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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played under John Wooden at UCLA from 1966-1969, but the player and coach remained friends for the next 40 years, until Wooden’s death in 2010 at 99. Now seven years later, the NBA Hall-of-Famer and Hollywood Reporter contributing editor has written about that relationship in detail for the first time in Coach Wooden and Me (Grand Central, May 16).
Abdul-Jabbar takes the story back to when he was still a student at New York City’s Power Memorial High (and still known as Lewis Alcindor) and Wooden visited his parents at their Harlem apartment to get their OK for their only son to go across the country to attend college. (He tells the great story about being sent to his room so the adults could discuss his future). He writes about his playing time at UCLA, offering a candid take on what made Wooden a great coach and the clashes they sometimes had about politics and Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to convert to Islam. And then he brings the story forward over the next four decades to detail their friendship, including sweet and tender stories about movie nights together and how Wooden helped heal a rift Abdul-Jabbar had with his high school.
Abdul-Jabbar discusses the book with THR, including why it took him so long to write the book, their disagreements about Muhammad Ali and what it’s like when the great UCLA basketball teams get together for reunions.
It has been seven years since Coach Wooden died. Why did it take this long to write the book?
For the first few years after his death, I was still shaken at having lost him. I needed to remove my grief from the process before I could look back at our relationship with clarity. Sometimes [Wooden] would climb to the very top of Pauley Pavilion where he could reach up and touch the ceiling and he’d look down on us moving around like beetles skittling across the floor. He explained that changing perspectives like that allowed him to understand all aspects of our playing. That’s what I’ve done by waiting until now to write this book. Coach is still teaching me how to do things.
In so many ways you two were polar opposites. You were a 7’2″ black kid from Harlem who converted to Islam and he was a 5’10” white man from the Midwest who was a devout Christian. How did you overcome those differences to forge a friendship?
Coach Wooden and I shared a deep interest in history and literature. So, we approached cultural differences with curiosity rather than fear or judgment. He was interested in my cultural background and perspective, and I was interested in his. Coach had overcome so many obstacles on his road to success that I couldn’t help but admire the man who never lost his optimism about people or his moral compass. Rather than overcoming cultural differences, we just let ourselves be open to learn from each other.
One of the things that make the book so great is the honesty. You don’t shy away from talking about what you see as Wooden’s mistakes and your disagreements. A big one was over your friend Muhammad Ali. Why did you want to include stories like that?
Coach Wooden was one of the most humble and honest people I have ever met. He famously said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Sometimes those mistakes included misjudging a player or letting certain biases creep in. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t done that, but I also don’t know anyone who was quicker to admit his mistakes and try to do better. Coach would have been disappointed in me if I’d tried to characterize him as some saintly paragon of perfection. His whole life was dedicated to teaching us to improve ourselves. And nothing was more inspirational to us doing that than seeing him do it for himself.
Your description of your first meetings with Ali are great. Tell a little about it.
I first met Muhammad Ali when I was a freshman at UCLA. I had been a big fan of his since I was 13 and he’d won Olympic gold as a light heavyweight boxer. I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard with a couple friends from school when we saw him up ahead doing sleight-of-hand magic tricks for some fans who’d come up to him. They squealed with delight and his smile broadened each time their eyes widened at one of his tricks. I’d never seen a celebrity who was so open and personal with fans. To him fans weren’t a burden, they were a blessing — and he made sure they knew it. I gathered my courage and introduced myself to him. He didn’t seem to know who I was, but he treated me with as much good cheer and friendliness as he had his other fans. I remember thinking that if I ever became as famous as him, I would try to be as gracious to the fans as he had been.
I met him again later that same year at a party attended by a lot of college and professional athletes. As usual for me, I tried my best to hide in a corner because such gatherings were difficult for me due to my intense shyness. When the band took a break, I sauntered over to the abandoned instruments and started amusing myself my beating on the drums. My dad had been a jazz musician and I’d had a few musical lessons, but mostly I was just fooling around, avoiding party chitchat. Suddenly, Ali slides onto the seat next to me, picks up a guitar, and starts strumming along. We both cracked up. Ali was only 5 years older than me, but after that night he became a big brother to me right up until his death last year.
You and Wooden remained close friends right up until his death at 99 in 2010. Tell about your friendship in his later years.
There’s a famous quote (mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain): “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Now, I never felt that Coach was ignorant, but as I got older I came to appreciate much more the wisdom he had tried to impart on us at UCLA and on me throughout the rest of our years of friendship. Sometimes we’d meet at his favorite restaurant where he ate breakfast every day, and sometimes we’d sit in his den and watch an old Western movie or sports event. The word that pops into my mind when I think of those times is “comfortable.” I don’t know when else I’ve ever felt so comfortable and relaxed with another person because we could talk or not talk, agree or disagree, it didn’t matter. We would always laugh and we would part feeling the same love and respect for each other that we’d had when we sat down.
The UCLA basketball teams of the 1960s and early 1970s were some of the best ever, including 10 championships in 12 years, and featured some great players besides you: Mike Warren, Lucius Allen and Sidney Wicks. Plus, others who played after you like Bill Walton and Henry Bibby. Wooden helped forge a bond among the players that persists to this day as players regularly gather for reunions. What are those like?
The best part of those reunions was that we didn’t have to constantly strain our necks looking down to talk to people. We could all more or less look each other in the eyes. Other than that, our reunions were fairly tame affairs. We ate, we had a couple drinks, we caught up on each other’s families and business pursuits, and discussed young new players with a wistful mixture of admiration and jealousy.
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