Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played under John Wooden at UCLA from 1966-1969, but the player and coach remained friends for the next 40 years, until Wooden’s death in 2010 at 99. Now seven years later, the NBA Hall-of-Famer and Hollywood Reporter contributing editor has written about that relationship in detail for the first time in Coach Wooden and Me, Grand Central, May 16, 2017..
Abdul-Jabbar takes the story back to when he was still a student at New York City’s Power Memorial High (and still known as Lewis Alcindor) and Wooden visited his parents at their Harlem apartment to get their OK for their only son to go across the country to attend college. (He tells the great story about being sent to his room so the adults could discuss his future). He writes about his playing time at UCLA, offering a candid take on what made Wooden a great coach and the clashes they sometimes had about politics and Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to convert to Islam. And then he brings the story forward over the next four decades to detail their friendship, including sweet and tender stories about movie nights together and how Wooden helped heal a rift Abdul-Jabbar had with his high school.
Abdul-Jabbar discusses the book with THR, including why it took him so long to write the book, their disagreements about Muhammad Ali and what it’s like when the great UCLA basketball teams get together for reunions.
It has been seven years since Coach Wooden died. Why did it take this long to write the book?
For the first few years after his death, I was still shaken at having lost him. I needed to remove my grief from the process before I could look back at our relationship with clarity. Sometimes [Wooden] would climb to the very top of Pauley Pavilion where he could reach up and touch the ceiling and he’d look down on us moving around like beetles skittling across the floor. He explained that changing perspectives like that allowed him to understand all aspects of our playing. That’s what I’ve done by waiting until now to write this book. Coach is still teaching me how to do things.
In so many ways you two were polar opposites. You were a 7’2″ black kid from Harlem who converted to Islam and he was a 5’10” white man from the Midwest who was a devout Christian. How did you overcome those differences to forge a friendship?
Coach Wooden and I shared a deep interest in history and literature. So, we approached cultural differences with curiosity rather than fear or judgment. He was interested in my cultural background and perspective, and I was interested in his. Coach had overcome so many obstacles on his road to success that I couldn’t help but admire the man who never lost his optimism about people or his moral compass. Rather than overcoming cultural differences, we just let ourselves be open to learn from each other.
One of the things that make the book so great is the honesty. You don’t shy away from talking about what you see as Wooden’s mistakes and your disagreements. A big one was over your friend Muhammad Ali. Why did you want to include stories like that?
Coach Wooden was one of the most humble and honest people I have ever met. He famously said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Sometimes those mistakes included misjudging a player or letting certain biases creep in. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t done that, but I also don’t know anyone who was quicker to admit his mistakes and try to do better. Coach would have been disappointed in me if I’d tried to characterize him as some saintly paragon of perfection. His whole life was dedicated to teaching us to improve ourselves. And nothing was more inspirational to us doing that than seeing him do it for himself.