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The Wizard And the Giant
SETH DAVIS
January 13, 2014
AS PLAYERS GREW MORE REBELLIOUS IN THE LATE 1960S, UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN HAD TO LOOSEN HIS GRIP—MOST NOTABLY IN HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS STAR CENTER, LEW ALCINDOR
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January 13, 2014

The Wizard And The Giant

AS PLAYERS GREW MORE REBELLIOUS IN THE LATE 1960S, UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN HAD TO LOOSEN HIS GRIP—MOST NOTABLY IN HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS STAR CENTER, LEW ALCINDOR

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DESPITE ALL THE MONEY that John Wooden's basketball team was generating for UCLA, his salary was just $17,000 in 1968. To supplement this income he ran several youth basketball camps around Los Angeles. In many ways he enjoyed working more at the camps than at Westwood. "When I have my summer basketball school out at Palisades High, they're eager to know how to do things," he said. "The college players are more blasé."

The campus culture in which Wooden operated didn't just encourage students to question authority. It urged them to topple authority. With his old-fashioned Midwestern values, the 57-year-old Wooden was the very embodiment of the establishment. He and his players occupied the same space but lived in different worlds. "I really respected him, but I don't know that like was in the equation," said Bruins swingman Kenny Heitz. "We had a bunch of guys who had really good relationships with our fathers. Wooden became that old guy we couldn't please."

Wooden faced a Catch-22: If he stuck to his ways, he appeared out of touch; if he bent, he was a hypocrite. Lew Alcindor posed an especially touchy problem. The junior's size alone (7'2") warranted a different set of standards. From airplanes to buses to hotel rooms, Alcindor needed special accommodations. Plus—and more to the point—he was really, really good. If Wooden was going to bend for anyone, it would be for his star center.

For example, UCLA had a rule that if a player was late for the team flight, he had to find his own way to the game. However, the school's radio announcer, Fred Hessler, recalled that when Alcindor was late for one flight to the Northwest, athletic director J.D. Morgan called UCLA's sports publicist and told him to go to Alcindor's apartment and take him to the airport. "J.D. realized these [arenas] were sold out because of seeing [Alcindor]," Hessler said. "He was going to see that our star attraction got there."

But where the coach saw a necessary accommodation, his players saw a double standard. "Wooden had this dress code for a team meal, and then one day Lew and [star guard] Lucius [Allen] showed up in jeans, and he didn't say anything," Heitz said. When forward Lynn Shackelford was asked by a writer from Sport magazine what would happen if a player were late for curfew, he replied, "It all depends on how you're playing. It's been a lot looser since the big man arrived."

Before Alcindor, the pregame menu had always been precise: steak, potato, melba toast, celery, milk. "Somewhere along the way, out of 11 players, you'd see eight glasses of milk and three Cokes," guard Don Saffer said. "They were for Lucius, [starting point guard] Mike [Warren] and Lew. The rest of us didn't want milk, but that's the way it was."

When the players complained—and this being the '60s, they felt free to do just that—Wooden conceded their point. "Two of his teammates made some remarks to a reporter that I gave [Alcindor] special privileges," Wooden said in 1998. "Breakfast, for example. He got a couple of glasses of orange juice and they'd get one. True. Then they said I let him room alone while they always had to room with someone else. But you don't find two king-size beds in the same room.... I told one of these players, You're lucky he's here. I wouldn't have you if he wasn't here."

Nobody was more realistic about special treatment than the guys at the top of the pecking order. "We black players knew that as a unit we had a lot of power," Warren said. "Before the season, Coach Wooden told Alcindor and me that our hair had grown a little too long last year and suggested that we cut it closer this year. We didn't, and nothing happened."

Partly this was the coach's nod to progress. "I'm not as strict as I used to be," Wooden conceded in the summer of '68, "but society isn't as strict, either." The challenge for Wooden would grow steeper as the culture became even more permissive. That included the arrival of a new element in campus social life: drugs. Marijuana had been virtually unheard of at UCLA just a few years before, but in a flash it was everywhere. Alcindor was introduced to pot by a fellow student at Power Memorial High in New York City. He didn't feel much effect the first couple of times he smoked, but after church on Easter Sunday, 1965, he went to a friend's house and together they pounded the pipe so hard that Alcindor nearly coughed his lungs out. He felt high, really high, and he liked it.

It wasn't until he got to UCLA that Alcindor experimented with LSD. After a few trips, however, he decided he didn't really like it and stopped. Still, acid was all around him. One day a pair of students who had taken LSD came upon him and thought he was a hallucination. Alcindor found it hilarious, one of the few times he didn't mind strangers becoming fixated on his height.

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