John Wooden, and the story of his 'favorite sport'
John Wooden was the greatest basketball coach ever, but he said his "favorite sport" was baseball. A new book by Gary Adams explains why.
A few months before he died, John Wooden arranged for a barbecue at the home of a close friend. He invited Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia. He invited Vin Scully. He invited Jeff Moorad, who at the time was trying to buy the Padres. And he invited John Savage, the current UCLA baseball coach, and Gary Adams, the retired Bruins coach.
He wanted one more chance to talk about his favorite sport. One more chance to talk baseball.
It feels a little funny to write that about the greatest basketball coach ever, but the word "favorite" in this case isn't mine. It's Wooden's, as related in a wonderful new book Adams has written.
"You know, Gary, you're coaching my favorite sport," Wooden told him almost 40 years ago, just after Adams was hired to coach baseball at UCLA.
From that day until the day Wooden died, in June 2010, the two bonded around baseball. They shared an office for several years. Wooden attended many of Adams' teams' games. Adams shared the issues he dealt with, and Wooden shared his wisdom.
They spoke about basketball, and they spoke about life, but mostly they spoke about baseball, because that was Wooden's choice.
He told Adams that Derek Jeter was his favorite modern player, that a well-executed hit and run was his favorite play, that the Dodgers became his favorite team. He said that he was once offered as job as a major-league manager (by Joe L. Brown with the Pirates).
"If you hired me, they would fire you first, and then fire me," Wooden said he told Brown.
There's actually plenty about coaching and managing that transcends any one sport. There's a reason that there are plenty of inter-sport friendships among coaches and managers, why you would see Bill Parcells or Bobby Knight show up to visit Tony La Russa in spring training when he managed the Cardinals.
But Wooden's interest in baseball went far beyond just that bond between coaches, and it comes through in the stories that Adams tells. It came through on that day in January 2010, when Scioscia, Torre and the others visited Wooden in suburban Los Angeles.
"We talked about so many things," Scioscia said this week. "And the conversation always seemed to come back to baseball."
That wasn't the first time Scioscia and Wooden crossed paths. Wooden threw out a ceremonial first pitch in Anaheim during the 2002 World Series. Another time, Scioscia invited Wooden to sit in on a meeting of his coaching staff.
"It was always clear that he had a great understanding of baseball," Scioscia said. "It was a pleasure being around him. He just oozed with common sense."
After he retired from coaching, Wooden wrote books about basketball, and books about leadership. He even wrote a children's book on an inchworm and a mouse that collaborate to build a pyramid to success.
But he never wrote about baseball, and until now nobody ever wrote a book about him and baseball.
Not long before Wooden died, Adams asked him if he would mind having one written.
"Gary, I do not mind at all," Wooden told him. "You will be writing about my favorite sport."