NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his 50-year relationship with his coach John Wooden, how he shaped his life and career. A conversation about friendship and personal tragedy, the importance of mentoring young athletes, and confronting racism in sports.
On playing for Coach John Wooden at UCLA:
I always wanted to be a professional basketball player and I was told I probably was too skinny to make it. Y’know, I had to be a big, bruising guy like Will Chamberlain. And Coach Wooden’s first NCAA champion team had nobody on the team taller than 6’6”, and they won with speed and agility and defensive pressure and I thought that was a good way to play the game. And given my gifts, I thought that I should be playing for John Wooden.
I got closer to Coach Wooden as I went through the last two years of my college career and the pressure on us increased. Y’know, when Coach Wooden first won the NCAA tournament in 1964 and 1965, UCLA was an underdog. They weren’t expected to win anything. It was pretty special how that all came together. After I got on the team and we won that first time, people expected us to win and it really took a lot of the sense of discovery and excitement out of our competition. No longer was there any question – we were supposed to win and we weren’t really playing to win, we were playing not to lose. That really took a lot of fun out of it for Coach Wooden. All of a sudden it became a lot more challenging to deal with all these other issues that were really outside of his initial success.
On Coach Wooden and race:
John Wooden absolutely got it. Unbeknownst to most people, Wooden was directly involved in the very start of the Civil Rights Movement. When he was coaching in Indiana, his team did pretty good and he was invited to NAIA tournament – National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. And that was the main tournament back there in the 1940s. So guys from the tournament called him and Coach Wooden says, ‘Yeah, we’re very excited about going, you guys run a great tournament’ and the people who ran the tournament said, ‘Yeah, we want you to come – but you have to understand, you can’t bring any black ball players. We segregate our tournament.’ And Coach Wooden said, ‘Our team has been playing together all season – I’m not going to break them up now. We’re not coming.’ […] The following year his team did even better. He got the same call from the NAIA tournament and they had the same conversation – they told him again that he wouldn’t be able to bring a black ball player. And coach was prepared to tell them, no, he wasn’t going to do that. He wasn’t gonna break up his team just to satisfy their desire to have a segregated tournament. So they finally capitulated and let him bring that player and Coach Wooden had to find accommodations for him because the hotel the tournament put them in was segregated. But Coach Wooden kept the team together.
On Coach Wooden’s wife, Nell:
Nell was very much John Wooden’s left leg. He had two legs, but he only owned one of them. Nell was really a major force in his life and she came to every game. They would hold medals together – one hand on each side. Coach Wooden would look at her before every game, roll up his program and communicate with her with a glance, then move forward and play the game. She was very much a part of who he was. You know what they say, behind every great man is a lovely lady? She was that lady in his life.
On developing his signature “Skyhook:”
I started working on the hook shot when I was in 5th grade. And between 5th grade and 6th grade I worked on that shot and by the time I got into high school, I could make that shot. Coach Wooden had nothing to do with me learning that shot but he did show me how to use it effectively once he realized I could shoot it as well as I did.
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