U.C.L.A. CENTAURS; A.C BRUINS: An Exclusive Interview With John Wooden

Posted on Nov 14, 2012


Recently, with the current college basketball season tipping off, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion was rededicated following a major renovation. Opened originally for the 1965-’66 season, Pauley was in its earliest years famously home to John Wooden and his UCLA Bruins, who had already won two NCAA championships by the time they moved in. There would be eight more before the coach announced his retirement at the end of the ’74-’75 season. Outside the new Pauley there also now stands an eight-foot bronze statue of Wooden himself, stern of visage, the well-known rolled-up program gripped in his left hand. But all of this might not have happened – Pauley itself, the 10 titles, Alcindor, Walton, et al. – according to a story Coach Wooden told me nearly 22 years ago during a free-ranging interview I was fortunate to conduct with him.  Here’s the story of that story, an explanation as to why you’re reading about it here on CENTAUR SEASONS, and an opportunity to listen to this exclusive Coach Wooden interview.

On the Saturday afternoon of May 18, 1991, I interviewed John Wooden, the legendary and then-retired basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins, for a book about coaching and the coaching profession. I called him at his home in Los Angeles from my place in Brooklyn, thanked him for his time and explained my project. To set some parameters, I said, “I have plenty of questions I can ask, and I’ll keep asking for as long as you want to keep talking.”

He laughed and said, “Okay.” And then we talked for nearly two hours. Or rather, he talked and I listened. “You’re wearing ME out!,” I finally had to tell him.

At one point during our conversation, without my having asked about it, Coach Wooden volunteered how “discouraged” he had been for years after he arrived in Los Angeles because the Bruins had no permanent, large-enough, on-campus arena to play home games. Colleges need such gathering places.

He had left Indiana State and moved west to L.A. for the 1948-1949 season. “I was led to believe – and don’t misunderstand me now; I was NOT promised – but I was led to believe that if I came, and by the end of my contract we’d have a nice place to play on campus. Had I not been led to believe that, I don’t believe that I would have come.”

That nice place to play, Pauley Pavilion, opened in the fall of 1965. History records that Coach Wooden was still there, of course, preparing for his 18th season, two NCAA championships in the trophy case, a freshman named Lew Alcindor waiting in the wings, eight more championships still to be won.

So why had he stuck around? “When I saw going into the third year, that, uh, that’s not going to happen, by THAT time I LIKED California!,” he told me.

I was reminded of my interview with Coach Wooden actually a few months ago while laying the pipe for CENTAUR SEASONS. I knew I wanted to write a couple of posts placing the tiny and brand-new Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales basketball team within the larger college basketball picture. A portrait that  back then was completely dominated by John Wooden and his UCLA Bruins. We Centaurs were little more than a brushstroke, impossible to notice. Unless you knew where to look.

Working on those posts I recalled how gracious the then-80-year-old coach had been to me, how generous with his time, how delighted — grateful, even — he seemed for an opportunity to talk of the glory years, all the while maintaining that Midwestern modesty he was famous for.

But the idea that this Wooden interview might make its way from a box in my basement to CENTAUR SEASONS didn’t occur to me until I began interviewing some of my former teammates and/or rereading interviews I had done with some of them a few years before.

I was struck by the number of guys who expressed such an appreciation, an affection, even, for Joseph J. Billera Hall at Allentown College. Though perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me – after all, we spent so much time there.

Billera Hall was our gym – on campus, up and running within 39 months of the school’s opening in September 1965. (Likely within the timeframe of  the first Wooden contract, as it were.) “Just watching Billera going up,” says Bob Koch, a member of the school’s first graduating class in 1969, “was a big thing for all of us.” Soon there would be no more schlepping to a local orphanage for practice, with every game somewhere on the road. Soon there would be home games just a healthy walk from the dorms.

Billera, the fifth building erected at this cornfield college, was testament to the fact that the school was trying as hard as it could.

There was this, too, about Billera: “You walked into that gym,” remembers Jerry Wilkinson, a senior co-captain when I was a sophomore, “and you said, ‘Wow, this is the nicest place I’m going to play in.’ ”

It was comments like these about Billera that triggered my memory of Coach Wooden’s Pauley Pavilion. Or, rather, his lack for so long of a Pauley Pavilion.

