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Courtside chatter

Abdul-Jabbar pays homage

He calls Wooden ‘a great teacher’

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 7, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar returned from an NBA-sponsored trip in Spain just hours before John Wooden’s death, and the former UCLA All-American and Hall of Famer raced to Ronald Reagan Medical Center.

He spent precious moments with his coach, friend, and mentor before Wooden’s death Friday night at 99. Abdul-Jabbar said Wooden was sedated and didn’t recognize him, but he said it was vital to see the man who shaped many of his philosophies one final time.

Los Angeles has spent the weekend mourning Wooden, regarded as the greatest coach in team sports. Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and several other former UCLA standouts were at Staples Center to participate in a pregame ceremony honoring Wooden.

Abdul-Jabbar is battling leukemia and said he is in remission, but the topic of conversation yesterday was Wooden, and Abdul-Jabbar attempted to summate his 45-year relationship with the Wizard of Westwood.

“I’m very saddened by it,’’ he said. “It’s very difficult for me, I’m just happy I got a chance to see him. I left about 3:15 and he only lived a few more hours. I count myself lucky to have been able to make contact with him.’’

Abdul-Jabbar was the best high school player in the nation out of Power Memorial in New York and made the stunning decision to sign with UCLA, 3,000 miles from home and for a coach he wasn’t familiar with. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Abdul-Jabbar and Wooden would be eternally linked because of the success they shared at UCLA — three national titles — and the philosophies Wooden offered to Abdul-Jabbar, who became a Wooden disciple.

“I really enjoyed his down to earth, genuine concern, and he was so real,’’ Abdul-Jabbar said. “And that was something you immediately responded to. I had a lot of great mentors in my life but he looms large.’’

Wooden did not yell or curse at his players. But he used one special phrase to express his anger and disdain, and Abdul-Jabbar had no trouble recalling those words.

“Goodness gracious sakes alive,’’ he said with a smile. “Because he was so even-keel, when he’d say that and he’d be excited, your eyebrows grow up and you’d look around and reconsider what you had just done.’’

Abdul-Jabbar and Walton didn’t immediately conform to Wooden’s standards. Lew Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar’s name before he adopted the Muslim faith, was active in social issues, as was Walton, who was nearly excused from the team for refusing to cut his hair and beard.

Wooden supported Abdul-Jabbar’s religious conversion but the atmosphere of the late ’60s and early ’70s dramatically differed from Wooden’s early championship teams. Authority was challenged, although eventually heeded.

“I am sure he was aware it was a period of turmoil,’’ Abdul-Jabbar said. “The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed while I was at UCLA. He was going to give everybody an opportunity and he didn’t care about people’s ideas about race. He was going to do things the way he felt they needed to be done.’’

Abdul-Jabbar, 63, still lives by the ideals passed on by Wooden, and more than 40 years after his tenure at UCLA he is still in awe of his experience with the legendary coach.

“He was a great teacher,’’ Abdul-Jabbar said. “He was a molder of character and basketball was just a means for him to affect us and make us deal with our character issues, because what we learned on the court were really things that translated to life.

“Any success I have enjoyed as a parent came about from remembering how Coach Wooden would challenge us and let us fail and then come back at us and say, ‘Now that we have tried it your way, this is the right way to do things.’ ’’

And their relationship came to a peaceful end Friday, when Abdul-Jabbar looked down at Wooden for the final time.

“I just sat there and took the moment in,’’ he said. “I felt very fortunate to get there. It’s hard to be [at the Finals] but it is what he would have wanted us to do because he always told us not to get caught up in the lows or the highs. He had such a positive impact on so many people, that’s what it should be about.’’

Hornets, Williams close
The New Orleans Hornets have agreed in principle with Monty Williams on a three-year contract, according to the Associated Press.

The club hopes to introduce Williams as its coach by tomorrow.

The Hornets began negotiating with Williams Friday when it became clear Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau wanted to explore other options. Thibodeau has been hired by the Bulls.

Williams, 38, played at Notre Dame and for several NBA teams spanning nine seasons. He has been an assistant to Portland coach Nate McMillan since 2005.

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