It’s 5:45 am Friday morning. My house is quiet as I sit down to write to you. Our kids will sleep late because we got home way past bed time last night. We shared Thanksgiving with a family we’ve known almost ten years, since our sons became best buddies at UCLA daycare.
Mom works for UCLA like me. Dad is from India, and came to the US for a graduate degree at Texas A&M, my alma mater. Dad’s been to Aggie games, the Dixie Chicken, Tom’s BarBQ (now defunct), all the staples of College Station, Texas. Both Mom and Dad have been to FEMBApalooza twice. I’d love either to pursue an MBA someday: Mom’s a faculty researcher at UCLA and Dad’s a leader at Google. Both are friends to my wife and me.
Friendships and UCLA, that is part of what I promised to write about. Last week, I promised to write more about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and what I learned listening to him at the John Wooden Global Leadership Awards.
Kareem told a story that most people don’t know about Coach Wooden.
Kareem told about coming to California in March of 1965 on his recruiting trip, and meeting Coach Wooden for the first time. A self-described, cocky, young, star athlete from New York, Kareem remembers meeting Coach Wooden, his nasally midwestern lilt, his hair parted straight down the middle like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals, and what he chose to talk about.
Kareem was ready to talk basketball. But Coach Wooden barely mentioned it.
“I’m impressed with your grades, Lewis,” said Coach. “For most students, basketball is temporary. But knowledge is forever.”
Grades? What about my impressive stats? thought Lewis Alcindor (later to change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
But Coach Wooden knew his priorities, and his priority was that his players would have opportunities beyond basketball, and that meant academics first. They spoke for about thirty minutes, but only briefly about basketball. Coach Wooden did say that he usually recruited for speed, not size, and that he’d never coached someone as tall as Lewis/Kareem was.
“I’m sure we will find the proper way to use you on the court. I am looking forward to coaching someone like you,” he said.
“Freshman year can be very difficult,” he warned. “Making that transition from high school isn’t easy…But you seem like the kind of young man up to the challenge.”
Coach Wooden offered Lewis a challenge, the thing he sought most.
The rest is history.
Due to the “freshman rule” Kareem could not play on the varsity in 1966. But from 1967 to 1969, he and Coach Wooden would post an 88-2 record and win three consecutive NCAA National Championships. Kareem would be selected National College Player of the Year, consensus first-team All-American, and Final Four Most Outstanding Player — 3x for each award. And, he earned his History degree from UCLA and graduated in 1969.
Kareem would later earn 6 NBA championships and is still the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
That is all history, and well-known history.
What Kareem talked about that is less known is the context in which all that basketball success occurred.
In March of 1965, the time of Kareem’s recruiting visit to Westwood and his first meeting with Coach Wooden, our nation was in racial turmoil. Malcolm X had been assassinated in February. Civil rights leader John Lewis had just led the march in Selma, Alabama, to be met by police with tear gas and billy clubs that sent fifty people to the hospital and became known as “Bloody Sunday.” A few weeks after, Martin Luther King, Jr., would lead another group of protesters over the bridge, this time with federal protection.
Kareem, an almost-eighteen year old soon-to-be college freshman, and an African-American man, was finding his voice in all of this. Growing up in Harlem, he’d accidentally gotten caught up in a violent riot the previous summer. Protests over the shooting death of a fifteen-year-old black boy by a police lieutenant had led to gunshots, and one of the scariest moments of Kareem’s life.
And here is the history of Kareem’s friendship with Wooden that is much less well known. Here is the story that told us at the Wooden Global Leadership Awards.
In 2008, Kareem visited with Coach to show him a documentary he had made on the Harlem Rens, the greatest basketball team no one had ever heard of.
Being friends for nearly fifty years, Kareem was pretty sure he knew everything there was to know about Coach Wooden, from their time at UCLA through decades of lazy afternoon conversations ever since. But as they talked in 2008, a never-before-shared story arose.