I dug out the tapes, listened to them, transcribed them. The sound quality was very good and had held up. The tapes have been digitalized and the entire interview, divided into 24 parts, is available for listening here at CENTAUR SEASONS. A word-for-word transcription accompanies each segment.

At one point when we were talking, Coach Wooden enumerated — again with no prompting from me —  the myriad places where the Bruins had played their home games, pre-Pauley. He ticked them off quickly: “Venice High School [high school!], Santa Monica College, Long Beach City College, Long Beach Auditorium, Pan-Pacific Auditorium, Olympic Auditorium.”

When the Los Angeles Arena “came into being,” he said, the team started playing most of its home games there. “But always in doubleheaders with USC.”  Clearly, this still rankled. “Los Angeles Arena is practically on the USC campus,” he said. “I had become quite concerned about that, I must honestly say, and it was kind of getting to me a little bit.”

Then came Pauley, a place to call his own. Just like our Billera.

By the time I arrived at Allentown, Billera was already a given. Still, I can honestly say I never took it for granted. In reverse of Coach Wooden’s early seasons, we played too many away games in too many rented gyms (junior highs, mostly) against too many teams that didn’t have their own place to play. That we had Billera, that Billera was special, was self-evident.

(Though we did play Rutgers-South Jersey in cavernous, broken-down Camden Convention Hall, which was very cool, and Shelton College in the ballroom of the old Admiral Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, which was just bizarre.)

Coach Wooden said he learned the value of an on-campus home for a college basketball team from his coach at Purdue, Ward Louis “Piggy” Lambert. “He felt that intercollegiate sports should be played,” Coach Wooden said, “should be primarily for the students of the, uh, of the schools involved and should be played on the campuses, uh, if it was, was at all possible.”

That slightly awkward word-for-word transcription is on purpose, by the way. Coach Wooden died in 2010 at age 99; he isn’t available for reading back a quote or two. I hope this exactness assists with the context.

Dusting off these interview tapes has led me to listen again for the first time to Coach Wooden, with an ear to how what he talked about then might be applied now in CENTAUR SEASONS. I hope to write about these connections and associations — these U..C.L.A. Centuars & A.C. Bruins — in future posts.

For instance, Coach Wooden also talked more than once about how for him the goal every year wasn’t to win the NCAA championship. It really wasn’t, he said.  It was for his team to play to its potential.

That was always our goal, too.


On November 15th, 2012 at 6:22 pm, Nick Nardo said:

Can’t tell you how enjoyable this reverse excursion has become. I hope, at some point, that our own Dr. John Compardo gets some playing time. Have always been struck that ‘The Jet’, as the first guys called him, left a pretty fair reputation of his own and at an age that is close to some of your readers here today, and give this new college thing a try.
Somehow he made it all work with a scant budget and more so a gigantic will to improvise. PhysEd classes picking rocks on a site to become our soccor field, and when forced indoors, having classes in the basement utility room across from the game room in DeSales Hall. Instructing us on the art of boxing and even basketball fundamentals.
His annual trips to Europe with his wife to receive injections of a youth serum were a reminder that he was going to fight for every ounce of vitality possible. Not sure when he abandoned this quest for his fountain of youth, but he is still with us.
This guy even took broom handles and dipped each side, first one then the other, into a cast filled with concrete in order to form little weights at each end and used them to conduct rifle drills. I know this because I was the beneficiary of one such creation along with a set of his instructions. Gym room full of bumb bells … what?
‘Coach’ referred to all of us as “ham ‘n eggers” and, next to his experiences, I’m sure we were, but I believe a little bit of him rubbed off on us. So glad that he has remained a part of my life.
Still remember the pinochle games on those long bus rides. Coach Lou Sabler and I always seemed to be partners.
Anyway, thanks once again Steve. Great memories!!!

On November 19th, 2012 at 7:00 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] U.C.L.A. CENTAURS; A.C BRUINS: An Exclusive Interview With John Wooden […]


Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.