College basketball has changed over the years, but not for the better with the days of selfish players, and defense being a strategy of the past.  This is why this book is so relevant today because it shows how the game used to be played and what is missing in basketball today.

The unlikely trio of John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly known as Lew Alcindor), and Bill Walton created one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. From 1964 to 1975 the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball team won 10 national championships, including seven in a row, and amassed four perfect seasons. This seems like today an unheard feat considering college basketball teams are hampered by the “NIL”, the portal transfer and “one-and-done.” The three together had a winning attitude set against the turmoil in America of the 1960s and 1970s. 

This is a must read that captures the basketball history of that era and the cultural unrest regarding civil rights and the Vietnam War.  The author fascinatingly weaves together sports, politics, and history within the contexts of UCLA basketball.

Elise Cooper: Why the title?

Scott Howard-Cooper: The title came about because I was struck that the UCLA Bruins obviously had this empire, this kingdom, and this program at the peak for so many years.  I also wanted to put it with the backdrop of the times in America of the sixties and seventies.  There was so many things going around the Bruin basketball players. The meat of the book is the arrival of Lew Alcindor before he became Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, through the departure of Bill Walton. 

EC:  Why write it now?

SHC:  I wanted to write it now because this season that just finished is the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the seven consecutive championships. One year from now will be the fiftieth anniversary of Coach John Wooden’s last year.

EC:  Do you think Coach Wooden was the best basketball coach ever?

SHC:  I do, but I also think he would not think so. He was not a great coach in basketball strategy and was the first to say he was not a good x’s and o’s coach. He was not the guy who would ‘rule the chess board’, never would outsmart someone. Looking at the preparation and the system he had in place, the way he was able to mesh talents and personalities for so long, year after year, is remarkable. The times need to be factored in. He kept everyone focused.  He also had the greatest coaching staff of all time.  His assistants were invaluable in the strategy and the recruiting.

EC: Isn’t one of the things that made him great is his ability to know his weaknesses and hire assistant coaches to supplement that?

SHC: This is one of the reasons he was so great.  He did not want yes men. He wanted people to disagree with him.  He wanted smart people around him. Assistant Coach Jerry Norman played a role in the early strategy sessions. Another assistant coach, Gary Cunningham, was Lew Alcindor’s first coach of the freshman team.  Other great assistant coaches were Denny Crum and Frank Arnold. He wanted to know what his assistant coaches were thinking. I do not think it was just a coincidence that Cunningham, Norman, and Crum played for Wooden.

EC:  Do you think he had the players leave their politics at the door?

SHC: Yes and no. The politics and the issues going on in society were always with the players. Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton could have brought the whole dynasty down if they were about ego, worried about how many points they were getting, or wanting to bring the protests to the courts, which they could have done.  I do think John Wooden was worried when Lew Alcindor came out from New York, that he would want to dominate the ball and the headlines. As it turned out, Alcindor and Bill Walton were the definition of selfless and team first.  They had no egos.  They did not care about the spotlight and in fact hated it. They would talk about their teammates. They cared about the win and playing right. Once they stepped on the court, they were selfless. 

EC:  Were there any players who tried to fuse their causes with basketball?

SHC:  Yes.  A player, Andy Hill came to Wooden during the National Moratorium Protest in 1969 and asked him to cancel practice to show people how UCLA basketball is standing up for a cause. This did not go over well. Wooden did not cancel. He looked at Hill and said ‘Andy you do not have to be at practice today.  You do not have to be at practice ANY DAY.’ There were moments after the games where players protested.  They did not silence the beliefs but knew how to keep them in check.  They knew when and where. Bill Walton believed in Bruin basketball.  While Walton and Alcindor had their stands on civil rights and the Vietnam War, they also had their stands on the greatness of UCLA basketball.

EC: Were there any examples of discontent?

SHC: Jim Wooden, John’s son, a proud Marine, told me how angry he was at Walton for protesting. He wanted to confront Walton. This was not a cocoon, but everyone knew where to draw the line and not cross it.

EC: How would Wooden have reacted to the way the NIL (Name-Image-Likeness) is structured?

SHC:  He would have reacted from afar.  John Wooden would not be coaching in today’s world. He hated to recruit but did recruit Lew Alcindor.  Weekends were family time for him and his assistants.  Now players are recruited but must be re-recruited to make sure they do not transfer. He would not have had anything to do with this version of the game: the recruiting, the money involved, and the emphasis on individual stardom.  He would have either have gone into retirement or he would have become a high school English teacher somewhere. He was old school even then. He would never compromise the basketball side. He wanted the ball to be moving. The people who wanted to play fancy and who needed to take the shot were the antithesis of what John Wooden wanted.

EC: Would Wooden have like the style of UCLA’s current coach where he yells at his players?

SHC: He would not have approached him.  But if someone around the current coach initiated the conversation he would have commented. One of the interesting parts of the book shows how people need to suspend what they know about Wooden in the 21st century.  He was a yeller. He would ride his players in practice.  He was on officials during games.  He would even rag on opposing players. He was fierce and driven as a coach. He would do whatever was in the rules to win the game.  The John Wooden, America’s grandfather, was not Coach John Wooden of the sixties and seventies.

EC:  Who would you consider the best UCLA player ever under Wooden?

SHC: Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton are impossible to decide. Most people feel that Kareem Abdul- Jabbar is the best player in college basketball history. Through my research I found out that is just not the case. Bill Walton has a very strong case. He does not like to be put on the same plateau. Other coaches and John Wooden and opponents said that it would be easier to play Alcindor than Walton. There is not a clear-cut number one the way most people believe.

EC:  Are you writing another book?

SHC:  I am scratching out a few ideas and would like to write another book.




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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.