TEACHER AND PUPIL: John Wooden, right, treated his Black players the same way he did anyone who came in his path – with respect and genuine love. One of his final recruits, Marques Johnson, is one of the most successful former Bruins and a testament to Wooden’s legacy of being excellent on the court and off it. (AP Photo)
From Willie Naulls to Marques Johnson, Wooden respected effort over skin color.
By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor
It’s hard to describe what John Wooden means to America as a coach and teacher. It’s easier to focus on a particular part of his legacy to understand the full measure of who he was.
To Black America, Wooden, who passed away last Friday at 99 years old, was an advocate who respected people over skin color. At a time when most peers like Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and others refused to integrate their programs or feared a backlash, he pursued fairness for all.
His respect of play over color was evident during his playing days when he faced the New York Rens in the 1930’s. Unlike the Harlem Globetrotters, the Rens played a fundamentally sound style but still attracted thousands to watch them play in barnstorming tours around the country.
They left quite an impression on Wooden, then an All-American and National Player of the Year at Purdue.
“To this day, I’ve never seen a team play better team basketball,” he said in an excerpt from the NBA Encyclopedia “The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”
A decade after facing the Rens, he took another stand against injustice during his first coaching stint at Indiana State.
In 1947, he refused an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) National Tournament because of their policy banning Black players. His own team had a Black player in Clarence Walker.
The next season, Indiana State qualified for the tournament and with the NAIB policy reversed, they reached the championship game with Walker.
In the state known as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, John Wooden was not afraid to fight against the prevailing wisdom of the day. He honored the principles of his father to live humbly and treat all people with respect.
It was his wisdom that blossomed as a young man and carried over to UCLA, where he became a legend despite a time of great social upheaval in the country.
His early teams started with great players like Willie Naulls and future Olympic gold medalists Rafer Johnson, while his first championship team of 1964 had Fred Slaughter and Final Four MVP Walt Hazzard leading the way.
During the peak of Wooden’s reign during the ’60s, he won with Lucius Allen and arguably the greatest offensive force in college basketball history in Lew Alcindor. Despite changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wooden always called him Lewis and like any teacher, he found much to learn from one of his most successful players.
“I learned a lot about man’s humanity to man from Lewis and saw what he had to go through more than any other individual player I ever had,” Wooden told the Sentinel in 2007. “It was a joy to have him as a ballplayer, but it was a joy to have him as a person too.”
At the end of his dynasty, he found great players from the inner city in Curtis Rowe (Fremont) and Sidney Wicks (Hamilton). But his last find was his greatest.
In 1973, Marques Johnson was fresh off being named City Section Player of the Year after leading Crenshaw High School to the City championship. He was the first star of the Willie West era and the eyes of a community were on him as one of Wooden’s last recruits.
Johnson retold the story of how Wooden contacted him after the 1973 title game to help finalize his recruitment
“Coach Wooden called me and asked if I was watching the game,” Johnson said to FOXSports.com. “I told him I was. He was like, ‘Well, we want you to be a part of this next year.'”
Johnson proved his value right away as a sophomore starter on Wooden’s last title team in 1975. He led the team in rebounding his final two seasons and scoring as a senior en route to being named a consensus All-American and the first winner of John R. Wooden Award as National Player of the Year.
He was also an Academic All-American as a senior, a tribute to Wooden expecting his players to be successes off the court.
After a successful 11-year NBA career that included five All-Star selections and three All-NBA selections, Johnson is among the most visible ex-Bruin players due to his duties as an analyst on Fox Sports Network and brief acting career.
For many in the inner city, he’s a representation of Wooden’s legacy. Two of his sons – Kris and Josiah – followed in his footsteps at UCLA, a tribute to what the university and his coach stood for.
John Wooden means many things to many people. But to Black America, he should be remembered as a man of fairness and equality who learned as much from his players as he taught them.
From Willie Naulls and Fred Slaughter to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lucius Allen, Curtis Rowe, Marques Johnson and more, they loved Coach Wooden like a father figure and continue to be living testaments to his character.