New books bring back pair of basketball greats from my painful past

December 12, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

WHEN I WAS growing up in Southern California, I hated John Wooden - the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won 10 national championships during the 1960s and '70s.

I was a rabid USC fan, so it was required.

The same goes for the equally legendary Boston Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach, who presided over the greatest dynasty in NBA history at about the same time.

I was also a Los Angeles Lakers fan, so it also was required.

Now, I would have been content to forget the basketball frustration of my youth and keep those hoop nightmares buried somewhere deep in my sports subconscious, but a couple of sportswriter acquaintances of mine have decided to make me re-live the whole discouraging era during this otherwise happy holiday season.

Longtime L.A.-area sports columnist Steve Bisheff just completed a new biography of Wooden entitled "John Wooden: An American Treasure" (Cumberland House), and prolific sports author John Feinstein recently finished his 14th sports book - a biography of Auerbach entitled "Let Me Tell You A Story: A Lifetime in the Game" (Little Brown).

Coincidence?

Well, probably, but since I am an avowed conspiracy theorist, I think these two guys just wanted to see me squirm.

What they succeeded in doing, instead, was make me wonder how I could ever have been rooting against these two very different coaches who arguably are the greatest basketball minds of all time.

Here I am, getting downright nostalgic as I read about Auerbach and that irritating victory cigar, or Wooden with that ever-present rolled-up program in his hand. Those were the prevailing images of my youth - at least as far as basketball was concerned - and I would have told both of them where they could put their signature props if I had ever gotten the chance.

I didn't, of course. I wanted to play basketball in the worst way, and that's exactly how I played. I was cut from the Santa Ana (Calif.) High School team three years in a row - once on the first day of practice. Who knew you had to be able to dribble with either hand?

So, I lived vicariously through USC, which also had a decent basketball program back then - not that there is any surviving historical evidence of it. Wooden won seven straight NCAA championships in one disheartening stretch, so it was easy for me to despise him ... even if everyone in L.A. knew he was a fine gentleman, teacher and Midwestern philosopher.

The proof is in the testimonials that Bisheff (a USC graduate who obviously majored in irony) includes in the book, from such contrasting personalities as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, Sydney Wicks and Bill Walton - who wrote the foreword.

What comes through from all of them is that Wooden, now 94 years young, was both ahead of his time and behind it - a purveyor of traditional basketball values in a dramatically changing era.

Feinstein casts the rough-edged Auerbach in a similarly affectionate light, delving into his early life and great career during a series of weekly lunches at a Chinese restaurant in Washington.

Auerbach traces his life from his boyhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., through the formative years of the NBA to the amazing reign of the Celtics, who were the dominant team in the league for the better part of a generation and won eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966 (the last with Bill Russell replacing Auerbach as coach).

Where Wooden still is quiet and unassuming, the 87-year-old Auerbach is the consummate storyteller, regaling his hand-picked lunch group with colorful reminisces about many of the most important figures in the history of his sport. He also sadly recounts the tragic deaths of University of Maryland star Len Bias and Baltimore's Reggie Lewis during his tenure as Celtics' GM.

Feinstein, whose revealing 1986 account of a season with controversial basketball coach Bobby Knight ("A Season on the Brink") was one of the most successful sports books of all time, brings his usual attention to detail to a subject that clearly has gotten close to his heart.

Thanks, I guess, for the memories.

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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