UK basketball notebook: Upcoming book claims Wooden's UCLA dynasty is 'most significant' ever

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJune 1, 2013 

Obit John Wooden Basketball

UCLA Coach John Wooden was also in the middle of a seven-year title streak when Lew Alcindor, left, and Sidney Wicks helped him win his fifth overall championship in 1969, in a game played at Louisville.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In his first book, which is set for release on Sept. 30, historian John Matthew Smith writes about what his publisher calls "the most significant college basketball program."

Kentucky? Uh, no. The Sons of Westwood chronicles the UCLA dynasty period from 1964 until 1975 when the Bruins won 10 national championships.

That supernova of achievement obscures anything done before or since by the usual suspects in college basketball's pantheon. Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Kansas must cede center stage. But UCLA has receded in recent decades. So is UCLA really the most significant college basketball program?

"Without question," said Smith, who teaches American history at Georgia Tech. "Maybe some Kentucky fans would disagree with me. UCLA ushered college basketball into the modern age."

Smith uses the most-significant label not in tribute to mere victories or even championships. He sees those UCLA teams and players as having an unprecedented and unmatched impact that transcends merely keeping score. For instance, college basketball went from regional television programming to national network prize during this period.

Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) actively participated in the Civil Rights movement, arguably the country's most significant social transformation in the 20th century. Bill Walton marched in student protests of the Vietnam War, arguably the most significant student resistance in U.S. history.

Then there's John Wooden, the iconic figure who makes other coaches look like glorified gym teachers and/or self-promoting hucksters.

"This is an age where college men and women are turning a deaf ear to their parents," Smith said of the time from, say, 1965 until 1975. "Yet here's Wooden on the campus erupting in protest, and he is successful at a time when traditional institutions like government, the president and military leaders are being questioned. Wooden embodied moral authority."

Smith likened Wooden to another iconic coach of the 1960s — Vince Lombardi. "Both personified order in a culture of chaos," he said.

Smith became drawn to the project, in part, because of a famous photograph. It shows Alcindor next to professional sports stars Bill Russell and Jim Brown at a press conference called to publicly support Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam.

"I wondered why is Lew Alcindor the only college athlete at this press conference?" Smith said in a telephone interview last week. "Without question, the most prominent college basketball player of the 1960s became an outspoken African-American athlete at a time when many black college athletes were not yet speaking out about social and political issues like racism, poverty and Vietnam."

It's easy to forget that Alcindor also drew much criticism for refusing to participate in the 1968 Olympics as a means of protesting racial injustice in this country.

In the three years of research and writing, Smith did not intend to simply praise UCLA's on-court success with a recitation of who scored the most points in a particular game. He sought to write a history book that put UCLA in the context of the time and separated Wooden the man from the deified figure he's become.

Toward that end, Smith explored the man who's come to represent the ethically challenged booster, Sam Gilbert. The author lost some support for the project by questioning Wooden's ambivalence about Gilbert's influence as program Sugar Daddy.

"People are uncomfortable with criticism of John Wooden," Smith said. "The fact of the matter is Sam Gilbert infected UCLA's basketball program."

But the author directs greater scorn at the NCAA's inaction.

"The NCAA turned a blind eye because UCLA was so important as a college basketball brand," Smith said. "The rise of the dynasty came at the same time Los Angeles became the second-most important media market next to New York City."

Smith, 32, grew up in suburban Chicago. He was an undergrad at Michigan State. (Coincidentally, he voiced admiration for Tom Izzo.) He received his Master's at Western Michigan and doctorate at Purdue. One of the courses he teaches at Georgia Tech involves sports history.

In history, as in journalism, athletics is considered a substandard professional interest.

"Absolutely," Smith said. "I think it's even worse (in history), to be honest. At least in the world of journalism there's a long history of people who had careers in sportswriting. In the profession of history, it's not quote-unquote real history."

Yet, Smith intends to pursue sports-related topics that help explain historical truths. He's considering the 1956 baseball season for his next book project. In that year, Mickey Mantle announced his full flowering as a player with a Triple Crown and Jackie Robinson took one last bow before exiting baseball.

"Sports has always been a pervasive part of our culture," he said.

Rupp book

While explaining why he chose to write about UCLA, historian John Matthew Smith acknowledged that Kentucky basketball could make for a good book. Adolph Rupp, the founding father of UK basketball, could make for a gripping biographical subject, he said.

It turns out such a project is in the works. Historian James Duane Bolin, a professor at Murray State, is writing a biography of Rupp. He hopes the book — the working title is Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Big-Time College Basketball in America — will be finished and in bookstores in 2015.

Bolin's UK bona fides are solid. He grew up in Webster County as a self-described "huge basketball fan." He received Master's and doctorate degrees from UK.

The Rupp book project got a significant boost when retired UK history professor Bert Nelli gave Bolin more than 100 taped interviews with players, assistant coaches, UK presidents and politicians.

Nelli, who authored several books on UK basketball, asked only that Bolin write a balanced, sober reflection of Rupp's life rather than a hagiographic celebration.

Bolin then conducted additional interviews and combed through official records and documents.

Bolin has written more than 500 pages and could keep going indefinitely.

"Every day I hear a new Rupp story," he said. "But I've got to cut it off someplace."

Top 75

To commemorate the 75th year of the IndyStar Indiana All-Stars, the Indianapolis Star is counting down the top 75 Indiana high school basketball players of all time.

The newspaper recently got to No. 20 Louie Dampier, whose shooting helped propel UK's famed Rupp's Runts team.

The Indianapolis Star notes Dampier's success as a high school player for Southport, for UK and then professionally in the ABA and NBA.

Maybe more interesting is Dampier noted that as a high school sophomore he stood only 5-foot-2. He played on the junior varsity and wondered if he should switch to wrestling.

That question got settled when he grew eight inches between his sophomore and junior years.

Dampier wanted to play for Indiana. But he chose to play for UK after deciding that IU's belated scholarship offer was merely a favor to his godfather, who served on the school's Board of Directors.

Two other former UK players have appeared in the Indianapolis Star countdown.

At No. 30 is Kyle Macy, who, of course, led UK to the 1978 national championship. The Star notes that Bob Knight considered losing Macy his biggest recruiting mistake.

At No. 58 is Walter McCarty, a key figure in UK's 1996 national championship team.

The Star noted that its top 75 selections are based on the entirety of a career, not solely on high school exploits. The countdown appears on the newspaper's website, IndyStar.com.

Seismic shift?

On Wednesday, columnist Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal asked if the ongoing controversy regarding athletics at Rutgers might "trigger a cultural shift, or at least hit the pause button, on the consuming madness of college sports."

That is to ask if we need to reflect on the importance we place on athletics.

"What if it provoked a reconsideration of the whole crazy thing — how students playing games for schools has become such a craven business, vulnerable to envy and greed and poor judgment? ..." Gay wrote.

Such reflection would need to "look deep down inside, to the guts of it all, to how college sports reached a point where malfunction became not a risk, but almost the rule. ...," Gay wrote. "The depressing part is how utterly unsurprising it is, how accustomed we have all become to the steady beat of implosions in the win-or-else world of collegiate sports."

David Ridpath, the president of the reform-minded Drake Group, sounded skeptical.

"I really do not think Rutgers will promote a cultural shift if Penn State didn't," he wrote in an email. "I thought maybe PSU would have woken us up to the dangers of selling our souls for intercollegiate athletic success, but in reality it has not. We still spend, we still hire coaches and administrators regardless of what they did or did not do in the past, and we still think that a winning, competitive athletic program will bring many guaranteed tangible and intangible results for an entire institution despite research that shows any positive effect is short term and fleeting at best."

A seismic shift may happen sometime in the future.

"This is where I think the cultural shift will happen: (When) some schools will simply run out of money, or overprice tuition and fees trying to support an athletic department that cannot support itself," he wrote. "Will this happen to Louisville and UK? Probably not for many years ... The bubble will eventually catch up to even the big programs."

Misconduct

The NBA looked foolish when it levied $5,000 fines for flopping to LeBron James, David West and Lance Stephenson. Of course, this is tip money for them, assuming they actually pay the fines rather than their teams.

The NBA would be better served to follow the example of the National Hockey League. Instead of fines, the NBA should impose, say, a 10-minute misconduct penalty for a flop (the player must sit out 10 minutes). A repeat offender or egregious flop could warrant a game misconduct (the player must sit out the rest of the game or a subsequent game).

Happy birthday

To Billy Donovan. The Florida coach turned 48 on Thursday. ... To David Roselle. The former UK president turned 74 on Thursday. ... To John Hampton. The SEC referee and Cynthiana native turns 45 today.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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