoy watching the women’s game more than the men’s. Why?
I say they play the purest game. They play below the rim instead of above the rim. I think the ball handling and spacing I see is a little better – this is the better teams I’m talking about – than I see in the men’s.
What is your greatest fear for the future basketball?
Not just for basketball but for sports in general is that I see it becoming more of an athlete-student that a student-athlete. And that’s my greatest fear. I think with the president’s of the universities permitting freshman eligibility and a number of things they permit now, I think that would be my greatest fear.
What is your greatest hope for the future of basketball?
(pauses, chuckles) You kinda got me thinking here now. I would say to get back to more absolute stress on team play and not so much the individual showmanship. That would be my greatest hope. But that might makes things quite different. For example I never liked the dunk. I think it’s primarily showmanship. And yet, now and then when I speak, I ask “How would you like to see the dunk abolished?”, and I’ll bet there wouldn’t be over ten percent. Ten percent would be very high. Because they enjoy it. Things are based on money, unfortunately. And, you’ve got to get the spectators to come. And, they like things like that.
In the morning do you prefer cold cereal or hot cereal?
I prefer hot cereal!
Yes, I do.
Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat?
Oatmeal. I also like Wheaties and others, but I prefer hot cereal.
One of your most famous quotes of many famous quotes is “Be quick but don’t hurry.” What does it mean?
When you hurry you’re more apt to make mistakes. But you have to be quick. If you’re not quick you can’t get things done. Those that hurry, in so doing, will get off balance. And balance is perhaps the second most important word we have. It has to be physical, mental and moral balance in everything. So when I say be quick but don’t hurry that means you’ve got stay under control and you’ve got to execute quickly, or you might not get to into it at all. I think many teams hurry to try to make up when they get behind and when you hurry you often time fall father behind. You’ve got to still just play your game but you’ve got to be quick.
Pick one player, pro or college, to who you would like to tell this?
(pause) I don’t want to single out an individual that way. Two of the players that retired from pro recently are two of my very favorite players and they didn’t have to be told that. One was John Stockton and the other was David Robinson.
You coached two of the greatest centers ever: Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They competed at the championship level in the NBA -
And they enjoyed it!
How did you enjoy watching them compete?
Well (laughs — a bit devilishly) I enjoyed watching them. I thought it was great.
I always felt Walton really knew how to play Jabbar. How did you feel they matched up?
I often said Jabbar — who I still call Lew Alcindor — I think he’s been the most valuable of college players. But if you took all the fundamentals — passing, shooting, rebounding, outlet, defense — and rated them on a 1-10 basis I’m not sure Bill wouldn’t be higher. When healthy he may be at the very top of the list if you took all the centers.
In your last NCAA finals and final game, 1975, you beat heavily favored Kentucky 92-85, using only one player off the bench, a seven-footer named, Ralph Drollinger who had the finest game of his career. I thought that was one of the best coaching performances ever I ever saw. What was the best game you feel you ever coached?
Well certainly that had to be one of the best. And perhaps another one was the second game we played against Houston in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament (1968) after they’d beaten us in the Astrodome earlier that year. We lead them at one time in that game by forty points. This was the same team that had beaten us earlier in Houston by 2 points. In that game there was tremendous balance. I think our five starters all had between 15-18 points. And our defense was tremendous until the point we had the game way out of reach. Incidentally that game you mention about Kentucky, I believe that’s the only game I ever taught — at either the high school or collegiate level — where I let four players play 40 minutes and only made one substitution.
Was that your plan all along?
No it wasn’t my plan all along. But I knew we were in good condition, and I thought were quicker than they were. And as long we were doing alright I was not going to break it up.
That tournament win against Houston in 1968 avenged an earlier season loss to Houston that broke UCLA’s 47-game winning streak. Have you forgiven Elvin Hayes?
Oh he had a great game, there’s no question. You like to see players have great games even though they get ya at times. I recall a game my last year against Montana State. First round of the tournament they had a little guy who had a great game against us. I think he got 37 points or so. Here I am pulling for him. I want him to do well, but I don’t want them to beat us. In that Houston game Elvin just had a great game. I thought the most difficult person to play against was Bill Russell. I think he’s the most valuable pro that’s ever played. Not the best, but the most valuable. He changed the game.
How did he do that?
Well, he got ‘em playing defense. He got other players to become better defensive players because they knew if their man got away they’ve got Bill behind them. He just changed the game. Auerbach — if you look back on his record — I don’ think Boston won much or came close to winning until they got Bill Russell. You bring in Bill Russell and you win championship after championship.
The championship is the most important statistic on the page isn’t it?
I think so. That’s what everyone is aiming for to begin with. But you don’t think of it just as that. You think of it game by game. You’d like to get to that point but if you start looking ahead to much you’re not going to get there. You gotta take things day by day.
As a coach you won 10 NCAA championships, 7 consecutive NCAA championships and 38 consecutive NCAA tournament victories. You know a lot about the NCCA tournament. You ever participate in a March Madness pool?
Oh no, no never. Never.
I look for teams to do well in the tournament that have just won their conference tourney because they have momentum. What do think about that theory?
Well unfortunately I would disagree with you. (laughs) I think the conference tournaments at the end of long season can be a detriment going on into the NCAA Tournament — particularly when you have to win the conference to get into the tournament. Though you don’t have to do that so much anymore. Now you can finish fifth or sixth in your conference and get in.
You’ve often said basketball is just small part of a full and magnificent life. Sure enough. But looking back, could you have seen yourself professionally doing anything else but basketball?
Oh yes! I went to Purdue originally to be a civil engineer. That’s what I wanted to be. If they’d had athletic scholarships in my day that’ what I would’ve done. But I didn’t know you had to go to civil camp every summer. I didn’t find that out until the end of my freshman year. So I changed to a liberal arts course and majored in English. I enjoyed teaching English in high school. I honestly feel and very deeply feel that if I hadn’t enlisted in the service in World War II, I would have never left the high school where I had been teaching for a few years . I was an English teacher. They didn’t hire coaches then. They hired teachers with a single salary. You might have to teach one less class a day to coach. I enjoyed that. I think I would’ve enjoyed just teaching English even without being involved in athletics but I thoroughly enjoyed the athletic part of it too.
The English teaching profession’s loss was basketball’s immeasurable gain.
You’re very kind.