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UCLA

We Will Always Call Him Coach

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By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Oct 1, 2010 8:59 AM


First Team

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First Teamers, left to right: Don Johnson, George Stanich, Jerry Norman, Art Alper and Eddie Sheldrake. Photo by Betsy Winchell.

It's a sunny day in Torrance, Calif., where a group of friends is meeting for lunch at Polly's Pies. Unbeknownst to the other diners in the restaurant, however, several of the men in this group have the distinction of having played basketball for one of the greatest coaches of all time: John Wooden. What's even more impressive is that these silver-haired gentlemen — all in their early 80s — were members of Coach's very first UCLA teams from 1948-1951.

Original team members Eddie Sheldrake '51 and Jerry Norman '52 organize these gatherings, self-deprecatingly called the "Legends in Own Mind Luncheon," every three to four months. And it's a home game: Sheldrake co-owns Polly's Pies with his brothers.

Other "first teamers" present today include George Stanich '50, Art Alper '51 and Don Johnson '52. Ron Livingston '54, who played basketball for Wooden a few years after the others did, is there. But Ralph Joeckel '50 lives in Las Vegas and can't make it this time.

Stanich, Alper and Sheldrake played together on Wooden's first team in 1948-'49, admitting that, at the time, they knew nothing about the 37-year-old coach from Indiana. Stanich — who predated Wooden at UCLA by a year — was a three-sport athlete who had won a bronze medal in the high jump at the 1948 London Olympic Games. He'd spent the entire summer in Europe and had arrived back on campus just before basketball season was to begin.

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Ron Livingston, left, and Sheldrake. Photo by Betsy Winchell.

As he recalls, Wooden had already run a few practices and was not pleased with what he saw. "I heard that and told him, 'But Coach, you haven't seen me yet!' I was just teasing him, of course," Stanich says, laughing.

Practices were difficult but games were a pleasure, according to Alper, now a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Insurance Services USA, Inc. "Coach Wooden changed everything," he says. "In those days, they had much slower, stockier types of physical players. We outran and out-conditioned everybody that we played. We could pretty well run everybody off the court, because that was Indiana-style basketball, which he brought out here."

It was a different ballgame in other ways back then, too. Sheldrake remembers one road trip when the Bruins were playing Stanford. "[Athletic trainer] Ducky Drake '27 always did bed check, and we had a few guys who had been in the service, and some of them had fought in the war," he recounts. "And so Coach would try to tell Ducky not to check certain rooms, because you don't want to have to kick [those] guys off the team. But Ducky went into one room one night, and the damned smoke is heavy, and there are four guys in there. He goes into the bathroom, and the tub's full of ice and beer cans. It was a little different in those days."

Jerry Norman joined the team in 1949; he had decided to follow Sheldrake, his best friend from high school, to UCLA. Norman became Wooden's assistant coach in 1958, assuming the role of recruiter and convincing Wooden to use a full-court zone press that helped the Bruins win their first two titles in 1964 and 1965. He stayed through the 1967-'68 season, when the Bruins won their fourth title in five seasons. Later, Norman enjoyed a prosperous career in asset management.

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In his late 30s, Indiana hoops legend John Wooden took over an underperforming UCLA team. Photo by UCLA Photo.

Don Johnson was a co-captain with Norman in 1951-'52 and, like his former teammate, coached college ball after graduation. He spent 27 years at Cypress College, where he became one of California's most successful community college men's basketball coaches.

"[Wooden] knew I was going into coaching, and he told me the story of this young basketball prodigy he had when he was coaching high school in Indiana, a kid with great potential," Johnson recalls. "He came from a very poor home situation, but was making great progress on the team."

Unfortunately, the player had been seen smoking in the community, forcing Coach to adhere to his "no-smoking" rule and kick him off the team. The young man spent the rest of his life mostly in and out of prison.

"And so [after that], Coach Wooden's guiding principle in terms of discipline was to take individual differences into account, and not paint himself into a corner. And that's what I tried to do at Cypress," Johnson says. "Sometimes you appear inconsistent that way, or that you're playing favorites. In a way, it's a little more difficult to coach under those conditions, but that's the way I attempted to do it. And it all worked out pretty well."

— Wendy Soderburg '82

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