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When a Legendary Coach Becomes a Friend


The UCLA Bruins are back in the men's Final Four this weekend. For long-time fans, that stirs memories of the school's basketball dynasty of the 1960s and '70s, when the legendary John Wooden coached some of the best players in history.

Mr. JOHN WOODEN (Former Coach, UCLA Bruins Basketball Team): Alcindor Jabbar is the most valuable player I ever had under my supervision. There are those who would say well, I think Walton was your most valuable player, and they might put up an argument for it.

SIEGEL: That was John Wooden in a 1981 NPR interview talking about his star centers, Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But for the past 10 years, Wooden has been nurturing a friendship with a former player who barely saw action when he was in college.

NPR's Tom Goldman has their story.

TOM GOLDMAN: On paper, Andy Hill had a heck of a college basketball career.

Mr. ANDY HILL (Former Player, University of California Los Angeles): I was a member of three national championship teams, one of 13 men in NCAA history to be three-time champions. The other 12 guys all played for John Wooden too.

GOLDMAN: But Andy Hill mostly watched. Mean-spirited Bruins fans called Hill the man who started 5,000 cars at UCLA games, because when he finally went in that meant it was basically over and time for everyone to leave. It stung as a six-foot-one guard on the bench waiting for a chance that rarely came.

So when Hill graduated in 1974, he wasn't feeling charitable toward Wooden, the man revered as the greatest college basketball coach in history.

Mr. HILL: Good riddance, see you later.

GOLDMAN: Over the next 22 years, Hill says the two men had minimal and somewhat uncomfortable contact, but then it happened. One day in 1996 at the Encino Golf Course, Andy Hill stood over his ball and heard his buddy, Joe, say...

Mr. HILL: Get your balance. You know, you're not in balance, and you're hurrying your swing. Slow down.

GOLDMAN: Joe was talking, but the words were pure John Wooden.

Mr. HILL: Coach used to talk about balance and say be quick, but don't hurry, over and over and over again. And I just felt like Coach was there. It was really strange.

GOLDMAN: Hill drilled a 200-yard shot to within a foot and a half of the hole. He sank the putt...

Mr. HILL: And realized that I really needed to call him. I needed to call him to say thanks.

GOLDMAN: For the golf tip, yes, but mainly for the lessons he learned in those three years on the basketball team. Hill didn't play in many games, but at practices he devoured Wooden's teachings about success and teamwork. On that golf course he suddenly realized he'd been using those teachings for the past two decades. Hill called his former coach, who invited Hill to visit.

No longer worried about playing time, Hill says his resentment started to fade. No longer coaching, Wooden's gentler side emerged. Around their fourth get-together, Wooden was talking about his key principles of leadership and how they included giving credit to people not in the spotlight. Hill said to Wooden: You didn't do that very well when I was stuck on the bench.

Mr. HILL: His response blew my mind, and I think this was really a moment where our relationship went to an entirely different level. He said Andy, if you say that's true, I'm sure you're right. I'm sorry. I wish I'd done better.

GOLDMAN: Hill is one of several former players who visits 96-year-old John Wooden regularly. The two wrote a book together and called it "Be Quick, But Don't Hurry." Hill's even gone with Wooden to religious services, prompting Hill to laugh: Imagine 12 years ago, the thought of this Jewish boy taking his old coach to church.

Wooden is a man of many sayings and quotes. Here's one that seems to fit the old coach and the Jewish boy. Sports don't build character, they reveal it. In the case of John Wooden and Andy Hill, sports have revealed a deep friendship as well.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, John Wooden talks about the beauty of old-school basketball. This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.