Back in 1947, in his first year coaching at Indiana State Teachers College, Coach Wooden’s team won the Indiana Intercollegiate Conference title and was invited to play in the National Basketball Tournament in Kansas City, a big deal to the team and the school.
But, the tournament officials had one condition: Coach Wooden could not bring his player Clarence Walker, because he was black.
Kareem, hearing this story for the first time, over sixty years after it had happened, was fascinated.
Coach continued, “To tell the truth, I’m always surprised when people act poorly for no good reason. Lord knows Clarence had been through enough. Sometimes when the team was on the road, restaurants refused to serve him or hotels wouldn’t let him stay there with the rest of the team.”
“What did you do?” Kareem asked. Always the important question about moments like that, what do we do?
Coach Wooden, a first-time coach with a career and a family to think about, told the tournament officials that either all of his team would play, or none of his team would play. His team did not go to the tournament.
The next year, again after a winning season, the tournament committee called Coach Wooden and again invited him. Coach Wooden had the same question, “May all my players play?” and when the committee replied with the same “No” answer, Coach began to hang up.
Wait. Wait! they replied, and that second year they allowed Coach Wooden’s team, with all his players, white and black, to play.
“We lost in the finals to Louisville. Only championship I ever lost,” said Coach.
Coach Wooden had been an early pioneer of Civil Rights, putting his own career at risk, in 1947, by turning down participation in a fancy tournament. But he’d never talked about it.
Think about being Coach Wooden in March of 1965, meeting Lewis Alcindor, all 7′ 2″ of him.
That was Kareem’s other point.
Coach could have told this story to Lewis, to try to gain loyalty or “make a connection” to get Kareem to sign with UCLA. But that is not what Coach did. He talked about academics. He talked about team. He offered Lewis a challenge. And, he let their friendship begin the way that it should have begun, without manipulation.
If you live in Athens, Greece, after a while you may not notice the Parthenon.
If you go to UCLA, after a while, you may forget about Coach Wooden.
I wrote that in the last blog. I didn’t even know who Coach Wooden was when I started working here in 2002. I’ve come to appreciate his legacy more and more through time.
And that’s what it was like for me at the Wooden Global Leadership Awards. Inspired? Yes. Educated? For sure.
America was dealing with its issues in 1965. We are dealing with our issues in 2017. Putting principles before profit worked for Coach Wooden in 1965, and it inspires me in 2017. I hope it does the same for you.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend all. May your studies be fruitful. May your investment in your own growth and development pay dividends.
It’s now almost 8:45 am as I finish this post. I hope you like it. My five-year-old is pseudo-patiently waiting for me to finish. He’s ready to wrestle!
Quotations of Kareem and Coach Wooden are excerpted from Coach Wooden and Me, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Grand Central Publishing, 2017. Kareem told this basics of this story at the Wooden Global Leadership Awards, but the book offers much more detail than he could share in his minutes onstage. Anything inspiring in this post is the product of Kareem and Coach. Any typos or errors are entirely my own.
Basketball statistics are from the above book and Kareem’s Wikipedia page.
L-R Sana Rahim ’19, Evan Barnes ’18, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69, Kevin Plank, Anna Goldberg ’18, and Brandon Scott ’18.
Sana Rahim ’19, pictured above, was the 2017 Wooden Fellow selected from FEMBA. Sana’s words from the stage Monday night would make every FEMBA proud. Committed, poignant (and funny), Sana’s remarks showed me how her life is a living legacy. Her love for her family, for making a difference, and for being willing to sacrifice for the team would make Coach Wooden smile, and will make you proud to know her as a fellow-FEMBA. Enjoy her Wooden Fellow video and read the full-length article “Inclusion is No Sacrifice”, both below.
Aaron Kaplan ’17, is this week’s Drive Time podcast interview. Aaron came to FEMBA as a practicing Rabbi who wanted to reinvent himself, to contribute in life in a new and different way, while building on his history of service. I hope you enjoy listening Aaron’s story of reinventing himself as you drive to campus today.
Aaron Kaplan ’17 and his Drive Time podcast interview, above.