People who say that sports don’t matter aren’t paying attention. From a practical standpoint alone, sports on all levels contribute to local, national, and global economies in many ways. But let’s forget about practicality for a moment and let’s talk about magic. Magic is when people who don’t have much in common come together in pursuit of a collective goal. In sports, this pursuit often plays out in front of teammates, classmates, friends, and fans. While the ultimate goal itself may be simple (i.e., “Just win baby”), the highs and lows experienced by participants and onlookers along the way are where the magic lies.
In Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recounts a friendship with UCLA coach John Wooden that spanned the course of five decades. His effort is thoughtful and beautiful and is an example of why sports do matter. Abdul-Jabbar details his time in college and the slow-burning friendship that developed with Wooden over the years. It is clear from the onset that these two men would have never met if not for the common goal of winning basketball games. That’s not meant to be negative, just reality. But thanks to sports, they did meet and the masses are better off because of it.
Kareem’s story mostly alternates between old and more current anecdotes. Despite the gap in time between each story, the book still feels like it’s being rolled out in chronological order. Captain Skyhook does a phenomenal job of connecting the past and present. The reader is never left questioning why two events occurring so far apart in time were mentioned as part of the same thought.
In public, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s temperament is more Shrek than superstar. That’s what makes much of the material in this book so intriguing. Abdul-Jabbar reveals new information and covers a wide range of topics that influenced him as an individual. Of course, John Wooden is somehow connected to all of it and it’s special to learn how Kareem’s friendship with him evolved over time.
It would be misleading to say this book is only about the friendship between these two men. Kareem also discusses factors in his formative years that led him to move to California and enroll at the University of California Los Angeles. He discusses finding his voice socially, morally, and politically. In fact, one of the greatest stories in Coach Wooden and Me involves Kareem and a teammate talking about religion on a bus ride back from a game. At the end of the discussion, Kareem “comes out” as being Muslim and in short, no one really cares. The magic of sports.
Perhaps the most impactful, if not infuriating anecdote involves a woman calling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the n-word in front of Coach Wooden. Abdul-Jabbar describes a shell-shocked Wooden who seemed unsure how to react. The lack of a reaction was not because Coach was too afraid to confront the woman but because he was genuinely shocked things like this blatantly occurred. Many adjectives can be used to describe John Wooden but one would never dream that naïve would be on that list. The incident so bothered Coach Wooden that he still felt the need to bring it up to Kareem many years later.
While the unfortunate incident mentioned above happened in the 1960s, it remains relevant today. Think of all the kind, honest, and decent people that exist out there that possess this same naïveté. There is a tendency to believe what we believe until something shatters that belief. When something is so bad that a good person can’t imagine it happening, that person will just assume it doesn’t happen. This incident was perhaps the most heartbreaking part of Coach Wooden and Me. It was tough to see a legend like Wooden be so vulnerable…so human.
Coming in at 279 pages, the hardcover edition of this book should be an easy, enjoyable read for avid and fringe sports fans. Besides talking hoops, Abdul-Jabbar dives into jazz, religion, politics, race, poverty, and many other relevant social issues, all the while connecting them to the legendary coach. This is perhaps Abdul-Jabbar’s greatest accomplishment – writing a book about John Wooden while talking mostly about himself.
FSM Final Grade: A