Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: The Sons of Westwood (2013)

By John Martin Smith

For those who are looking at a somewhat left-wing historical look at the UCLA basketball dynasty, "The Sons of Westwood" is that book.

That's actually not as bad an idea as it might sound, even to conservatives.

John Martin Smith's book concentrates on the years between 1964 to 1975, when the Bruins won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. That's a remarkable achievement by almost any standard, especially when you consider that players left after a maximum of three years of play. The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in 13 years in one stretch, but Bill Russell was the center for all of them. The UCLA roster was usually in flux, although not as much as when today's teams see top freshmen turn pro.

"The Sons of Westwood" - the title of the school fight song, by the way - starts with a rather basic look at Wooden's life. The story is familiar to many by now - he grew up in the Midwest, became one of the best players of era, turned to coaching and landed at UCLA almost by accident. After arriving in Westwood, Wooden once said that he tried too hard to win because he wanted a championship too much. Once that first one came, they kept coming - thanks in part of a national recruiting effort that was ahead of its time.

It's here that we get to the premise of the book. Society was going through all sorts of changes in those years, and basketball was part of those changes. The rise of the African American athlete was one of the big stories of the Sixties. A center named Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was directly involved in that. He joined with such players as Lucius Allen,  Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe who were willing to challenge the rules as they had always been handed down.

That couldn't have been easy for Wooden, who certainly used one set of principles throughout his life because they had worked for him, and then had those principles challenge by a bunch of people under the age of 21. Wooden also had to deal with the pressure of playing not to lose, since Alcindor and Co. were considered so talented by some that they weren't allowed to have an off-night.

And if that group was "interesting" to coach, Wooden couldn't have predicted what would happen later on when the Bill Walton era ran from 1971 to 1974. Walton was a full-fledged member of the counter-culture during much of his time at UCLA. That meant protests over the Vietnam War and marijuana use. The situation blew up, by UCLA standards, in 1974 when the Bruins didn't win a title.

Smith certainly comes across as being on the players' side in such discussions. That's fine - and I'd agree with him on many points - but some of the issues of the time weren't as cut and dried at the time as the author makes them out to be. It's tough to criticize Wooden too much for sticking to his old beliefs, because that's the path he knew. And for his faults, UCLA did win basketball games under Wooden, even with some turmoil around the team.

Wooden also takes some hits here for the presence of booster Sam Gilbert, who was something of an underground legend in basketball circles. Gilbert was close to the players, sometimes helping out with financial problems and even going as far as arranging abortions. Smith hits Wooden for at the least looking the other way while all of this was going on, and the coach probably deserves it.

There are a couple of other problems along the way here. Some of the material, such as quotes from Adolph Rupp about blacks, cry out for some sort of immediate attribution. There's also a few odd statements that come off as naive. One is the criticism of UCLA for scheduling easy games at home at the start of the season in order to rack up wins and revenues. Is there anyone who doesn't do that these days, except when there's the odd good game to accomodate television? Back then, national TV wasn't even an issue.

One aspect of the entire story is overlooked here. After Wooden retired, he still stayed in touch with most of his ex-players - including some of those who had troubled relationships with him. Andy Hill, who comes up as one of the critics, even wrote a book with Wooden. It's a credit to both sides that issues were settled.

"The Sons of Westwood" will make college basketball fans do some thinking about those UCLA teams, and that's good. Smith's arguments don't all work, as he may be reaching for more than he can grasp, but the effort should be appreciated.

(Note: This book is scheduled for release on September 30.)

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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