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The Sweet Part of the City

John Wooden and the death of LA’s surprisingly conservative sports culture.

No one who loves his hometown should ever feel the need to explain that it is in fact not a place where souls go to die—but I do, incessantly. It’s a reflex now, developed over a decade of having lived on the east coast, of having a simple statement—“I grew up in LA”—regularly followed by a grimace, or, at best, a sympathetic pursing of the lips. Most New Yorkers and Washingtonians, you see, don’t have a whole lot of respect for Los Angeles. They consider it to be the world capital of plastic, on an uninterrupted streak of fakery that stretches from the Chinatown days through the porny ’70s and into our very own benighted era of the celebrity crotch-shot. And, of course, it’s not an insane way of looking at the place. LA’s not exactly tweedy.

But my argument back has always been that the day-to-day influence of “the industry” on most Angelenos is vastly overrated, and that the city’s more traditional side gets short shrift. That it’s not a silicon wonderland, but a pretty damn good place to raise a kid. And reflecting back on LA now, in the days immediately following the death of John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, I think this family-friendly vision has an awful lot to do with what the city’s sports culture was like when I was growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s.                                 

By the time I came to consciousness, Wooden had already been long-retired. But more so than his successor coaches (who never had a chance) or the ever-changing cast of young athletes, Wooden still was UCLA basketball then, the one whose mere presence in the arena made the program seem elite and dignified, even during the years when it was neither. It’s not just that Wooden led the Bruins to ten championships, six more than any other coach in the sport’s history, or that he won almost 400 more games than he lost. It’s that, as The New York Times noted in his obituary, “he ultimately became viewed as a kind of sage for both basketball and life, a symbol of both excellence and simpler times.”

For many, his dominance seemed to assume a moral dimension. I’m not sure I ever bought into that part—controlling his players dietary and dating habits, while assuring that their socks were always 50 percent wool feels needlessly authoritarian. And it’s generous to say that his millions-selling Pyramid of Success merely runs the border between corny and quaint. But, to a degree no other big-time coach has matched, he tried to wend his players, whom he fittingly called “his kids,” into adulthood. Just listen to the way his former charges speak about him—not just the sickeningly effusive Bill Walton, but far more aloof folks, like Kareem Abdul Jabbar. For someone so successful, Wooden always seemed to care less about basketball than hanging out with Nellie, his wife of 53 years and the only girl he ever dated. (In his final days, he asked for a shave so he’d have a fresh face for her.)

And LA, a city known neither for its adherence to fidelity nor its emphasis on discipline, loved him for those qualities exactly. How else to explain the never-ending stream of well-wishers, me included on several occasions, that would form behind his regular seat for home games, at the edge of the bleachers low down in Section 103B? This was the LA of my memory, the one where you could visit the oracle on the way to the concession stand. 

Still, Wooden was far from the city’s only throwback sports figure in those days. A conservative strain ran through the entire Dodgers organization; the O’Malley family owned the team for 47 years, and Tommy Lasorda was then easing into his fourth decade with the Dodgers (he’s now in his sixth). No other big-city team in professional sports carried itself more like a family-owned small business. And, perhaps more importantly, no other team in professional sports had Vin Scully announce its games. Scully, for the uninitiated, looks like a WASP-y grandpa and tells stories the way your grandpa would, if only your grandpa were erudite enough to talk the way Emerson writes. This made him, without question, the city’s most recognizable voice, its resident raconteur. I can’t name more than three people—authors, family members, whatever—who have instilled in me a greater appreciation for the language. And, like Wooden, he is as removed from the stereotype of what Angelenos are “really like” as they come.   

I could go on about LA’s old-school sports culture—about how Chick Hearn called 3,338 consecutive games with the Lakers or about how such appealing mediocrities as Mickey Hatcher and Franklin Stubbs helped march the 1988 Dodgers to the championship—but I’ll just say that it’s all changing now. The natural burn of time is certainly a factor: Hearn and Wooden have both passed, and, as much as I hate to think it, Scully, too, is getting on. But a wan submission to business interests and scandal has also played a role: In 1997, Fox bought the Dodgers from the O’Malleys, and then unceremoniously dumped the team six years later to a real estate guy named Frank McCourt, who has earned more notoriety for his multi-million dollar divorce than anything else. But one can’t get overly exercised about a divorce—even one as ugly as his—in LA, can one? What’s far less holy is how he has filled every square inch of what was once the most pristine stadium in baseball with advertisements; NASCAR has less shame. Also, in a move characteristic of the city’s broader sports culture these days, McCourt has brought in Joe Torre to lead the team. It was a celebrity hire for celebrity’s sake, particularly since Torre is one of the worst game managers in the big leagues. And he’s certainly not a hometown guy like Lasorda.

Los Angeles, of course, has bigger things to worry about than the Dodgers’ decay, or that UCLA basketball, without Wooden in the stands, will likely lose its mystique and become just another above-average PAC-10 program, like Arizona. And, sure, the Lakers—with Jack in the front row, and Pat Riley in Armani—have always flashed as brightly as the LA of our national imagination. (Although, for all his flaws, wouldn’t you prefer Magic to Kobe as the face of your team?) But the mere fact that LA worshipped a sports culture that was, at its heart, fairly traditionalist appealed to me. It complicated my hometown and served as a bulwark against all of its ugliest stereotypes. And now, inevitably, the bulwark has been breached. With John Wooden gone now, and the LA sports scene of my youth going with him, I’m starting to feel a little bit more like an east coaster.  

Greg Veis is the online editor of The New Republic. 

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