Book review: Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

What happens when a 7.5'-tall black basketball player and budding political activist meets a white Midwestern coach 37 years his senior in racially-charged 1967? For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach John Wooden, this odd couple relationship becomes a memorable mentorship turned friendship. Set largely during his college years at UCLA, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is a touching tribute to Kareem's friendship with "Coach."

I'll get this out of the way early: with noted exceptions for hiking and a burgeoning interest in rock climbing, my sports knowledge is limited. I can't throw a ball or dribble. I understand what a layup is conceptually but would be hard-pressed to make one. My first and only competitive basketball game was in elementary school, my moment of glory being when I was passed the ball, made it all the way to the net, shot, and scored--in the wrong basket. Like I said: I don't do sports.

I do, however, read memoirs and enjoy throwing myself into cultures that I have no background in. That's the short version of how I came to read this book. It's my version of roulette: spin the wheel and pick a book that I would never choose, just to see what happens. Less about basketball than an illustration of how very different people can get along, this poignant birds-eye view story hooks readers from the first page. I'm glad I picked it up.

Spending four years with impressionable young men is going to leave a mark. Coach Wooden knew the type of mark he wanted to leave: a good one. He told his players on Day One that basketball was last on their hierarchy of priorities: family, faith, and education came first. Through a series of quotes (Coach was a former English teacher), he encouraged his players to eschew drinking, drugs, and sex--tough for 18-year-olds away from their parents' watchful eyes for the first time. It was especially difficult for the impoverished players like Kareem, thrust from Harlem into the racially-charged new world of Los Angeles. Basketball was social currency even if they had holes in their pants. Add hormones, poverty, and this social currency to the racially-charged 60s, and one can understand how this story could take a very different turn. Not for Coach Wooden's players. Kareem sums it up best:

"Preaching moral platitudes is easy, but walking the line and living them takes great strength. Yes, Coach Wooden taught me a lot about basketball through his words. But more important, his example as a man of unbending moral strength taught me how to be the man I wanted to be--and needed to be."

One of the most interesting facets of this book is how Coach Wooden deals with racial issues while coaching Kareem. "In the middle of the greatest cultural revolution in American history, I played basketball. And Coach Wooden taught basketball." We have to keep in mind that as infallible as our heroes are, Coach was a white, Midwest-raised, devout Christian.

Coach's view that all people were good flew in the face of daily experience in black America. We understand that he is not racist--he once refused to play a tournament because the directors would not allow a black player to play. But his relationship with Kareem challenged his "all people are good" belief and made ignoring race relations impossible. Kareem explains, "...he didn't quite understand that when you are black in America, everything is about race." As the opposing fans yell [epithet] and little old ladies walk up to him to comment about what a tall [epithet] he is, Coach is for the time faced with Kareem's daily experience. He could have ignored these issues and let Kareem work them out himself. Instead, he chose to have the conversations: he asked Kareem how it felt to be called the epithet. This created a dialogue that validated Kareem's emotions, but also informed Coach. Throughout their 50-year friendship, although their beliefs on certain issues ran at odds, Coach would credit Kareem with giving him a better understanding of the terrible cruelty of racism.

Years of breakfasts at Coach's favorite diner and hours spent in his den brought the two close. However, it was the hardships they faced together that made their friendship what it was.

"His former players died, his friends died, his colleagues died, his wife, Nell, died...I had endured death's unwelcome intrusion several times myself: the brutal murders of friends in a house I owned, the untimely death of my old martial arts teacher and close friend Bruce Lee at age thirty-two, the death of my mother, and a few years after that, the death of my father following years of dementia."

Getting through life's darkest times is the most difficult task we undertake. Having a good friend, a "hand to hold, feet to follow up out of the darkness" during these times of grief is vitally important. Kareem and Coach were there for each other time and again, as mentors, friends, and, ultimately, family.

To enjoy Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, no basketball knowledge is necessary. Yes, Coach was talented, helping UCLA win multiple titles over the years and graduating several of his players to professional teams. But this is not a story about basketball. Despite differences in age, race, religion, and height, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach Wooden formed an admirable--if most unlikely--friendship. Too often, those who are "different" become enemies. As their relationship beautifully illustrates, our differences do not need to divide us. We can learn from each other and grow as people. Or, in the words of Coach John Wooden: "You can do more good by being good than any other way."

Inspired by this book review? Support The Indent by picking up a copy of the book through our affiliate link: