“Triumph and disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a man of conviction.”
– John Wooden
For some reason, whenever we debate who’s the greatest basketball player of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is rarely mentioned.
I wonder why that is.
His resume is as good (if not better) than anyone who’s ever played. He won three straight national titles at UCLA, compiling an 88-2 record in college. He is a six-time NBA MVP, a six-time league champion and oh yeah, he’s also the game’s all-time leading scorer. Take that for data.
In his latest book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, Kareem reminds us that history is to be appreciated and so are the influential people who change the course of it.
If we’re lucky enough in our time on this earth, we meet people along the way who change our lives for the better. For Lew Alcindor, John Wooden was that person. That’s not to say that Alcindor wouldn’t have become the greatest to ever play college (and perhaps) professional basketball without him but John Wooden most assuredly gave him a nudge in the right direction.
Coach Wooden and Me is Kareem’s thank you card.
The book begins with Kareem at an autograph signing, one of thousands he’s attended over the years. He encounters a man waiting in line who holds two very special pictures, ones he hadn’t seen in ages. These pictures adorn the front and back pages of the book.
The first photo is of a young Alcindor and Wooden, “black-and-white, that accurately defined [their] rigid relationship. The second photo, with its rich and warm colors and candid appearance, more accurately reflected the depth of [their] friendship. [Their] two hands – one fragile and one strong, one white and one black – entwined.” In the first, Wooden leads Alcindor on the court, coaching, teaching. In the latter, Abdul-Jabbar escorts an aging Wooden off it.
This is their tale. It’s an enriching, heart-warming story well-told as we have come to expect from Abdul-Jabbar, who has written countless books and articles not to mention being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All-time leading NBA scorer, three-time national champion, six-time NBA champion, celebrated author, actor, a medal from the President of the United States AND he dated Pam Grier? That’s not a bad career if you can get it.
Kareem will humbly tell you he owes most of his success to Wooden. Even though Kareem is not sitting aside Wooden’s hospital bed for the book’s entirety (it traces back to their very first meeting), the book reads like Tuesdays with Morrie, except in this case, Morrie is the greatest basketball coach who ever lived and the guy writing the memoir was of equal talent on the court. Kareem eloquently and lovingly recalls fifty years with his mentor, a fitting tribute to a man who shaped his life.
But Kareem’s and Wooden’s story isn’t all roses. There were trials and tribulations along the way. Coach Wooden and Me is a revealing trip back to Kareem’s college days, the civil rights era, a time of American struggle and “racial turmoil” that molded Kareem into the activist he remains to this day. Here’s another forgotten fact. John Wooden’s initial salary at UCLA was six thousand dollars a year. Part of his duties included sweeping the gymnasium floor.
Kareem tells tales from the heart, like how he was shaken when his high school coach, whom he once held in high regard, called him “nigger” in front of the entire team and how later in life Wooden recognized that pain and reconciled the relationship between the two. Uncoincidentally, a young Lew Alcindor also opened Wooden’s eyes to issues of race. As it turns out, they learned from one another, the foundation of any rock-solid relationship.
These two men could not have been more alike yet different. Both were huge baseball (and obviously basketball) fans but one was an old school, white man from the Midwest, “it was almost as if he had grown up in a painting Norman Rockwell would call corny,” and the other was an abnormally tall, lanky, black kid from New York City. “We were an odd-couple sitcom waiting to happen.” Together, they would change the game as we know it.
Kareem is a story-teller, gentle and honest. He calls Wooden his “moral lighthouse” for who knows if or how Kareem would have strayed in times of great strife had it not been for Wooden to keep him grounded.
The book is filled with quips and quotes from Wooden that keep you wondering how he consistently came up with so many words of wisdom. He was book smart, learned and boasted a “modesty that bordered on monkishness.” His character was undeniable and unquestioned; his legacy on the game may never be equaled.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might not be the greatest basketball player ever depending on where you put him in your own personal argument but his relationship with Coach Wooden cannot be denied, nor can their places in history. This is their story. Coach Wooden and Me is a compelling and compassionate compilation of both public and private moments shared by two giants, one literal, one figurative. It is a fitting tribute to the greatest basketball coach the college game has ever known and is written by the man best equipped to tell the tale.