Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Grand Central Publishing, US $29.00, Pp 304, May 2017, ISBN 978-1455542277
When 18-year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (né Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.) played basketball for Coach John Wooden at UCLA in 1965, it was also the beginning of their 50-year long relationship that ended when he died in June 2010. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three national champions and was named the Outstanding Player in the NCAA for each of those years, which remains unmatched in college basketball history. Wooden coached USLA for 27 years and won more NCAA championships and any other coach in history. In Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells the story of this relationship.
Abdul-Jabbar tells why he waited seven years to write this book after John Wooden died in 2010. He says that it is because of something Wooden taught him over the nearly fifty years of our friendship. When Abdul-Jabbar played for Coach Wooden at UCLA, he was very hands-on. Wooden would follow them up and down the sideline harking encouragement and instructions. Then he would pull on individual aside to demonstrate a shot, a pick, a fake. His face always seemed inches from ours. But sometimes he would go all the way to the top rafters of Pauley Pavillion, where all he had to do was raise his arm to touch the ceiling. From there he would look down on us like a benevolent god, watching us scuttle up and down the court. He liked the fresh perspective that gave him a way to see the big picture. Watch how all the moving parts worked together. Abdul-Jabbar says that is what he had to do with our many years of friendship. Abdul-Jabbar had to climb over the seven years since his death to view what it all meant, measure how great his impact on him and others was. This book is that view.
Coach Wooden’s most important lesson was that we should never focus on the outcome but on the activity itself. He would say, “Don’t think about winning the game. Just do everything possible to prepare.” Trying to apply his philosophy solely toward winning would be like doing good deeds only because you hope it will get you into heaven. Being good is the payoff, athletically and spiritually. That’s why he didn’t care for sports movies in which the underdog team or player learns the hard way that winning isn’t everything, but then they go on to win at the end. To him, those movies should have ended with the lesson learned, the team taking the court happy in their new-found wisdom, the whistle blowing to start the game and then freeze-frame and run credits. Showing the team winning sends the wrong message: that life lessons exist to serve as a guide for acquiring things that make you feel like a success. The traveling is the reward. His point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination.
Coach Wooden and Me is an inspiring story of friendship between two basketball icons. It is not only an intimate story of their friendship but also the history of basketball. Abdul-Jabbar proves to be as good a storyteller as he was a sportsman. He shines a light on unexplored aspects of their lives. It will inspire not only the fans of Coach John Wooden and Abdul-Jabbar but also basketball lovers.