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Basketball coaching legend John Wooden led UCLA to 10 national championships, a success that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
My wife, Dolores, flipped on the TV one night back in 2000 and I sat down on the couch next to her. An awards show was on. Not the usual Hollywood stuff, for a change. Important people like former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gen. Wesley K. Clark and humanitarian Simon Wiesenthal were the honorees. The award was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
Dolores turned to me. "Has Coach ever won one of those?"
"I don't think so," I said. But as far as I was concerned, he should have. John Wooden was the most influential man in my life. I first met the legendary UCLA basketball coach in 1971 when I was a raw freshman out of Philadelphia's Overbrook High School. There, I'd been a star player. But college was where I grew up, where I learned to be a man. A lot of that was Coach's doing, though I didn't make it easy for him. Not at all.
Two horses were trapped on an icy mountain. Would help arrive in time?
"Goodness gracious, sakes alive, André!" I remember Coach barking at me my first day at practice, after I made a nifty bounce pass behind my back. "We use the basic chest pass here at UCLA."
Oh, yeah? I thought. Well, you haven't seen Andre McCarter then. Back in Philly I was my own one-man show. Not to brag, but there wasn't a player in the city who could stop me. I was the kind of razzle-dazzle player who brings a crowd to its feet. "People will pay to see you play," a scout once told me, mapping my path through college to the pros and NBA stardom. Colleges from across the country recruited me. Basic chest pass? I wanted more freedom than that. Even if it was UCLA.
Inevitably Coach and I knocked heads. Coach was no-nonsense. He began his career as a schoolteacher in a small, God-fearing Indiana town. He preached efficiency, precision and hard work—all of it rooted in a strong, straightforward faith. He didn't have patience for frills. Coach Wooden seldom raised his voice and never swore, but man, he could be tough. One day I was five minutes late to a pregame meal. The next four games I lost my place in the starting lineup.
Things came to a head the first day of practice my sophomore year. Back then UCLA was a college basketball dynasty. Coach Wooden was revered and much imitated. He had led the school to seven national championships in the previous eight years. The stands were filled with college coaches from all over who had come to campus hoping to see how Coach did it. Some of them had tried to recruit me back in high school. I felt like I was onstage too.
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Coach blew his whistle and play began. Greg Lee, the starting point guard whose job I wanted, had the ball. I was playing on the second team. Greg came at me, and with a quick swipe I stole the ball and raced downcourt. My teammates were open. But instead of passing the ball, I dribbled the length of the court, faked a behind-the-back pass toward one of my teammates and put it in the basket myself, leaving star center Bill Walton staring at air. The visiting coaches came to their feet. My adrenaline surged.
Coach Wooden jumped to his feet too. "Goodness gracious, sakes alive, Andre," he screamed. "You do that again, you won't play on our team!"
I'd expected a slap on the back, not a reprimand. Coach and I had a rocky road after that. My style against his, showmanship against fundamental play. And Coach Wooden wasn't about to change his style. I thought about transferring to another school. "We'll give you the freedom to play the way you want," one rival coach said. They enticed me with all sorts of promises. I didn't know what to do.
So I called my mom. "Coach and I aren't getting along. I'm thinking of leaving."
"It sounds to me like you're not thinking, period," Mom shot back. "Coach Wooden won a whole bunch of championships before you got there. The man must know something about the game, something you probably have not figured out yet."