Monday, June 7, 2010

John Wooden story leads to accounts of the other two best ever at their level – Morgan Wootten and Red Auerbach

When I got the phone call on Thursday night that John Wooden was in the hospital and not expected to live much longer, the first thing I did was go and dig out the folders I have that contain the transcripts of the interviews I did seven years ago with Red Auerbach when I wrote, “Let Me Tell You A Story.”

I knew there were some great quotes from Red about Coach Wooden and I wanted to use some of them in the column I was going to write for The Washington Post—in The Post when someone dies they call it, ‘an appreciation,’—whenever the sad time came.

As I read through the quotes, I had two thoughts. The first was a funny one, a memory of running into Coach Wooden at The Final Four in New Orleans when I was working with Red on the book. He was 93 at the time, but still sharp as a tack. When I saw him one morning and went over to say hello, he asked me what I was working on.

“Well coach,” I said, “I’m actually doing a book right now on a dear friend of yours, Red Auerbach.”

“Oh that’s wonderful,” Coach Wooden said. “Red is such a nice young man.”

Red was 86 at the time. Everything in life is relative.

The other thing I thought about was how remarkably fortunate I’ve been to know—I would argue—the greatest basketball coaches who ever lived on the pro, college and high school levels. With all due respect to Phil Jackson, I would make the case that Red was the greatest NBA coach because he did more than just coach: he put together 16 championship teams. From 1950 to 1966 he WAS the Celtics: the coach, the general manager, the scout, even the marketing director. He had no assistant coaches. The Celtics kept winning after he stopped coaching because of the work he did as the GM.

I will readily admit to a bias here because of my friendship with Red but I suspect a lot of people will come down on my side of the argument.

With Wooden, there are no ifs, ands or buts. His 10 national titles is more than double the number won by any other college coach. Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp each won four; Bob Knight won three and then a handful of coaches, led by Dean Smith, won two.

As for Morgan, his record at DeMatha High School over 44 years was something ridiculous like 1,204 and 137. I’m probably off a little bit in those numbers but not by much. His most famous victory was against Power Memorial High School and Lew Alcindor in 1964, ending what was (I think) a 71 game winning streak. The story always told about that game—which was played in front of a sellout crowd of 14,500 at Maryland’s Cole Field House—was Morgan having his players use tennis racquets in practice to simulate what it would be like to shoot over Alcindor.

Working at The Washington Post, I had the chance to get to know Morgan well, which was a pleasure because he is about as nice a human being as you will meet in any walk of life. I’ve always joked that the meanest thing I ever heard Morgan say to anyone was, “how’s it going today?”

Of course when he was coaching it was different. He rarely raised his voice and, like Wooden, profanity wasn’t part of his repertoire. (Red may have used it once or twice). Years ago, I did a lengthy profile of Morgan. As part of my research for the story, I sat in on his history class—he never stopped teaching the entire time he coached.

I was a history major in college and I was lucky enough to have some outstanding professors. Morgan was the best teacher I’ve ever seen. He had a unique way of conveying the information to the students that made you want to just sit in his classroom all day. He was smart and funny, informative and sounded more like a great storyteller as he spoke than someone teaching a class. If I could have afforded the tuition back then, I might have enrolled at DeMatha just to take his class.

All three were great communicators. They had a way of connecting with their players that went well beyond teach x’s and o’s. All understood that you do NOT treat every player the same because every player isn’t the same person. Some need coddling, others need to be pushed—or shoved—to get better.

All knew when to make a point—and how to make a point. Shortly after Red made Bill Russell the Celtics player-coach, there was a snowstorm in Boston. Russell didn’t make it to the game until the start of the fourth quarter. The Celtics, with Red coaching, were leading when Russell showed up and went on to win the game—without Russell.

Afterwards, Red was furious. “Red, there was a snowstorm in case you didn’t notice,” Russell said. “I got stuck. I couldn’t get here. How can you get on me about that?”

“Because,” Red said, “Eleven other guys figured out a way to get here on time. If anything, you should have been the one guy who got here, not the one guy who didn’t.”

It was Morgan who opened the door to my friendship with Red. I had heard about his Tuesday lunches at a downtown Chinese restaurant but never dreamed there was any way to get invited—especially since Red was close to Bob Knight, who, after “A Season on the Brink,” wasn’t the president of my fan club. But I ran into Red one night doing a local TV show and he couldn’t have been more gracious. I wondered if there was any way to go to the lunch once to write a column about it.

