Thoughtful. This is the word that came to mind when I started reading Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court. In the first few pages I found myself smiling. Truly enjoying what I was reading. Was it because as a native Los Angeleno I grew up watching Kareem Abdul Jabbar play for the Los Angeles Lakers? Was it because both my parents and middle brother attended UCLA (where Wooden coached and Kareem played college ball)? Was it because Kareem started his professional career as a Milwaukee Buck and I now live in Wisconsin? Or was it Kareem’s articulate and pleasant style of writing? The answer was a resounding YES to all of the above.
This book reads and flows differently from other sports biographies that I have read. And I have read quite a few. How do I mean? Let’s start with what the book isn’t. First of all, it wasn’t written at the peak of Wooden’s or Jabbar’s careers where everything was going great. It also didn’t focus on a particular season or game. Second, it wasn’t written by a sports columnist who did a few interviews with coach and athlete. Or someone who meticulously sifted through old photos, newspaper clippings or books written by other people. It doesn’t have an outside perspective focusing on accolades, titles and stats like wins, losses, points, etc. This is not a motivational sports book with inspirational quotes strategically placed thought the text. Like, here is the lesson I learned from such-and-such experience. (If you are interested, Wooden co-authored multiple books about leadership, team building and success.) Lastly, Kareem did not aggrandize or deify Wooden. This is more of a dedication. (In my opinion, authors who focus on their subject’s greatness often mask their flaws compared to us regular mortals. And too often, sports figures become bigger than life. They become myths and legends.) Nor did Kareem himself artificially elevate his own status. He was modest and humble with his success.
So let me say what this book is. It’s written by a retired professional basketball player who holds the title as the all-time points leader in the National Basketball Association. Yes, more than Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. The content of the book takes place over a fifty year time period in which one of the “main characters” is now deceased (Wooden passed away in 2010 at the age of 99.) and the other, Kareem, is 70 years old. This was written with Kareem’s unique perspective. You could “feel” his journey and growth as well as the changes in society with the Civil Rights Movement as the backdrop. This book offers an intimate insight into Wooden’s and Jabbar’s on court and off-court friendship. Little things like Kareem sitting in Wooden’s living room while chatting and watching TV together really struck a chord with me. This is a book written with deep respect, honor and affection. I just purchased a copy for my personal library and I highly recommend you add this to your reading list.