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Starkey: John Wooden and an inconvenient truth

| Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the court at UCLA, John Wooden called the plays. Off the court, Sam Gilbert called the players.

-- Excerpt from 1991 book "Undue Process"

Strange, isn't it• We sports writers are quick to call out the cheaters and alleged cheaters, from Jim Calhoun to John Calipari to Barry Bonds and Bill Belichick -- Belicheat, we labeled him -- but when it came time to size up John Wooden's basketball dynasty at UCLA, most of us surrendered to the myth.

The country's most-decorated sports columnists, upon Wooden's death June 4, copied the NCAA's move from some four decades earlier and ignored a terribly inconvenient truth: UCLA cheated.

Go back and read the Los Angeles Times' explosive investigative piece from Feb. 1, 1982, and you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

Culled from 45 interviews with people connected to the program, including former players and coaches, the piece portrayed wealthy booster Sam Gilbert as a "one-man clearinghouse" for players. It detailed how members of seven of Wooden's 10 championship teams were lavished with "cars, stereos, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers' prices for season tickets," all against NCAA rules.

The Times' reporters were Alan Greenberg, since deceased, and Mike Littwin, now a general columnist for the Denver Post.

"No one other than Sam Gilbert ever disputed a word we wrote," Littwin says. "No one said they were misquoted. The only (fan) complaint we got was, 'Why don't you do the same thing to USC football?' "

I asked Littwin whether he was offended by the way journalists have ignored his work in their stories about Wooden.

"I don't feel bad," he said. "I just think when people write about a guy like John Wooden, it's very difficult to contradict the narrative, and the narrative is that John Wooden was a saint. Well, there are very few saints. He was a good man and a smart man, and I believe he chose to look the other way when it came to Sam Gilbert."

In other words, one could say Wooden "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance," to borrow a phrase the NCAA used in addressing Calhoun and UConn basketball. It applies to the Pete Carroll situation with USC football, as well, and you better believe Calhoun and Carroll are doing their turns in the media frying pan.

Even before Gilbert -- whom players called "Papa Sam" or "Papa G" -- gained influence in the mid-1960s, UCLA boosters apparently were paying players. That assumption isn't based on hearsay. It's based on quotes from the likes of Jack Hirsch, a starter on Wooden's first title team in 1964, who said the going rate was $5 per rebound up to 10 on a given night, and $10 for each one thereafter.

"It was a helluva great feeling to pick up $100 for a night's work," Hirsch told authors Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh in the Wooden biography "The Wizard of Westwood."

Not that any of this should have been the focal point of the Wooden tributes. He was a great coach, and, by all accounts, an even better man. (Littwin, incidentally, says Gilbert was not believed to have aided in the recruitment of Wooden's players, though he apparently helped keep some on campus.) It's just that if you're attempting to place UCLA's dynasty in the pantheon of sports achievements, you need to mention Sam Gilbert.

You need to at least acknowledge the possibility that UCLA's championship run was tainted.

Columnists would have done well to follow the lead of HBO's 2007 documentary, "The UCLA Dynasty," which waited until the final minutes to address the Gilbert issue but did so fairly.

"The puzzle of Papa G," the narrator said, "remains the elephant in the UCLA trophy room."

Does any of this detract from Wooden's legacy as a humble, giving man• Not one bit.

Does it mean he endorsed Gilbert's actions• No.

Did Wooden even know of them• As Littwin said, it's hard to believe Wooden was unaware of Gilbert's influence.

Does it call into question Wooden's coaching acumen• It shouldn't. He might well have won all those titles without Gilbert. We'll never know.

What we do know is that UCLA apparently broke NCAA rules at a much more prodigious rate than, say, the modern-day USC football and basketball programs, and, allegedly, the UConn men's basketball program. Not that you'd know it from reading America's best columnists.

John Feinstein, as good a sports writer as there is, basically told his Washington Post readers to disregard "whispers" about Gilbert's activities at UCLA.

Whispers• Gilbert's brazen rule-breaking was hardly hush-hush. In the HBO film, Lucius Allen, a star guard under Wooden, spoke of Gilbert supplying transportation and clothes and said, "The way he explained it to me, it was within the rules. But it wasn't."

Many of those who deftly avoided the elephant in the trophy room wound up stepping into some steaming piles of hypocrisy and unintended irony.

A sampling:

» Jay Mariotti of, who has called for Calhoun's firing, absolved Wooden of even benign neglect. Mariotti argued that when the NCAA hit UCLA with a two-year probation in 1981 -- largely based on Gilbert's activities -- it targeted the school's administration, not Wooden, who was well into retirement.

OK, so we're basing our Wooden exemption on the integrity of an NCAA investigation that was launched about 15 years too late and opted not to go back and address the title years• Wow. Can the Fab Five have a re-do?

» Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post, index finger in full-wag mode, wrote that Wooden's sayings should be posted in AAU locker rooms across the land. I guess he was implying that AAU basketball is fraught with corruption, that money often changes hands in the peddling of star players.

I wonder if any get paid by the rebound.

Maybe one of the enduring lessons of the UCLA dynasty is this: If cheating can happen in a program run by as fine a human being as John Wooden, no program should be free of suspicion.

The Times, by the way, asked Wooden in 1981 about allegations from his days as coach (Gilbert died at age 74 in 1987, days before he was to be indicted for racketeering and money laundering).

"There was something Abraham Lincoln said -- he'd rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time," Wooden said. "Maybe I trusted too much."

If trusting too much was Wooden's only sin at UCLA -- and it might well have been -- then it is eminently forgivable. Understandable, even, given the kind of man he was.

But it doesn't change the inconvenient truth.

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