“Just look at that penmanship,” marveled Adams, UCLA’s baseball coach for 30 seasons before retiring to Bear Valley Springs in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County in 2004. “He used to say you could put the NBA 24-second shot clock on him when he was asked to sign a basketball, but he needed the college’s 35-second shot clock when it came to signing a baseball. That certainly is a prized possession.”
Why the 74-year-old Adams would continue to cherish such a small token given to him by the legendary UCLA basketball coach speaks more to a 36-year relationship they started when they shared an office space on Westwood campus for eight years that many may not have known about.
Adams, who played baseball at UCLA from 1959-62, was hired by athletic director J.D. Morgan as the Bruins’ coach in 1975. That was also Wooden’s final season, capped by the last of his 10 NCAA championships.
Morgan wanted Wooden to keep an office at the athletic department, and asked Adams if he wouldn’t mind having a rather high-profile bunkmate.
“When I tell people the story of how J.D. asked this, I say, ‘Well, I’ll have to think about it and get back to you’,” Adams says before laughing.
And as the friendship grew, and the conversations continued, inevitably things would circle back to, of all things, baseball.
Adams’ new book, “Conversations With Coach Wooden: On Baseball, Heroes and Life” (Santa Monica Press, 439 pages, $24.95) reflects more on just the lessons learned by being in the presence of Wooden, who died at age 99 three summers ago, but, inspired by his Pyramid of Success, how he eventually created his own little-publicized Sphere of Commitment as a guide for his players in the late ‘90s.
QUESTION: This isn’t the first book, nor will it likely be the last, about John Wooden and the impact he had on someone’s life. Do you find yourself learning something new from those written before your book?
ANSWER: I’ve been reading books actually written by coach Wooden since I was a student at UCLA. His first book, Practical Modern Basketball, was a text book in the physical education class I took taught by his assistant, Jerry Norman, and I still have a first edition copy of it. It seems like every time anyone talked to coach Wooden, they learned something new. The funny thing about many of those books already out is I’ll read a story that I had heard a long time ago from him – I think he did repeat himself a lot. The difference I think, in hearing some input from those who have read it, is that mine may be so more personal. It’s about two coaches who talked a lot about their sports, but also about many other things. And I will say this: A lot has been written about him, and said about him, and he really was the kind of man everyone says he was.
Q: What compelled you to launch into this project? Years of memories you wanted to get down on paper?
A: Here’s what happened. On January 31, 2010, coach Wooden had what he wanted to call a “baseball party,” just a bunch of guys over to talk about baseball. So there was Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, Vin Scully, Bill Sharman, Dan Guerrero, John Savage … and all of John’s clan from his daughter and son to his great grandchildren. It was quite a scene. As I was driving back home with my wife and daughter, I said, “Someone ought to write a book about coach Wooden and his love for baseball. I’ll bet not a lot of people know about it.” My wife (Sandy) said, “Gary, why don’t you do it?” So three years and four months later, it took me that long to finish it.
I had actually started taking notes about conversations we’d have just so I could focus on how to be a better coach. There’s not many chances you get to be an office mate with John Wooden. But I never intended to write a book about it. I had done some children’s books, but never a work of nonfiction. So in those eight years we shared our office, I had to be careful not to write while he was there, because it would interfere with our conversation. I never wanted to have pictures taken of us together either, because I wasn’t trying to flaunt our relationship. So whenever coach would leave the office after we’d talk, I’d run to my desk and take down all these notes so I wouldn’t forget them.
Then we had a fire at our home (in Malibu, in 1978), and I lost everything. I had to rely on memory for a lot of these stories again, but luckily I had my (twin) brother Gene, Gail Goodrich, Keith Erickson, Gary Cunningham, people like that who could refresh my memory. So in effect, the book wrote itself. I just took it wherever John wanted me to take it.
Q: So in this office you shared, you admit you’d actually move from the bigger desk and nice swivel chair and take the folding chair over at the desk against the wall whenever Coach Wooden came in. Did he ever figure it out?
A: If you were me, wouldn’t you have done the same thing? He might have when he came in one time and I was so intent on working on a budget I never heard him arrive, and he told me to just stay there. It was just this little cubbyhole. The basketball and football coaches had the bigger offices with the athletic director on the other side of the building.
Q: There are all kinds of axioms that he has said over the years. Is there any one that you find applies to your life the most often?
A: Hmmm, that’s a hard one because there are so many.
Q: In the book, you make mention of his quote: “It’s amazing how much you get accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
A: As a coaching tip, that was huge. That was a sign I had posted in my office, and I’d remind my assistants of that quite often. John, in fact, said of all the things he accomplished, he probably felt most guilty about not living up to that as well as he could have. He told me he should have publically given his assistants much more credit.
Q: What do you think of the Wooden quote where he told you: “I will often give you my opinion, but rarely will I give you my advice.” Do you think we’d all be better off if we practiced that?
