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No U.S. team has ever matched UCLA coach John Wooden’s 10 national championships in 12 years, and none ever will. (The Associated Press)

No U.S. team has ever matched UCLA coach John Wooden’s 10 national championships in 12 years, and none ever will.

(The Associated Press)

march madness

An ode to John Wooden, the wizard who conjured greatness at UCLA Add to ...

This is an American story, a heartland tale transplanted to the glam capital Los Angeles, a case of homespun aphorisms and harnessed speed and unparalleled success.

And perhaps it’s an antidote to the slick side of NCAA basketball, where, for all the frenetic fun of March Madness, the top players can’t wait to move on and the only constants are the coaches, pacing and preening for the cameras.

Forty years ago, John Wooden coached his last basketball game, which happened to be the NCAA final. His UCLA Bruins beat Kentucky 92-85 for their 10th national championship in 12 years – their 10th in 12 years – an achievement no team had ever approached and none ever will.

That’s partly a result of Wooden’s coaching prowess and his superior players, and partly a commentary on the change in the American college game. Today’s best blue-chippers wear a university jersey for just one showcase year before donning an NBA-team cap come draft night. Kentucky, say, might be a perennial power, but with a dramatically different cast every season, leaving a dynasty elusive.

In Wooden’s day, the likes of Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton stayed the full four years. Their squads built chemistry, and momentum and gaudy records: In one stretch, the Bruins won 88 successive games, the standard still.

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,” Wooden said.

Wooden, a staid and stern Bible-reader, was always saying things like that (though he did get his share of credit). He was fond of pithy prescriptions, not just for basketball but for life, and despite his nickname, the Wizard of Westwood (after the L.A. neighbourhood UCLA calls home), he never liked the name or looked the part.

“A very quaint-looking Midwesterner,” is Abdul-Jabbar’s recollection of Wooden on their first meeting in the coach’s tiny office. “I’d heard a lot about this man and his basketball wisdom, but he surely did look like he belonged in a one-room schoolhouse.”

This is the heartland part: Wooden was born in rural Indiana and raised mostly on a farm. “It’s fair to say that my primary objective back on our family farm was to beat my older brother Maurice (Cat) in a race around the barn or any other competition we thought up,” he wrote in Wooden on Leadership. “Most of the time I lost …”

He used that competitiveness, though, to star at Martinsville High and at Purdue University, before becoming a high school English teacher and coach, then advancing to the college ranks. By the time he left the Midwest to take over a sagging UCLA program in 1948, he’d also settled on his “Pyramid of Success,” whose blocks included poise, loyalty, confidence, self-control, alertness and initiative.

The pyramid may have pegged Wooden as hopelessly square, but there was no denying his results – an instant turnaround in California. His Bruins captured several conference crowns and, in 1964, the school’s first of back-to-back national championships.

Over the years he won with relatively diminutive teams deploying a full-court press, and he won with Alcindor or Walton dominating inside. His players were skilled, speedy (“be quick, but don’t hurry” was another of his pet sayings) and superbly conditioned. They were disciplined; if they swore, they sat. And success bred success: The brightest schoolboy stars in the land vied to play for corny old coach Wooden.

The rest of us, meanwhile, watched in awe, for the Bruins played the game on a different plane. They were finely tuned racers, these men in blue like a clear L.A. sky (on the occasions there is such a thing) – fast and fluid, meshing like a machine.

And in his 27th and final year at UCLA, when Alcindor and Walton were gone and the star-less Bruins seemed headed nowhere, they won anyway, completing their 10th championship season on March 31, 1975. In the waning seconds, the game finally in hand, the TV camera caught Wooden sitting on the bench – not stalking the sidelines like so many latter-day coaches in their designer suits – still working the refs, but also, in the most constrained Midwestern way, pumping a fist, as if he’d beaten his brother around the barn.

That NCAA triumph was the final piece of the Wooden legend, the capper for coaching sainthood. As Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated wrote in March, 2000: “There has never been another coach like Wooden, quiet as an April snow and square as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one school, one way; walking around campus in his sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart morals.”

Even saints can have sins, if only of omission. There was a Bruins booster who allegedly gave things to players, clothes and cars and the like. Wooden knew the man but said he didn’t know what he was up to. “Maybe I had tunnel vision,” he said. Most people took his word for it, considering Wooden’s entire body of work, as a teacher of basketball and moulder of young men.

John Wooden died in 2010, at age 99. He left behind his extraordinary record and motivational books and many former players who revere his memory and what he taught them. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,” and “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Wooden looked after the details and made big things happen. He was a homily-spouting throwback who perfected the sleekest of sports. He made fustiness refreshing, and winning a happy reward.

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