When Wooden lost his cool

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John Wooden's fist was cocked and his face was splashed with rage, as Bill Sweek remembers it. UCLA's assistant coaches had grabbed Wooden and were restraining him from coming after Sweek. Would Wooden have punched Sweek, who had just shown him up on national television? Sweek wouldn't hazard a guess.

"But I do know," said the Sonoma resident, "that it was the most furious I had ever seen him."

How Sweek and Wooden arrived at that point, and how it was resolved, well, it's the one story that hasn't been told about Wooden since the UCLA basketball icon passed away last Friday. In fact, it's the only story of its kind that will ever be told about Wooden for one simple reason.

"I never heard of this happening before or since," said Sweek, 63, who teaches history, science and physical education at Gateway High School.

It was the NCAA semifinal game, 1969, in Louisville, UCLA vs. Drake. The game had started poorly for the Bruins, the players turning the ball over more than Wooden liked. Sweek, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, had been pulled early in the first half. He was on the bench for most of the game.

"I was pissed off," Sweek said. "I didn't think it was time to be disciplined."

Wooden knew Sweek to be someone who pushed the envelope. Earlier that season, when UCLA was in the Bay Area to play Cal, someone bet Sweek $10 he wouldn't jump wearing his blazer from his second story room into the pool at the Edgewater Hotel in Oakland. Sweek did.

"Coach Wooden was not happy," he said.

On that same Bay Area trip, UCLA moved to Ricky's Hyatt, a hotel in Palo Alto, before the Bruins played Stanford. Sweek had jumped into a pond to chase a swan that, as is their nature, had been chasing Sweek. Sweek thought it was funny.

"Coach Wooden was not happy," he said.

On that same trip, Sweek had climbed atop the hotel elevator while Wooden was riding inside of it. Sweek thought it was cool.

"Coach Wooden was not happy," he said.

So Sweek and Wooden had some checkered moments, compounded by UCLA dominating college basketball.

"We were a little cocky," Sweek said of the team that featured, among others, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabber). "At the end of our regular season we played USC twice and though coach Wooden didn't say it, we all felt that he secretly wished we all be taken down a peg."

They were. USC beat UCLA, 46-44.

"And I think all of us were feeling a tremendous amount of pressure," Sweek said. "If we won the NCAA title, we would have been the first team to win three consecutive national titles."

So much for the essential backstory.

Now it's the Drake game in the national semifinals. Sweek was pulled and stayed on the bench until late in the second half. Lynn Shackleford, a forward playing out of position at guard, had gotten into foul trouble. Wooden told Sweek, who had been stewing on the bench, to get back into the game.

"I sauntered over to the scorer's table," Sweek said.

Wooden noticed the casual body language, interpreted it correctly and yelled at Sweek, "If you don't want to play, come over here and sit down."

In that moment, which frequently comes to the young and reckless, 22-year old Bill Sweek said the heck with this and walked right off the court and toward UCLA's locker room. When he got there, Sweek found the room locked. He asked security to open it.

They couldn't. So Sweek just stood there in uniform in the hallway until the game ended.

"I was headstrong," Sweek said.

Wooden didn't say anything as he came after Sweek, as the player remembered. He just saw the assistants surround Wooden, who was in a rage.

"I wasn't thinking clearly, obviously," Sweek said.

The players and coaches then met in a closed-door, air-it-out meeting.

"I don't remember the details," Sweek said.

But he remembered that Wooden played him in the NCAA title game two nights later against Purdue — an occurrence that still amazes him to this day.

"Coach Wooden would have been totally within his rights to kick me off the team," Sweek said. "In fact, I was expecting it. But he didn't. He forgave me. I think some of the other veterans on the team talked to coach Wooden and stuck up for me. This was the 89th game I had played for coach Wooden. But to me, what he did, was incredibly gracious for him, considering the circumstances."

To even think of turning your back to John Wooden, that's an unimaginable heresy right there. But to do it in front of a national television audience? As years passed, Sweek became more and more appreciative of Wooden's gesture. Sweek, as it turned out, has been a coach over the years, in Europe and most recently as an assistant junior varsity coach at Sonoma Valley High.

What would Sweek have done if a player walked off the court in the middle of a game, defying authority?

"If I hadn't had that experience before," Sweek said, "I probably would have kicked him off the team."

Sweek thought for a second and deleted the qualifier: "I would have kicked him off the team."

And as the years passed Sweek became more and more appreciative of John Wooden.

For kids who grew up in the rebellious '60s, Wooden was an acquired taste.

"Coach Wooden said a lot of things then that we didn't think that much about or didn't realize their significance," Sweek said. "He would do stuff we thought was crazy. We had to have our shirts tucked in. We had to have our hair short. But then all of a sudden we became adults and we became fathers."

All of a sudden the things that Wooden preached didn't seem like preaching but the framework for a sound life. Accept personal responsibility. Find faith and family, the shelters from every storm. See the glass as half full. Make every day a little personal masterpiece. Never stop learning.

Sweek has become like so many of Wooden's ex-players, not only one to extol his virtues but to defend them.

"Digger Phelps (ex-Notre Dame coach) has said that coach Wooden placed himself above others," said Sweek, who has remained close to Abdul-Jabbar.

That's because Wooden didn't view coaches' conventions as an invitation to Boys Gone Wild.

"Coach Wooden went to the conventions and took along his wife, Nell," Sweek said. "The other coaches wanted to go out and drink and party. Coach wanted to be with his wife. Yes, that separated him. Yes, he wasn't one of the boys."

And, yes again, Wooden never felt and didn't have to apologize for that. Loving his wife so much he wanted to take her on a road trip that lasted more than two days, that shouldn't be an indictment. That should be a compliment. It was. And as it turned out, Wooden was more than an inspiration for his players. He was a beacon.

"I wouldn't be who I am today," said Sweek, the father of two boys/men, "if it wasn't for coach Wooden."

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.press

democrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@press


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