Eager for any advice on how to succeed in the classroom and the court at the college level, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then a UCLA freshman known as Lew Alcindor, had already established a bond with then-UCLA basketball coach John Wooden before the two visited a local restaurant for a dinner out.
The accomplished teacher from Indiana planned to spend their time advising the lanky 7-foot-2 center from New York City on how best to handle the looming attention from physical opponents and inquisitive reporters. Instead, it was the then-middle-aged Wooden who learned something that evening when he was exposed to the racism his 18-year-old dinner guest often endured.
As they left the restaurant, an elderly white woman marveled at Abdul-Jabbar’s height before addressing him with a racial slur. Though Wooden’s face turned red, Abdul-Jabbar remembered Wooden “was too much the Midwestern gentleman to verbally attack an old woman.”
|UCLA coach John Wooden introduces new UCLA player Lew Alcindor at the Bruins’ picture-day in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, 1966. (AP Photo)|
“It’s just like that for any white person in America. They don’t know what it’s like to be a black person being discriminated against,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “How are they going to find that out?”
Wooden soon did. He then apologized to Abdul-Jabbar and pleaded with him not to think all white people are racist.
“It really bothered him. It really affected his worldview,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “For someone like him that felt like he had the hands on the reins of everything, that must’ve been a humbling experience.”
|Lew Alcindor towers over coach John Wooden, who has some words of advice for the UCLA star during a pre-NCAA title game workout on March 21, 1969 in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo)|
It was one of many experiences Abdul-Jabbar shared in his book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-year Friendship On and Off the Court. In the book, one of more than a dozen he’s written, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer reflects plenty on Wooden’s record 10 NCAA championships with UCLA, his famed Pyramid of Success and how he helped Abdul-Jabbar develop his skyhook. The former UCLA and Lakers center also details complicated events that tested and strengthened his relationship with Wooden.
“Coach didn’t get it all right,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “But I talked about that so people didn’t think he was some kind of perfect person. He made mistakes, but the way he dealt with them was first rate.”
|In this Feb. 24, 2007, file photo, former UCLA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar assists former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden off the court after celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1967 national championship team. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas, File)|
Since Wooden’s passing in 2010, Abdul-Jabbar said he has developed a greater understanding of the strength of their bond. It centered on basketball but included passion for literature, history and music and a mutual respect of their different backgrounds. It took Abdul-Jabbar seven years to write that story.
“I had to think about what Coach Wooden meant to my life,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Then I had to think about how much did I want to share with the public? Some of it is private. But it is very meaningful.”