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June 7, 2010

Commentary: John Wooden's enduring lessons

John Wooden didn't stay at the lectern long.

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.

To read the complete column, visit www.mercedsunstar.com.

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