Mike Tharp: Wooden still teaching

June 7, 2010 

John Wooden didn't stay at the lectern long.

He stood in front of several hundred high school coaches sitting in bleachers at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus.

The Wizard of Westood (a nickname from a sports writer he disdained) was one of several blue-chip college coaches recruited by Bruin Coach Steve Lavin for a preseason clinic.

Besides Wooden, who died Friday at age 99, legendary coach Pete Newell, who made an indelible mark at UC Berkeley, the Lakers and with his Big Man's camp, also spoke to the clinicians in 1997.

Gene Keady, Purdue's head coach, lectured us too. He was a longtime Lavin mentor.

And elsewhere in the gym were that year's UCLA varsity, featuring a flashy freshman, Baron Davis, who went on to play in the NBA after two years of college. After the clinic, we'd get to watch practice.

I went there with Eldridge Ezpeleta, varsity basketball head coach at San Pedro High, where I was a volunteer assistant on the boys team. I coached there six years.

The clinic lasted all morning. I made sure I sat in the front row of the bleachers, right on the floor, so I wouldn't miss a word. That little move would pay off later.

Lavin, then as now, was slick -- in a cool way. Smooth, poised, prepared and generous in his praise to the older men who'd shaped the way he coached.

I remember few specifics from what Lavin or Keady said that day in the gym. I recall that one of them recommended that young players dribble two balls at the same time to improve their ball handling with both hands. We incorporated that into San Pedro's drills.

What stayed with me forever was the climax of the clinic. Lavin brought out Newell, who stood at the lectern, equipped with a microphone, in his basketball shoes for, oh, maybe three minutes.

Then he walked away from the sound system and set up "on the block" -- between the space closest to the basket along the free throw lane and the one next to it. That's a post player's sweet spot. If you can establish yourself with the ball in there, good things will nearly always happen.

That's because basketball is a game of angles, and Newell preached the geometry of the area near the basket as the owner's manual for big men to succeed in the post.

But he couldn't just stand at the lectern and tell us. He had to get down in that space and show us coaches -- using his hands, hips, eyes and, most important, feet. Talking us through it -- but only the first few rows could hear him.

Then Wooden shuffled up, also wearing sneakers. And just like his onetime rival and contemporary friend Newell, within minutes John Wooden had moved away from the lectern. He side-stepped out to the front court to show how to set a screen, to pivot with or without the ball, the need to keep your hands up -- as a target on offense and to disrupt passing lanes on defense.

All done without a mic. So only those within a few feet of the old man could hear his every word. And I was close enough to do that.

When he sat down, we stood up and clapped and cheered. And before we watched practice, I was third in line to get Wooden and Newell to sign my program.

After a lifetime as a reporter, an observer, someone trained not to take a side, it felt good to shake hands with two of my hoops heroes.

And to thank them for all they gave the game we loved.

They're both gone now. But the game -- and people like me they touched -- are better because those two coaches laced 'em up for so long. And took the time to teach what they learned.

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