Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-year Friendship On and Off the Court

By Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

Many of us can recall a coach or mentor whose guidance and advice had an impact on us. I know I often think of teachers, parents and people that took me under their wing at the appropriate time, even when what they said didn’t sink in until years later.

“Coach Wooden and Me” written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the story of an unlikely pairing that eventually formed a rich friendship. In 1967, Lew Alcindor (as Abdul-Jabbar was known then) was the most sought-after high school basketball player in the country. He made the cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles with a scholarship to play for the legendary coach John Wooden at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

At first glance Alcindor and Wooden were an unlikely pair. Alcindor, raised in Harlem, came of age during a tumultuous time in Black American history. Wooden grew up in rural Indiana, a World War II veteran, playing and coaching his way to national prominence. “Coach Wooden and Me” does a tremendous job of explaining how this complex relationship evolved through several decades.

From 1964 to 1975 Wooden’s methods at UCLA resulted in 10 national championships, of which Alcindor was key part of three. With this notability, the book mentions instances where Alcindor was the target of racial taunts which distressed Wooden. While Wooden worked extensively with Alcindor preparing him for his professional career and a post basketball life, the racial tension is a subject they often broached.

The book reveals that Wooden was not always who he appeared to be. He was a different kind of coach, caring more about practice and perfection in the process than using manipulative methods for motivation. Jabbar, for example, has used a unique hook shot that he developed in high school in New York. At first the old-school Wooden dismissed the shot as folly, but over time he realized its value and coached Alcindor to perfect and use it.

After a historic career at UCLA, Alcindor moved on to play professionally. It’s during this time that Alcindor changed his name through his Muslim faith to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the Vietnam war era, and a time when violence against Black Americans was rising. During this post-President Kennedy era, there was a battle between those who needed to see change in the establishment versus those who dug in their heels to protect a world they believed in.

After Abdul-Jabbar became a successful pro player, he lost touch somewhat with Wooden. They had different religions, life experiences, and a 50-year age difference. However, during his most difficult moments, Abdul-Jabbar found himself relying on Wooden’s lessons that stuck with him.

For years the two had intermittent communication, but after retiring from professional basketball, the coach-mentor relationship was rekindled. Abdul-Jabbar and Wooden forged a strong friendship. Some of the best conversations took place later in Woodens’ life as he navigated aging and the loneliness of losing his wife Nell. In the end, their connection is so strong that Abdul-Jabbar affirmed that Wooden was his surrogate father.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Coach Wooden and Me” are the discussions Abdul-Jabbar and Wooden had around teambuilding to become perhaps college basketball’s greatest team. Abdul-Jabbar tried to explain to Wooden that a team that excels together is like a jazz band, with different parts that work around a shared melodic theme. Wooden thinks he’s off his rocker, but like he did during his long life, he listened, adapted, and thought through what others said to reach a conclusion.

“Coach Wooden and Me” is a refreshing contrast to today’s big money era of college sports, harkening back to when most student athletes stayed in college for four years and actually earned degrees. Abdul-Jabbar is a gifted writer who articulately describes Coach Wooden through both a vulnerable and heart-felt lens.

Chris Wendel works for Northern Initiatives, a mission-based lender located in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides funding to businesses in Michigan and “know-how” to organizations throughout the United States. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City.