There’s a statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest players in NBA history, outside Staples Center in Los Angeles.
There ought to be another statue of Abdul-Jabbar outside the New York Public Library, for his decades of books exploring the African American experience.
Abdul-Jabbar has just come out with a book that is only diminished by describing it as a sports book, because it is so much more than that.
Coach Wooden And Me: A 50-Year Friendship On And Off The Court, just published by Grand Central, is a miraculous evocation of the ultimate odd couple relationship in sports history.
Abdul-Jabbar was a cocky, African American, 7’2” teenager from the streets of Manhattan.
John Wooden was a 5’10” white man from a small town in Indiana.
At UCLA, where they met, Wooden won more NCAA men’s basketball championships than any coach ever did, or ever will.
Abdul-Jabbar went onto a 20-year NBA career that netted him multiple championships, multiple MVP rings, and a place in the NBA Hall of Fame.
John Wooden’s story is familiar to most basketball fans and anyone interested in the subject of human motivation.
Wooden focused primarily on character, not on wins and losses. He knew that for most of the players, basketball would be a fleeting part of their lives, so he was interested in molding them into men.
His first love was teaching English, but he found that he had a much bigger impact on the lives of the basketball players he coached, so he made coaching his full-time career.
Coach Wooden And Me is the story of two men coming from radically different backgrounds who initially had little understanding of each other’s worlds but came together not just in friendship and mutual understanding, but also in love.
Abdul-Jabbar, born Lewis Alcindor, Jr., was one of the most heavily recruited high school athletes when he was coming out of Power Memorial Academy, a Catholic School in Manhattan.
He was good enough to get a full ride to any school in the country, and chose UCLA in part because it’s, well, UCLA, and in part because he and his parents were intrigued by this extraordinarily polite, self-effacing man who did what few college coaches did when they were recruiting high school athletes—he told them the truth.
Alcindor found himself captivated by his new, perplexing coach, who actually spent the first part of the first training session each year showing his players the proper way to put on their socks and sneakers.
The whole idea was to avoid blisters, because if you don’t have blisters, you can play full-out.
What coach starts off by teaching the most highly recruited college athletes in the country how to put on their socks and sneakers?
John Wooden, who passed away a few years ago just a few months shy of his 100th birthday, may well have been the most influential individual in the history of sports. He was certainly the winningest; although winning, while extremely important, came in second to the life lessons he taught and, as Abdul-Jabbar reveals, learned along the way.
Abdul-Jabbar is extremely frank in his assessment of white America’s attitude toward race, both when he was a player 50 years ago, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and today.
Abdul-Jabbar believes that most white people have absolutely no idea of what a black person experiences day to day in society.
Worse, Abdul-Jabbar writes, whites tend to absolve themselves from responsibility for the inherent racism in our society.
When he met Coach Wooden, he sensed that the coach had essentially the same lack of awareness as did the rest of white Americans, and he wasn’t far wrong.
Wooden did make a point of having black players participate on teams well before most other white coaches did.
There was a famous moment when a black player on the team was not going to be seated in a restaurant; Wooden threatened to take the entire team out of the restaurant rather than leave the black player to wait in the bus for take-out.
But still, Abdul-Jabbar writes, the coach may have had no understanding of what it was like to be black until a “doddering” old white woman approached the two men and dropped an N-bomb on the player.
That moment signaled an awakening in Wooden’s approach to race relations.
Abdul-Jabbar’s feelings toward Coach Wooden, over the 50-year friendship that ensued as a result of their time at UCLA, in a single word: tenderness.
The coach became a second father to Abdul-Jabbar, a master-educator not just in terms of basketball but also in terms of life.
The book is replete with stories that touch the heart; so much so that it would be unfair to categorize this book simply as a sports book.
Those words just simply don’t do justice to the love, passion, consideration, and thoughtfulness with which Abdul-Jabbar paints the portrait of his coach, mentor, father figure, and friend.
They don’t make coaches like John Wooden anymore, and they make few players like Abdul-Jabbar.
There are also precious few books that stir the heart, explore difficult issues, and above all, offer a portrait of a compelling and enviable friendship that lasted half a century.
Fortunately, Abdul-Jabbar has written such a book, and if they don’t get that statue up in front of the New York Public Library any time soon, I’m going to have to do something.