Wooden and Me" by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Grand
Central 304 pages, $29
will be hard-pressed to find photos on the front and
back covers of a book that more vividly describe what is
written inside than those on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s
"Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and
Off the Court."
front cover is a shot of a somewhat rigid Abdul-Jabbar,
then known as Lew Alcindor, as a young player at UCLA
listening to instructions from John Wooden in 1966. The
back photo shows the passage of time with Abdul-Jabbar
tenderly grasping the hand of his frail cane-carrying
coach, assisting him off the court after a UCLA game in
a picture is worth a 1,000 words, "then those two
pictures are worth 1,000 chapters," Abdul-Jabbar
said during a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune.
those photos show the evolution of the tight
relationship between arguably the greatest coach and
greatest player in college basketball history. Abdul-Jabbar
writes how it was an unlikely bond given the differences
in their backgrounds: He is an African-American Muslim
from New York City, and Wooden was a white Christian
from rural Indiana.
through those 50 years, Abdul-Jabbar recounts intimate
details of how these two icons of their sport came
together at a most basic human level, elevating their
lives in the process.
relationship evolved from being a mentor and father
figure to being a friend, a co-traveler in life,"
Abdul-Jabbar said. "The evolution was part of the
thrill of being with him. It’s what made it really
who will appear at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Chicago Tribune’s
Printers Row Lit Fest, spoke by phone last week from his
home in Orange County, Calif., about his new book. Here’s
an edited transcript of the conversation.
What do those front and back cover photos mean to you?
The pictures say so much. When I see them, I question
the reality. Who is leading who? It hits home to you,
the whole issue of role reversal. When we started out,
he was very much the mentor. Towards the end of his
life, I had to assume that role for him. I also saw a
similar photo of us from that moment (walking off the
court in 2007) from behind. It really pulled at my
heart. I got teary-eyed.
Do you think the young player in that 1966 photo
imagined he would have a 50-year plus relationship with
When I left UCLA, I had no idea how the future would
play out. It was quite conceivable that I wouldn’t
return to Southern California to maintain that
relationship. I was fortunate to return to play with the
Lakers just as Coach was retiring (in 1975). It made it
possible to re-establish a relationship on a totally
different basis. Soon after, Coach’s wife (Nell, died
in 1985), and that accelerated the friendship. We were
there to support him. Everything just grew organically.
You write about watching the movie "Dillinger"
at his home shortly before he died in 2010 at the age of
99. Even though it was late in his life, why was it
important to you to always deepen the connection?
We had a lot to share with each other. There were things
that genuinely interested him. (John) Dillinger grew up
less than 10 miles from where Coach lived in Indiana,
and the movie visually captured the essence of that time
in the Depression. I knew that Coach would enjoy that.
It’s what I did with him. It was all about stuff we
Speaking of stuff you loved, people would be surprised
to know that you two basketball icons used to watch a
lot of baseball games together.
We’re both big baseball fans. I am a National League
fan, and he’s an American League fan. We used to have
our all-time teams, and argue back and forth. He would
talk a lot about managers. I knew nothing about
managers. He always had a broader base of knowledge than
anybody in any conversation. He had all these facts at
Wood and me
You write about constantly gaining new insights about
Wooden. How surprised were you when Wooden revealed
years later that he felt intense pressure from the
burden of expectations in coaching you and subsequent
When you think about what he was seeking to achieve, I
thought it was all roses. I didn’t pay attention to
the part where in order to get to the roses, you have to
deal with some thorns. You skip over that in your mind.
You write in the book that the subject of race was
"awkward" between you and Wooden, especially
at the beginning of your relationship in the mid-‘60s.
How did his views evolve?
Coach was able to understand how corrosive race could be
in black America. It constantly disables in various ways
that a white person can’t really understand until they
see it happening. He would be on the periphery and he
began to notice and hear people say things. A lot of
what he heard was really appalling. He came to
understand better what we were going through.
What was writing the book like for you?
First, it forced me to remember stuff that happened more
than 50 years. That wasn’t easy. Then you go over all
the emotional stuff in your life. You let some of those
things fade into the edges of your mind. Writing the
book brings them all back.
What do you want people to learn about Coach Wooden?
I want people to understand who he really was. Most
people think, "Oh, he won all those
championships," and that he is such a wonderful
sports story. There’s much more to the story. There is
so much more about the real man.