I called my friend Jack Kvancz, who was (and is) the athletic director at George Washington and a regular attendee. “If I ask him, I’m not sure what he’ll say,” Jack said. “If Morgan asks, he’ll say yes.”

So I called Morgan. He asked and, as Jack predicted, Red said yes. I went the next week, was invited to keep coming back and never stopped going. I have lots and lots of stories about the lunches but one stands out in my memory. Red always liked to tease me about Krzyzewski, knowing we were friends.

“You know Mike never let Tommy Amaker shoot,” Red said one day, talking about Krzyzewski’s first great point guard, who is now the coach at Harvard. “The kid was a great shooter. He would have been a great pro if Mike had let him shoot.”

I loved Amaker, but he’d always been more of a passer than a shooter. I told Red I didn’t think Amaker was a shooter. Red turned to Morgan. “You saw the kid in high school, what’d you think of him?”

“You couldn’t stop him,” Morgan said. “He could score almost at will.”

I was shaking my head, saying I just didn’t see it that way when Rob Ades, another of the lunch group jumped in. “John,” he said. “You have here the greatest NBA coach ever and the greatest high school coach ever. You think YOU know more about basketball than they do?”

At that point I shut up. My guess is if Coach Wooden had been there he’d have told me I was wrong too.


John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

To listen to 'The Bob and Tom Show' interview about 'Moment of Glory', please click the play button below:


case said...

thanks, john for these stories
i agree that auerbach is the best pro coach
bob hurley is up there with morgan wooten

Case said...

thanks, john for these stories
i agree that auerbach is the best pro coach
bob hurley is up there with morgan wooten

Mr. X said...

Which was the better team: Carroll H.S. in the late 50s, or Dematha in the mid 60s?

case said...

power memorial in the mid-60s was the best , in spite of their one loss to dematha

Mark said...

I had the distinct pleasure of playing against DeMatha as a senior in 1977.

Two things I remember:

Coach Wooten must have dressed 30 players for that game - the chairs on the bench went all the way to the door, and

Everytime I took the ball to pass it inbounds, the player guarding me would count out loud (the 5 second inbounds count). At the time, I thought it was terribly annoying but looking back, it was probably a smart thing to do.

Coach Wooten was kind enough to shake my hand at the end of the game.

Gordon said...


As you know I am normally a big supporter of yours. Of this blog entry I am not! Why does Red Auerbach get so many words when the real story is Coach Wooden? Excuse me for saying so but it seems like you took this opportunity for shameless self promotion of your book on Red. Don't misunderstand it's a fine book which I have read but the timing stinks.

I don't give a rats ass today about your inclusion in Reds lunches. And I care even less about how you got invited to be part of them.

What about John Wooden and UCLA basketball back before the era of "one and done" ? What about all his players and coaching during the 60s? What about a comment from Digger Phelps on Notre Dame breaking UCLAs 88 game winning streak? What about your stories of covering and knowing John Wooden? And why for god sake is Tommy Amaker relevant to anything even remotely associated with Coach Wooden?

Why no comment on Kareems lame tribute before the Lakers game last night. One he had to read... and did a poor job at that! Or about Bill Waltons words from the heart that were incredible and very moving.

Saturdays WP article should have been only the beginning!

NOT your finest journalistic hour!

Tim said...

Really, Gordon?

Momus said...

Although I disagree with Gordon's assertion that John was just doing some shameless self-promotion on his book about Red, I experienced more-or-less the same reaction that he did in reading this post. I would have liked a little more information on Coach Wooden himself. Kind of reminded me of reading Robert Redford's memorial to Paul Newman in Time Magazine, in which Redford managed to reminisce mostly about himself.

Coach Wooden was a great coach, and I agree that he is at the top of the list for college coaches (with no one else even being close). But before he was the Wizard of Westwood (which we all know by now was a nickname he disliked), he was just a very good coach (nothing wrong with that, btw).

If you had to pick the best college basketball coach on the west coast circa 1960, Pete Newell of Cal would have been the obvious choice ahead of John Wooden. Newell not only had an NIT (back when that meant something) and an NCAA championship to his credit, he also was the coach of the 1960 Olympic basketball team. (Of course, with a backcourt of West and Robertson, I think even John could have coached that team to Gold ....) I think Newell said it best about the genius of John Wooden was that he continually learned and got better as a coach as he got older.