On his application form for the John Wooden Basketball Encounter, Bob McKay, a Los Angeles attorney, didn't hesitate when he came to the line marked DISEASES. "Slow, can't jump," wrote McKay, an assessment that proved to be true of many of the 39 men who paid $495 for three days of grunting, groaning and reminiscing last June with one of the most successful college coaches of all time.
An outgrowth of the fantasy baseball camps that began to crop up a few years ago, Wooden's adult camp was held over a weekend at Pepperdine University. The caliber of basketball played in Firestone Fieldhouse at the second annual camp wasn't worthy of the beauty of Pepperdine's Malibu setting, but everybody had a good time and nobody broke anything except a sweat.
Wooden was skeptical about the idea when first approached by Sports-world, a San Diego-based corporation that sponsors summer camps throughout California. The fantasy baseball camps had been successful and there was reason to believe Wooden would be a beacon to a generation of men who'd followed his career (10 NCAA championships in his last 12 years of coaching) at UCLA. Wooden was ultimately persuaded to come to camp, and a beacon he was. Thirty of the 37 men who attended the first camp sent letters urging him to keep the concept going. About half a dozen of this year's 39 campers were repeaters.
Roger McDowell, an advertising executive from Leawood, Kans., and I were the only non-Californians on hand. McDowell paid more than $200 in airfare plus the fee, not only for the basketball, though he had played some varsity ball at Wichita State almost 20 years ago, but also to hear Wooden lecture on his "pyramid of success," a motivational system. To one degree or another everybody I talked to at the camp had come because of Wooden. Like Marv Siegel, who's 61 and the owner of a Thousand Oaks public relations firm as well as a triple bypass. "I'm a USC graduate but I've always been fascinated by coach Wooden and his success," says Siegel. Or Bill Anderson, a teacher from Ventura, who shared oldest-at-camp honors with Siegel. Anderson was one of Wooden's first UCLA team managers back in 1949 and since 1951 he has kept basketball statistics for the school on all the UCLA teams, a task he will perform for the current coach, Walt Hazzard.
Even to basketball-playing junkies, a class to which I belong, Wooden was the extra something that made the $495 worthwhile. The only other major adult basketball camp in the country (Super-Camp '84 in Palm Springs) features my alltime favorite player, Jerry West, yet I probably wouldn't go to it. Wooden seems to be the guy for this kind of experience, probably because he's known for his coaching of fundamentals and his motivation of players, two things an adult gets precious little of in local pickup games.
We got them at Pepperdine. After going through three days of drills, one got a sense of why Wooden teams were so successful. He's a relentless preacher of fundamentals, fitting his three basic principles of physical balance—feet wider than the shoulders, head directly above the midpoint between the feet, hands close to the body—into almost every drill. When you play for him that's your basic position for shooting, dribbling, passing, defending, rebounding and, in all probability, going for the water bucket. Some of his methods aren't entirely conventional, either, as, for example, in boxing out for a rebound. He believes you should employ quickness and only the slightest bit of physical contact, rather than planting your butt into an opponent.
Wooden has forgotten nothing—none of his fundamentals, none of the options off his high-post offense, none of his fast-break axioms ("You'll never have a better chance of getting an offensive rebound than when you take a jump shot at the end of a break, so take it"), none of the orchestrated movements of the 2-2-1 press, employed so effectively by his first NCAA championship team in 1964 (five members of which visited the camp one night to give a demonstration). Wooden is 73 and hasn't coached since 1975. He may forget and repeat a story now and again, but he's alert and adroit. He's the kind of coach who can stand at one corner of a gym, take a quick glance at a group in the far corner and shout, "Wait a minute there now. Let's make that reverse pivot the other way."
As was always his wont, at camp Wooden quoted from Gray's Elegy, the poems of Grantland Rice and quite a few of Lincoln's speeches to make points. He sounds like a cross between a Midwestern minister and a college English instructor. But has anyone ever looked more like a coach than John Robert Wooden? Though troubled by arthritic knees, he moves with the grace and quickness of a man 30 years younger.
The same couldn't be said of many of us campers. I was appalled by our inability to grasp the most basic precepts of the high-post offense, which Wooden taught on the afternoon of the first day, Friday. On Sunday morning some of the guards were still running the wrong cut route on the first option and some of the forwards were still forgetting to post up on the second option. Forget the third and fourth. It was fascinating to see a bunch of otherwise reasonably intelligent men—doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, journalists—hitting each other in the head with passes and wandering around a contained space completely lost, as if we were looking for a way out of a forest at night.
Wooden didn't mind. In fact, he seemed to enjoy himself. At every break he was surrounded, some campers picking his brain for details about past UCLA games, others about the idiosyncracies of his All-Americas, still others about what the Lakers had to do to beat the Celtics. While his food got cold, he spent his lunches explaining why he put his worst defensive player, Lynn Shackelford, on Elvin Hayes in the famed Houston-UCLA rematch in 1968, and his dinners shifting glasses, plates and pitchers of iced tea to illustrate the 1-3-1 offense he used with Lew Alcindor (1967-69) and Bill Walton (1972-74).
Sometimes he was predictable, like in his opinion on the NBA (too one-on-one oriented), but other times he wasn't. To wit, when he discussed Wilt Chamberlain, who objected to the use of the expression "handle players" by coaches and the media: "Wilt was right," said Wooden. "You don't 'handle' players. You work with them. In the revised edition of my book [Practical Modern Basketball] I changed all the 'handles' to work withs."
On Wooden's alltime all-star team, he revealed, he'd put Magic Johnson at forward to play with Larry Bird; they'd be joined by Oscar Robertson and West at guard and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, né Alcindor, at center. His next choices in the pivot would be Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in that order.
At camp Wooden was completely candid, which he was never accused of being when he was coaching. If someone was hanging around with a pencil and a pad, as I sometimes was, he'd ask that a particular statement be off the record, but most of the time he just let it wing. One example: "I'll take Jabbar over Walton any day of the week, on the court and off the court."
Sportsworld sets no age minimum for campers, though fresh-out-of-college all-stars are advised to stay away unless they're certifiable Woodenphiles. At 34, I was probably one of the 10 youngest at camp. Not everyone came with his motivation intact. There was a movement to skip Friday's evening drill in favor of watching the NBA playoffs. As proof that things haven't gone completely to hell in a peachbasket, only a few chose the tube over hoops.
The highlight for many of the campers was the appearance of the '64 regulars, sans Gail Goodrich, on Saturday night. First they ran UCLA's offense against various combinations of campers, during which it took Keith Erickson about five seconds to backdoor me and take a perfect pass from Hazzard. Then they all answered questions for an hour: Hazzard and his new assistant, Jack Hirsch, on UCLA's prospects for this season; Erickson, the Lakers' color man, on his analysis of the championship series; the 41-year-old Kenny Washington on his unbelievably youthful appearance ("Good genes, I guess") and Fred Slaughter on his prodigious weight gain (estimates of his present poundage ran as high as 330, but Slaughter wouldn't say).
Yes, the Wooden Encounter was special. In what other sport could a bunch of over-the-hill guys actually be instructed by the man?. A comparable football camp would be, say, The Bear Bryant Gridiron Experience. Perhaps that will, happen in a future lifetime, by which time I might have the third option off the high-post offense down pat.