Larry Jones saved me. I was scrolling e-mails and punching up conference calls in another desperate day of tactical corporate survival, until Larry called. John Wooden was in the studio.

'John Wooden? I'll be right down.'

Connie Martinson had just finished up interviewing John Wooden for her show 'Connie Martinson Talks Books' and the Wizard of Westwood was sitting alone on the set. The legendary UCLA basketball coach's book on leadership was hitting stores and the coach was on the talk circuit. Mr. Wooden shook my hand with his strong, soft grip, stared me in the eye with that steady, hawk-like gaze. He looked like my grandfather.

I told him I'd seen some of his championship teams play up in Berkeley. In high school we'd gone up to Cal and bought scalped tickets in the top row of Harmon Gym and watched the Bruins play in front of a rowdy Berkeley crowd.

Mr. Wooden was so nice and polite to me, saying he hoped that I'd enjoyed the games.

I remember the Bruins in their light blue warm-up jackets and white pants coming out and taking the court. The old expression for a basketball team coming out for the game was 'the team took the court.' It meant simply that the starting five went out for the opening tip. Not for the Bruins. They came out early, and literally, took the court, as in took it away from the other team with their opening passing drills.

Lew Alcindor, Lynn Shackleford, Mike Warren and the rest of that team ran a four corners passing drill to start out, with three or four balls, two or three players moving to the center of the half court, pulling in passes, pivoting and firing passes to the other corner, the balls never touching the ground. Crisp, precision, like James Brown coming out on stage and working through dance moves in front of the rhythm section before ever handling the microphone. Just teasing the crowd. They'd break the passing drill with a mock 'dunk' drill with the players just dropping the ball into the hoop, the slam being outlawed when Alcindor arrived in college.

They took the court.

Mr. Wooden was lingering in the studio, in no hurry, so I asked him if I could ask him a couple of basketball questions.

'Sure,' he said, 'go ahead.'

'I've been wondering,' I said, 'in college basketball these days, why no teams use the full court press as their base defense.' The press was the Bruins trademark, a zone press when they made a basket or free throw, turning the tempo up and forcing a fast paced game that favored the quick, tireless Bruins. No one plays defense like that anymore.

'Well', Mr. Wooden said, 'I can't speak for other coaches today, but I can tell you why it took us a long time to get where we could do it.'

I thought I knew the answer. I asked, like a student in the back row, 'because you didn't have the players'?

'Right,' and his eyes twinkled, those killer eyes that have charmed interviewers and players and opponents for decades with that ruthless fundamental approach to the game of basketball. His Bruins made it look simple. Brutal, attacking full court defense, beautiful positioning both on offense and defense and a fast break that preyed upon opponents that tired under relentless pressure.

'We didn't have the players for a long time to be able to play that way,' he continued.

For a starting five to play every night with a pressing full court zone after every basket requires absolute discipline and superior conditioning. Did he mean that he didn't think today's players were up to it?

The eyes sparkled, and he shrugged. 'I can only tell you how we got to develop it,' he said.

So, I gathered, either he didn't think today's players were up to it or the coaches lacked the will to impose a zone press. That was my take, but he wouldn't elaborate.

But I know what I saw in those games up at Cal. Even late in the second half with the game on the line and the crowd screaming, sensing an upset, the Bruins held their poise and made every big play, every defensive stop that they needed to, never leaving their positions and using relentless pressure to force mistakes and turnovers. That comes from daily practice, gym time under a coach who demands all out effort and dedication to detail. Hour after hour of passing drills, fast breaks and outlet passes, stifling defensive pressure without committing fouls. Mr. Wooden didn't use a lot of substitutes to rest his stars. He worked them.

Listen to players like Bill Walton and Kareem talk about 'Coach' like he's a supreme being. He is. He didn't know any more about the game than Bobby Knight or Dean Smith. But he knew how to get more out of his players by demanding that they play a certain way, a way where no one else could keep up with them. That was his genius.

Everyone at the top college level has great athletes. It's the coach who has the guts to turn them into predators on the court, and who can get players to play that hard that dominates. The Bruins overpowered teams before they even got on the court. In the animal kingdom a creature knows when he's dominated by a predator, and submits.

John Wooden was a power coach who walked the sideline in a blazer holding a rolled up program as a foil. Now, Mr. Wooden has the kindly air, the friendly smile and the dimples that crinkle his cheeks. But he still has those piercing hawk-like eyes.

No comments: