- The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball by Smith, John Matthew
John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” and the high moral values he espoused in his exemplary puritanical lifestyle have generated wide acclaim. Many writers have published “self-help” and “motivational” books using his theories of good and successful living. These books are immensely popular, but they have infused the “Wizard of Westwood’s” legacy with a rosy gloss that belies the reality of his dynasty. [End Page 531]
John Matthew Smith may be the first author to fully and fairly assess the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball program during its miraculous run of ten championships from 1964 to 1975. The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball is not another naïve depiction of the unprecedented championships won by a coach who seemingly valued character development more than basketball skill development. Nor is The Sons of Westwood a muckraking indictment of the shady underside of the glorified coach’s program. Instead, Smith follows a very short list of authors who have been willing to “show (Wooden) as a human being, flawed and at times hypocritical” (p. 225).
Smith’s book is a revealing and insightful product of the analysis of primary source materials and the secondary literature that emerged from Wooden’s career. While some journalists criticized the flaws of Wooden’s program during its success, the contemporary audience was not prepared to swallow anything distasteful about a coach who had reinstilled hope in the traditional values of college athletics. With forty years of separation, we are now ready for this robust account of John Wooden and the UCLA dynasty.
While Smith provides some background context on Wooden’s life and career, the author focuses on Wooden’s championship years. In this era, college campuses across the nation struggled with race, Vietnam, and authority. Smith chronicles Wooden’s players’ experiences in this context, dealing with the disparate forces of liberal social changes and the coach’s conservative authority.
Two African Americans starred in UCLA’s first national championship with a vindictive 1964 win over a segregated Duke team, and white Southern Californians Keith Erickson and Gail Goodrich starred in the Bruins’ second title in 1965 against a Michigan team led by an outstanding African American. Through these victories the Bruins respected their coach’s views on race, politics, and life overall. They heeded the authority of the burgeoning “Wizard.” But that would all change.
The UCLA program reached “The Promised Land” (p. 55) in 1965. The team won its second straight title in April and won the greatest recruiting prize of all time in May. Lew Alcindor chose UCLA over more than one hundred schools that offered him a scholarship. The introspective and socially curious seven-footer loved the integrated racial climate that UCLA athletics had fostered, sponsoring nationally recognized black athletes. Alcindor brought to Westwood a social consciousness that college athletics had not previously experienced to this extent. He and his black teammates smoked marijuana, participated in Black Pride rallies, and discussed America’s social ills. None of these behaviors were unique to college students. But those who created the counterculture on campuses around the country were not athletes. Student-athletes had been taught to act conservatively. The athletic ideal perpetuated the notions of obedience, goodness, and, Americanism. Most athletes espoused these characteristics, and those who did not would keep their counterculture views private.
Throughout Alcindor’s career, Smith notes that Wooden began to lose some of his unquestioned authority. The “Wizard” catered to Alcindor and the other stars such as Bill Walton—a white Southern Californian cut from the same ideological cloth as “Big Lew.” These mega-stars questioned Wooden’s decisions, broke team rules without punishment, publicized their political and social views against Wooden’s advice, and accepted NCAA-violating gifts from program booster Sam Gilbert. [End Page 532]
Thus, Smith’s final six...