Believe hype behind Wooden

By Kevin Wilson: FNM columnist

Some of the worst stories I’ve ever read were about John Wooden. Thanks to Wade Fraze, one of the best is too.

Regarded as college basketball’s greatest coach, Wooden died two Fridays ago at 99. He won 620 games and 10 national titles, including seven in a row. For comparison, Mike Krzyzewski is considered a legend with 859 wins in 35 seasons, and is the closest to Wooden with four titles.

The stories I hated were no reflection on Wooden, but the predictability of the media covering him.

“John Wooden is (age here). It’s been (number of years here) since he coached his last game at UCLA. He’s as active as ever, taking in a game at the (your tournament here). He loves basketball — just not the way it is played today.”

If a story had that paragraph — and plenty of them did — I checked out.

But that’s not the story Fraze told me last Monday at Portales Junior High School, while he was waiting on his son to finish up a fundamentals camp.

It was 2004, and Fraze was in Sterling City, Texas, a town of 1,000 with a high school of about 75 students. Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s home arena, could host the population of 12 Sterling Cities.

While reading a Wooden book, Fraze caught an obscure sentence about how he never taught his players to block out. (For non-sports fans, that’s positioning your body so the opposing player can’t rebound a missed shot.)

Every coach Fraze ever met taught blocking out, but not college basketball’s most successful coach?

A few phone calls led to Jay Carty, a youth minister who spent three years as an assistant for Wooden. Wade was surprised when Carty gave him Wooden’s home number, but resisted calling for a while because the Sterling City Eagles and the UCLA Bruins aren’t exactly interchangeable.

When Fraze finally got the muster to call, the words felt odd and came out slowly when he got Wooden’s answering machine.

“Coach Wooden, my name is Wade Fraze. I’m a coach at Sterling City, Texas, and I was wondering about something in your boo…”

“Hello?”

“Coach Wooden?”

What happened the next hour still blows Fraze away. They talked about basketball. They talked about life. And Fraze, who’s read all of Wooden’s books, felt deja vu on the phone. The things Wooden said were verbatim from his books, which Fraze knew at that point couldn’t have been ghostwritten.

“All that stuff about John Wooden,” Fraze said, “is not hype.”

I was still curious. “So why,” I said, “didn’t he teach players to block out?”

Answer: Wooden still taught mechanics and positioning, but, “blocking out is a negative mentality” because the focus is keeping the ball from somebody, when the focus should be getting it yourself.

Fraze put the things he learned from the phone call into action, and went 22-10 with the Eagle boys in his final year before he came to Portales for an assistant position.

“I had the second-smallest team I’d ever had,” Fraze said, “but it was the best rebounding team I ever had.”

Wooden could have blown off the call, or given it to an underling, and his reputation would have never taken a hit. Instead, he coached, for free, 29 years after he retired. For a man he’d never met, whose only verifiable qualification was a phone line.

Now that’s a story I don’t mind hearing over and over.