BOOK REVIEW | "COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURT" BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
photo & text by nacrowe
our world is one that is obsessed with outcomes. profits. awards. medals. statistics. you understand.
legendary former UCLA basketball coach JOHN WOODEN had his share. he coached a record 10 NCAA championship teams (7 of which were in a row). for some perspective, the nearest rival to that record (MIKE KRZYZEWSKI of DUKE UNIVERSITY) has only has 5. WOODEN as a college player was a three time ALL-AMERICAN and later played professionally in the NBL (a predecessor to the modern NBA) some well that he was the first inductee into the NAISMITH BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME as both a player and a coach.
to this day he is routine heralded as the greatest coach in modern western sports. end stop.
but those accomplishments are not where his success lies, as lovingly argued by his former player, NBA legend KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR in his recent book COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURTE (GRAND CENTRAL, 2017) written several years after WOODEN's passing in 2010. for KAREEM, the success of his coach was in his ability to model an almost antiquated sense of morality, compassion and dignity through his actions and interactions with others.
that is not to say that this went without some friction, as KAREEM's playing days at UCLA were in the back half of the tumultuous 1960s, when the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT was in full swing. WOODEN was 37 years KAREEM's senior and was born and grew up a HOOSIER in southern INDIANA, intriguingly at the same time of the INDIANA variant of the KLU KLUX KLAN emerged. luckily his parents raised him to not buy into their racist views but that was part of the cultural milieu he was raised in. KAREEM mentions several times how this generational and cultural divide rendered WOODEN a bit naive regarding the realities of being BLACK in AMERICA. when confronted with such, it crushed and deeply wounded his sense of optimism in his fellow man. but it is to WOODEN's credit, as well as KAREEM's, that they had patience enough for each other to learn from one another and ultimately support each other as lifelong friends.
for me the essence of WOODEN's philosophy regarding team sports, as well as life in general, is the aim of "adapting to each circumstance to achieve the desired outcome - doing good." the game is an afterthought, instead the work and effort you put in and the relationships you develop are of sole value in this equation. and that example was his true impact on his players, not the winning streaks or banners in the rafters.
its a deeply personally and almost spiritual example to set. that of doing good. the KAREEM/WOODEN relationship transcends generational, racial and even religious lines, which is beyond interesting to learn about. i can only imagine what it was like for KAREEM to leave his native NYC a national sports figure as a teenager, especially during that period in AMERICAN history, and needing to lose himself in basketball. in finding a purpose in sports.
it seems that WOODEN allowed him to get outside of himself, find a deeper focus that was not entirely achievement based in nature. it was about developing an identity that was internally strengthened and self-affirmed rather than the result of transitory exterior praise. coach would tell him the futility of seeking outside validation since "if you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it's going to adversely affect the things over which you have control." there is no being better than others, there is only trying your best. and that has value.
later in life KAREEM found that "the process of trying my hardest was joyful [and] what happened afterward to the work, whether triumph or disaster, didnt matter as much." to me this type of philosophy would seem almost cliche and antiquated except for who is saying it. you would be hard pressed to find two individuals that have achieved more on the court than these two, and for them those successes are a distant concern to their own development as compassionate, open and helpful individuals. and all of this would ring hollow if WOODEN didn't walk this walk. even to those he argued and even got angry at in pressure moments, which KAREEM only recounts happening once. after cooling off he considered what was said by a player that called him out the night before in a flight of insubordinate passion, and he realized his player had a point. at the team breakfast he let everyone know to jaws dropped that he thought about what was said and agreed, and further appreciated having said player on his team. it was that type of accountability and self-discipline to self-assess and not let his passions overtake him that won over his players.
KAREEM states upon reflection of his relationship that his playing days "Coach was laying the foundation for lifelong lessons that I interpreted as merely practical information on how to become a better basketball player." this is telling because he wasn't pedantic or overbearing with his lessons. he was instead patient and led by example. as KAREEM sagely writes, it is important to "focus less on following the words and more on being the words."
i love this book not just because it is BASKETBALL, which since childhood has long been my RELIGION, but also just literary aspects of the book. WOODEN was a former ENGLISH teacher, so the fact that he apparently regularly tossed around verses from ROMANTIC POETS during intense practices makes my heart quiver. i also particularly enjoyed KAREEM's metaphor about JAZZ being a broader metaphor for basketball, something WOODEN agreed with when he asserted that "certainly doing anything well requires that first individuals master the fundamentals, then learn to react as a group without thinking about it." the idea that there is sense of play that comes out of preparation and a sense of loosing oneself in a group of individuals seems like as good a recipe as any for success in life.
i am not one for feeling positive about circumstances or mankind in general, especially given the political, economic, environmental, and especially racial problems our country has been dealing with in the past few years. but the idea that a friendship was born out of this odd couple at an equally fraught period in our history does give me pause. and secretly even a little optimistic.