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Kent Graham: Lessons from the End of the Bench


By Kent Graham '64

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM

"People treat you differently when they know that you are a part — albeit a tiny part — of something historic and wonderful."


Kent Graham '64

"You played for Wooden?"

(Recognizing that this is where honesty intersects with ego, I answer carefully.)

"Well, I was on the UCLA team for two years."

"That must have been amazing. When were you there?"

"1963 and 1964."

"Wasn't 1964 his first national championship team?"

"Yes. We were undefeated, 30 and 0."

It has always amazed me how many people independently know who I am: the 14th man on a 14-man team, who played in one game, scored two points, and got one rebound.

People treat you differently when they know that you are a part — albeit a tiny part — of something historic and wonderful, perhaps believing that having been coached by John Wooden must have left its mark.

Most of what I learned wasn't "taught." The real teaching was subtle, absorbed. You learn something valuable when your coach never talks about winning, just about doing your best; never swears, not once; modulates his coaching to each player's personality; and insists that a true team is greater than any of its parts, including himself.

I first got interested in basketball in P.E. classes at Glendale Junior College. My second year, the varsity coach asked me to join the team for the last few weeks of the season, since most of the team had dropped out of school. This brief period was my first exposure to organized basketball.

At UCLA, I took a basketball gym class. One day, the professor suggested that I try out for the varsity team. He convinced me by telling me that Coach Wooden was expecting me that afternoon.

They held open tryouts for the few non-scholarship slots. My first day was a disaster. I didn't know how to run any of the drills! Coach Wooden and Assistant Coach Jerry Norman asked me to work out with the freshman team for a week, to learn some basics. A few weeks later, I was on the final varsity roster. Go figure.

It wasn't until later in life that I was able to put my UCLA lessons in perspective.

One lesson is that it is better to be a tiny part of something wonderful than to be a big part of something mediocre. What a thrill, even today, to see the pride my kids have when they show friends the 1964 team picture in Pauley Pavilion. I'm sitting next to that year's Player of the Year and consensus All-American, Walt Hazzard, in front of Keith Erickson, an All-American and longtime pro with the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, and down the bench from Gail Goodrich, now in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Another lesson is that when you have a choice, always compete with people much better than you are. Competing against the other guys on our team made my occasional successes very meaningful.

A corollary is that no matter how hard you try, there is almost always going to be someone better than you. So take defeats in context.

Another lesson was the awesome power of teamwork. Our team did not necessarily have the most dominant players (although three future pros, including one Hall of Famer, isn't bad), but we were the best team.

The leader sets the tone. As a credit to Coaches Wooden and Norman and my teammates, I never experienced any lack of respect or rejection from my teammates. All of my teammates were highly credentialed in their basketball careers. It would have been easy — indeed, expected — for them to have treated me poorly. It simply never happened.

The most important effect this experience had on me is the standard that Coach drilled into us. Namely, that if you do the best you can, you've achieved success. He never measured us against other teams, never compared me to anyone else. The only issue was whether I had done the best I could. If so, that was success.

Coach told me years later that this was one of the reasons they included me on the team — they never saw less than 100 percent. With that standard becoming part of my fabric over two formative years, it has been hard to apply any other. If I'm satisfied with the effort I've made, it really doesn't matter much what others think or whether I've won or lost. I often don't meet that standard, but it comes at the very high price of not being proud of myself when I don't.