When Coach John Wooden was winning 10 national college basketball championships in his last 12 years at UCLA, he was considered a genius -- the best of his time at what he was doing. Even today, 11 years after his retirement, people still listen when the Wizard of Westwood speaks. As the 1986 NCAA tournament got under way at various sites throughout the country this week, Wooden gave an interview to the Monitor in which he said that today's kids are looking for a sense of direction; that college basketball has become too physical; and that most coaches (probably because they are on TV so much) have become the worst kind of actors.
He also provided his own answer to the question of athletes and drug testing. ``If they don't want to be tested, don't let them play,'' he said.
``Having worked with young people all my life, I can tell you for a fact that today's kids are crying out for discipline, and most of the time they aren't getting it,'' Wooden explained. ``They aren't getting the direction they need at home or from most of their teachers. And until we give them the proper standards to live by, we will continue to be a nation whose young people will be in and out of trouble.
``Sometimes I wonder if most people even know what real discipline is,'' continued the man who was a three-time All-American guard at Purdue before graduating in 1932, and who holds the distinction of being a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
``The purpose of discipline isn't to punish but to correct. It's not there to be used to antagonize an individual, but to help and improve him. It's not yelling at someone, because that kind of approach never gets you anywhere. You can only get the response you want by acting fairly and rationally.''
Wooden's teams, like the man who masterminded them, always came prepared. Occasionally they were outscored, but seldom if ever were they outplayed or outhustled. The emphasis was on discipline, hard work, aggressive defense, team play, and getting everyone on the court involved as a unit. Nobody on those UCLA teams ever stood around looking bored. And the proof of the system can be seen in the results: Not only did the Bruins win all those titles, but 24 of their players eventually became first-team All Americans.
Asked about today's brand of college basketball, Wooden replied: ``To me it suffers from two things -- too much physical contact that interrupts the flow of the game and too much individual showmanship. I'm interested in teamwork; in the rhythm of the game; in the beauty of watching a play unfold that eventually leads to a basket.
``If you're big enough and strong enough, anyone can slam-dunk. It isn't hard, and it calls attention to the man doing it. What I see mostly are too many individuals out on the court and not enough team play. And I see coaches who have stopped coaching so they can become actors and get the TV cameras turned on them. Most of them have forgotten what the game and their responsibilities are all about.''
While Wooden was putting together 120 victories in 124 games during one stretch at UCLA, there were the usual stories that anyone could have done it with the kind of material at his disposal. Always there were references to his great centers: Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton.
So how come those great Ohio State teams with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek were able to win only one national title and the University of Kansas never did reach that level with Wilt Chamberlain? Sometimes, even when the material is there, it can't be taught to ride a bicycle built for five.
For those who have often wondered if it isn't easier for a coach to mold five nearly equally talented young men into a championship team than one dominated by a superstar like Abdul-Jabbar or Walton, Wooden has an explanation.
``If Abdul-Jabbar and Walton hadn't been willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team, it could have been very tough on the coach,'' Wooden said. ``But when people of that caliber come in and do everything you ask them in practice, it makes it almost impossible for your other players to give anything less than their best. And in games, the only thing Kareem and Bill ever wanted to do was win.''
Although Wooden refused to name the two National Basketball Association teams that tried to hire him as coach, he was not reluctant to explain how he arrived at his decision to stay with college basketball.
``I was interested in the pros at the time because it seemed like such a big thing,'' said Wooden, who had 620 wins against only 147 losses during 27 years at UCLA. ``Financially, as I told my family, it was a tremendous opportunity, and I could do a lot more for them personally if I took the job.
``But I left the actual decision entirely up to my wife and children,'' he added. ``They talked things over among themselves and decided it would be best for me to stay at UCLA. Of course, I knew when I asked them what their answer would be!''
Wooden's success as a basketball coach was always based on upsetting the tempo and style of his opponents. He did this by creating a running team, by stressing that his players control both backboards, and by keeping team mistakes to a minimum. His teams were also known for the way they continually harassed the man with the ball and how they always seemed to play as hard at the end of a game as they had at the beginning. Unlike most coaches, he never considered scouting opponents a top priority.
Not long ago, I heard Wooden praised to the skies at a luncheon in his honor in Los Angeles. When the microphone was finally passed to him for a few comments, he replied: ``I hope the good Lord will forgive my introducer for overpraising me and me for enjoying it so much!''