John Wooden, the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team just turned ninety-nine. Wooden coached the UCLA team from 1948 to 1975 and won ten National Championships in a span of 12 years, including 7 in a row from 1967 to 1973, a feat so unimaginable today it seems more myth than fact. As a college player, Wooden was a three-time consensus All-American, the first ever, and spent several years playing in the early professional leagues while simultaneously coaching high school teams. During one 46-game stretch as a pro he made 134 consecutive free throws. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He never made more than $35,000 a year as the UCLA coach, and never asked for a raise.
Wooden said: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” and “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”
In an interview with him on the day before his 99th birthday, he was lucid and wry, and made a fervent wish that “they” wouldn’t do anything special for his birthday. “If I make it to a hundred, well, okay.”
Among Wooden’s many famous protégé’s was Lew Alcindor who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. We often hear superlatives connected to the superstars of today, but none of them single-handedly changed the game of basketball as Alcindor did. Few remember that when Alcindor began his college career at UCLA, freshmen were not permitted to play on varsity teams. Alcindor’s freshman squad played the UCLA varsity squad, the number one-ranked team in America, and beat them 75-60. Alcindor scored 51 points, many of his baskets dunks.
As a result of this overwhelming display of his dominance, and before Alcindor could join the varsity squad as a sophomore, the NCAA banned the dunk in college basketball, a ban that was lifted three years later when Alcindor graduated and turned pro. That’s right. They imposed a national ban to contain one specific player. But even without the dunk, Alcindor was so dominant (and seven-foot two inches tall) that for the first time in the history of basketball, referees allowed defenders to constantly foul another player (Alcindor) to keep him from scoring. I am absolutely certain that when defenders were given the green light to hold and push and hack Alcindor, the game of basketball began its swift devolution to the completely different game we have today.
Basketball was invented as a non-contact sport in 1892. And by non-contact, I mean No Contact. No touching; something hard to imagine as one watches the physicality of today’s pro and college games. When I played basketball in high school in 1964, we were stringently coached that any contact with the player we were guarding was a foul. Any touching at all, even a slap on the wrist, was a foul. The only permissible contact was when players bumped each other going for a rebound. If you went over somebody’s back or intentionally pushed another player to get a rebound, you were committing a foul. Five fouls and you were out of the game.
I played on the university team in the early days of UC Santa Cruz. We played in an industrial league that included Sylvania, a cannery, a meat packing company, a couple taverns, and a Bible college. No contact allowed. Good referees. Big fun. When I dropped out of college, I continued to play in pickup games and on city league teams wherever I lived. Then in 1974 I moved to Eugene, Oregon and encountered the newest kind of basketball, a dangerously violent game wherein if I dared call a foul when someone shoved me or punched me, I might get punched again.
As it happened, John Wooden was in his next to last year as coach at UCLA when I lived in Eugene, and he seriously considered forfeiting the Eugene game with the University of Oregon because “the kamikaze kids”, as the Oregon team was nicknamed, might seriously injure one or more of the UCLA players as part of their game strategy. Yikes. I soon discovered that such intentional violence had taken hold in the gymnasiums and on the playgrounds of Eugene, along with another truly absurd wrinkle in the game: legal traveling. Traveling in basketball refers to a basketball player carrying the ball several steps without dribbling the ball, a thing that used to be verboten. But in Eugene, players were suddenly taking several steps with the ball before shooting or passing, and the few times I called someone for traveling I was threatened with bodily harm.
I am not a large person, and one of the supreme joys of the original game of basketball came from knowing that the rules protected me from having to go mano a mano with anyone, let alone someone a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller. Finding these protective rules removed, I spent the remainder of my year in Eugene shooting hoops solo or playing volleyball with a net separating me from my opponents.
John Wooden was horrified by this sea change in the game he loved, and he became a vocal advocate of raising the height of the hoop from ten feet to at least eleven feet, and the addition of a new rule: when the shooting team got a rebound, the rebounding player had to make a pass before that team could take another shot. He tried using this new rule with his teams in scrimmages, and sure enough, much of the bullying big man domination was neutralized.
But Wooden’s suggestions came too late, as size and brute strength and dunking became all the rage in college and pro ball, and by the time Magic Johnson played one year of varsity college ball as a freshman and then turned pro in 1979, the old game was dead. Magic was six-foot nine inches tall, and played guard, the little guy’s position.
In 2008, the NBA added yet another new rule to professional basketball: players who have the ball low in the key, within five feet of the hoop, can charge and knock over any player between them and the hoop without being called for a foul. They’ve even painted a No Charge Will Be Called stripe in the lane to mark the magic boundary. This ridiculous new rule allows huge players like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James to use their enormity to shove or scare defenders out of their way. Violence has now been officially written into the professional rules, along with allowing players more and more steps without dribbling prior to a dunk. This new dunking protocol facilitates more spectacular dunks, which are now the most popular part of the professional game.
As a teenager, basketball was my escape from an unhappy home, and as a young adult basketball was a big part of my social life. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent shooting hoops from age twelve to forty I could buy a nice new Japanese pickup truck. Two of my eight published books are novels with basketball as backdrop to the human comedy, which is to say the devolution of what was once my favorite sport saddens me. My novels Ruby & Spear and Inside Moves can be purchased for mere pennies, and I mean a few coppers, from myriad used bookseller on the internet.
For many of us who knew the game thirty years ago, today’s professional games are fairly redundant variety shows of semi-staged performances by amazingly gifted athletes, but not often contests between whole teams. And as the pros play, so do the young players who watch them. I recently gave a ride to a tall young man hitchhiking with a basketball under his arm. We began to speak about the game, but within a sentence or two, I realized he might as well be Russian and I Turkish, with no common language regarding the game, so we fell silent.
I have a friend with whom I used to avidly play basketball. For the last twenty years, he has been playing basketball four mornings a week at the YMCA in Sacramento with a bunch of guys who play by the old non-contact rules. He says the game continues to be a fabulous workout and a supreme blast, and I am deeply jealous.
Todd’s web site is underthetablebooks.com