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Sunday, April 03, 2005

What Fun It Was To Be A Fan In Those Days

Wooden's Last Hurrah a Vivid Memory

Marques Johnson says he can't believe it has been 30 years since the 10th of the coach's titles, but his life lessons apply as much today as ever.
By Diane Pucin
Times Staff Writer

April 3, 2005

ST. LOUIS — When it was happening, Marques Johnson didn't know how lucky he was.

When his UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, would stop practice to make sure his socks were straightened, Johnson rolled his eyes the way any 18-year-old boy would. "But he did that," Johnson says, "to make sure the socks didn't cause blisters."

When Wooden would stop practice because somebody hadn't come forward to meet the pass or failed to run the right cut, Johnson would bite the inside of his lips because Wooden would spew nothing harsher than "Oh my goodness gracious." But, Johnson says, "That counted for double the amount of obscenities from a normal coach."

It has been 30 years since Wooden won the last of his 10 national championships, in 1975. "It's not possible," Johnson said from this Final Four where he has come as a fan and a spectator. "It's just not possible."

Playing a team not nearly as deep as many and not as heavily favored as the other nine national champions he had coached, Wooden and UCLA beat Kentucky, 92-85, in the national championship game at San Diego. The Bruins used only six players. Four of them — Dave Meyers, Richard Washington, Andre McCarter and Pete Trgovich — played all 40 minutes of the championship game.

At the end, the crowd gave Wooden a four-minute standing ovation because the unassuming, bespectacled coach had told his team two days earlier, after a heart-stopping overtime victory over Louisville, that the championship game would be his last.

"It was just a total shock," Johnson said. "It was total disbelief. We sat in that locker room filled with all sorts of emotions. We were giddy because we had just won this amazing overtime game and totally sad because coach wasn't coming back. And there was this great pressure for a minute because nobody wanted to be the player on the team that lost Coach Wooden's final game."

Johnson, who is a television broadcaster and does many UCLA games, looks at the landscape of basketball today, which he finds filled with players who don't understand the fundamentals of a good block out or a proper bounce pass and who certainly wouldn't care how to put their socks on correctly. He says Wooden could step into a warm-up and start coaching immediately.

"He is not a dinosaur," Johnson said. "He was a teacher and he still is. His lessons made sense then and they make sense now. His principles weren't only about basketball, they were about life. And the thing is, he knew how to treat everybody as an individual."

Johnson remembers his sophomore year when he was recovering from hepatitis. Johnson's body was tired and he would get frustrated with himself for lagging in drills.

"I was under orders to work myself back slowly," Johnson said, "and I was real frustrated. So one day in practice, I came down on a fastbreak and I dunked hard on Ralph Drollinger, just to get my anger out. Two plays later, Gavin Smith, he came down, he was a great athlete, and he did the same thing, dunked the ball on Drollinger. Coach didn't say a word to me but he jumped all over Gavin, told him if he ever did that again he'd get kicked out of practice.

"It wasn't until several years later that I realized what coach was doing. He knew I was feeling bad and he sympathized with what I was going through. He realized I dunked out of frustration and Gavin was just flaunting his talent."

The 1975 team had jelled after the loss of Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes to graduation. After the Bruins had beaten Kentucky in a game played at a furious pace, Meyers, who scored 24 points, told reporters after the game, "I wanted to do it for Coach all season. He's done a masterful job with the team that had lost Walton and Wilkes."

Johnson said there was more a sense of duty than destiny, even after the 75-74 win over Louisville that had come on a last-second shot by Washington.

While the Bruins were still whooping and hollering in the locker room, Johnson said, Wooden told the team to sit quiet. "He told us to pipe down, pipe down, I've got something to say," Johnson said. "He told us the next game would be his last and we were all shocked, caught off guard, just totally flabbergasted. We were on this incredible emotional high from Richard's shot and then I just wanted to cry and I was feeling like my heart sank."

Over the last 30 years, Johnson said, he has realized that Wooden's lessons had become buried in his head even when he didn't know it. The ones about tying your shoes right, the ones about preparing well, the ones about approaching every task with respect.

"I've got five kids," Johnson said, "and they're all looking for discipline and direction, the basic lessons of life. Coach Wooden can teach those as well today as he did 30 years ago."


Wooden's Titles

The 10 NCAA basketball championships won under John Wooden, with championship game results:


Kansas City, Mo.

Portland, Ore.

Louisville, Ky.

Los Angeles
North Carolina

Louisville, Ky.

College Park, Md.


Los Angeles
Florida State

St. Louis
Memphis State

San Diego


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