A: I’d never have learned that if I hadn’t heard coach Wooden tell me that.
Another one that I liked – maybe because I didn’t win as often as he did – was when he said: “Winning is overrated. Effort is under rated.” John said he never used the word “win” to his players, but they knew he hated to lose.
Q: Did you end up taking coach Wooden’s philosophy in that he did all the really hard work during practice and you wouldn’t see him do a lot of coaching during a game?
A: I’m sure if you asked someone like Eric Karros or Tim Leary if they thought I was some kind of controlling type who made players follow strict orders, he’d say that I was someone who let the players play. I wanted to think for themselves during games. I never called pitches from the dugout – maybe I was the only one west of the Mississippi River who did that. I wanted the catcher and pitcher to think and learn for themselves. I let players steal on their own, so it forced them to read the pitchers and see the tipoffs.
The players understood that the practices belonged to me, but the games belonged to them.
Q: Not many coaches seem to take that to heart these days, do they?
A: In college, especially. The only time I broke my own rule about calling pitches was once in a playoff game, where I wanted our pitcher to throw the hitter a curve ball. I even motioned to the catcher with my arm to throw a curve. The pitch right before that, he pulled the pitcher’s best fastball out of the park for what looked like a home run, but it was foul. Next pitch was a curve and he struck out.
Q: Another thing you see on his Pyramid of Success, right near the top, is the word “Patience.” And with that is the phrase: “Good things take time.” You see what’s going on with the Lakers, firing a coach just as the season starts. The fans of the Dodgers and Angels getting impatient for the teams to start winning. Do you think we’re patient enough in sports to let good things happen?
A: Frankly, no, we don’t have enough patience. Not just in the professional ranks, but in the college level, too. It’s a lot more than just wins and losses. Is the coach a good teacher? Is he dedicated enough to get the players to go to class and make progress toward a degree? In the pros, they’re very hasty at making changes. If I was in charge of the Dodgers, I’d stick with Don Mattingly and wouldn’t make any bones about it. I’d tell the press: He’s our manager this whole year, so it’s no use even asking me. There are things a manager can control and things he can’t. You lose a shortstop like Hanley Ramirez to injury; that’s a big blow. Matt Kemp’s slow start is because he’s been hurting. There are too many extenuating circumstances to look at. Mattingly himself wasn’t blessed with a lot of God-given talent as a player, but he played with heart and passion and attitude. Henry Aaron had the best attitude of a hitter that you could have. He would say, “Each at bat is a new day. If I’m 0-for-4 and coming up a fifth time, I’m 0-for-0 and what happened before won’t interfere with that. Same as if you’re already 4-for-4 and you know you could make an out and still be 4-for-5. Baseball is all about having the right attitude as it is having physical talent.
As for me, I know my athletic directors had great patience with me. I kept getting one-year contracts. I never thought of asking for a two-year contract. I’d just keep hoping that if I did have a bad year, the next one better be much better.
Q: So you developed your own success chart, the “Sphere of Commitment,” with four axioms on it about character, academics, team and career, with family and spirituality in the center. How did that go over with Coach Wooden when compared to his Pyramid of Success?
A: You know, I don’t know if ever showed coach my sphere. I created it in 1996. I didn’t do it to make it public. I don’t think John created his ‘Pyramid’ either for that, it’s just that his players were so successful, it became public and it was easy to copy. In my case, it was something players could tape to their locker, a poster up in the clubhouse. His pyramid was more of a way of living. Maybe mine was more broad. He’d always say a picture was worth a thousand words, and I know people got the message from its design. I had considered using a ladder, something with steps, but finally it hit me that the shape of a baseball was perfect, especially for its four areas between the threads. Some of the things I have are also in John’s pyramid, so maybe we’re just good at stealing each others ideas.
Q: It’s hard to believe that, as you wrote, the first time you saw him in person was when you were playing in a baseball game at UCLA and Coach Wooden showed up to watch from the stands. This was 1959, a game against USC, a chilly Saturday afternoon on a field that now is the site of Pauley Pavilion. Was he kind of larger than live at that point already?
A: To us, there was an awe about him. We knew he was having success with the team back at that old gym. Not a national championship yet, but everyone respected him for what he was able to do with limited resources. I never thought of him as a baseball fan. The only time that happened was when I first met him years later when I was hired to coach baseball, I shook his hand and he said, “Gary, you know you’re coaching my favorite sport.” That became the bond that not just started our friendship but continued it. His love for baseball made me the perfect target for him. He rarely wanted to talk about the sport he coach, and that was OK with me. As time went on, I think we were able to laugh at each other as well as with each other. That’s rare for just an acquaintance to do.
I did love him as a person, not just as a coach or author. I’d have to say the biggest moment I ever had as the baseball coach is when I arranged for him to make a surprise visit at my house to talk to my team after the first day of practice in 2004. I wanted my players to have the same feeling I had for him when I first saw him sitting in the stands all those years before.