When you look at John Wooden by the numbers -- numbers being the tangible muscle and sinew and bone of sports -- one can't help but be awed by what he accomplished.
There's are the 10 NCAA titles in 12 years and seven straight. There's the record 88-game winning streak and the 38-game win streak in the NCAA tourney. There are the 20 conference titles -- two at Indiana State and 18 at UCLA -- and four undefeated seasons. Then there are his two elections into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, first as a player 1960, then as a coach in 1973.
Simply, no other person in American sports history compares.
Those numbers, however, belong to Wooden and Wooden alone. The other important numbers -- the ones he used to win those 10 NCAA titles -- influences countless coaches today and will continue to have an impact on the game of basketball long after his death on June 4.
The 2-3 offensive set, a high-post offense which is predicated on what is now called the "UCLA cut" or "UCLA action" and his pressing defense, the 2-2-1 zone, will define the Wizard of Westwood as much as the numbers he accumulated during the years he coached.
In John Wooden's UCLA Offense, Wooden explains that his high-post offense was similar to the one he played when he was a three-time All-America at Purdue. Over time, Wooden adapted the offense to quickly attack the weakside. Or as my dad, Bob, a basketball coach for 40 years in high school, college and now as video coordinator with the Toronto Raptors, noted, Wooden began that offense with a simple, subtle move.
"He started the offense with a guard-to-guard pass," he said, "strong side to weak side."
This action, my dad explained, shifted the defense away from the strong side and put UCLA in the position to attack the weak side.
(You can see the first pass in the second diagram as explained by Fran Fraschilla.)
Wooden explained "the guard reverse" was essential to starting the offense:
"Something I learned early on was that the offense worked best when it was initiated by moving the ball from strong side to weak side by a guard-to-guard pass, followed by a pass to the forward. Since weak-side players generally sag toward the ball, quick ball movement ensured a guard-to-forward entry pass. For most of my teams, I preferred to start the offense this way because the guard-to-forward pass was immediately followed by a vertical cut-the UCLA cut."Adaptability was one of Wooden's hallmarks. ""Failure is not fatal," Wooden said, "but failure to change might be."
"Wooden was special because he won with all kinds of talent that," my dad said. "He won with post players being the best players. He won with forwards being the best players. He won with guards being the best players.
"After Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor] left, Wooden had to adapt to his talent. He wouldn't have Kareem in the high-post or [Bill] Walton in the high-post. But when they didn't have a dominant low-post player, they would go to the high-post offense and run the guards off the high-post screens."
The Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan and the Houston Rockets with Rick Adelman would be the NBA teams which feature the UCLA cut the most. A conservative estimate would have two-thirds of NBA teams featuring a version of it in their offense.
As for the vaunted 2-2-1 zone press UCLA ran, not many teams, especially NBA teams, use this tactic much these days. Ballhandlers are too good and teams are often well-schooled at breaking the press with passing. But for UCLA, it would spark eight-to-10 point runs from which other teams could never recover. Wooden explained:
"Why do teams use a pressing defense? At UCLA, we chose to use it for two primary reasons. One was to avoid getting stuck in a half-court game in which the opposition could dictate the pace and-even if outmanned-reduce the number of possessions to keep the score close. Two, we believed the press allowed us to exploit opponents who were not fundamentally sound in their spacing, cutting, passing, and dribbling."It was these fundamentals that Wooden stressed daily to his Bruins. "It's the little details that are vital" Wooden said. "Little things make big things happen." My dad recalls attending a coaching clinic where Wooden spoke, where the Wizard put that maxim of "little things" in different words.
"They liked to run, play up-tempo basketball," my dad recalled. "I was at a basketball clinic, and Wooden said, 'Raise your hand if you spend as much time or more time teaching defense rather than offense.'
"About half the room put their hands up, and Wooden said, 'I want to play your team. In order to have offense work, you need to spend time on it. You need to practice the timing of your spacing and your cuts. Defense is energy and effort. Offense takes timing and execution.'"
In the end, Wooden had the numbers to prove it.