John Wooden Stands As a Humble Giant Among L.A.’s Biggest Sports Legends


As part of Boston’s Biggest Sports Legend tournament, we are comparing Boston’s best to the best of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Here is L.A.’s case, courtesy of Matt “Money” Smith from Fox Sports West.

Legend: a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical as it relates to a particular people, group or clan; a collection of stories about an admirable person.

Originally, I figured this would be a quartet of cities celebrating an impressive list of great men who contributed to the sporting landscape over the previous century. However, I quickly realized the inevitability of it becoming a “contest” to determine which set of legends is considered superior among the four groups.

The Lakers and Celtics appear to be on a collision course for another NBA Finals, the Blackhawks look like they might deliver Chicago’s first Stanley Cup in some 50 years and how could Yankees and Red Sox ever peacefully coexist anywhere, especially in the typically vitriolic world of cyberspace?

So here’s the case for the Los Angeles Eight to be recognized as the greatest set of legends any major metropolis has to offer.

I’ll start by pointing out a couple of omissions that weren’t allowed based on technicalities that could be disputed were we to put this to some sort of “Sporting Legend Tribunal.”

Tiger Woods was born in the greater Los Angeles area (Cypress) and was raised in Long Beach until he left for Stanford before becoming the world’s greatest golfer.

We also left off the greatest pass rusher in the history of the NFL, Deacon Jones, who was part of the Fearsome Foursome, the greatest defensive line in NFL history. I know the Rams are now considered property of St. Louis, but in the 1960s, the man who coined the term “sack” laid it down while playing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made five All-Pro teams and saw his Rams become the first NFL team to draw over 1 million fans in a single season.

As for the list, I’ll start with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as this is likely to be the most contentious of all the entries, considering he’s going head-to-head with Bill Russell as the greatest center of all time.

First off, the man originally known as Lew Alcindor was the greatest basketball player in history, period, end of discussion. I understand Bill Russell won 11 NBA championships in one era of NBA basketball, and he’s worthy of all the accolades that come his way. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his six NBA championships, his six NBA MVP awards, his two NBA Finals MVPs, 15 All-NBA selections, 11 NBA All-Defensive selections, 19 All-Star appearances, and being the all-time career scoring leader are just one part of his impressive resume.

Kareem was a legend before he turned pro. He was the most dominant high school basketball player of all time, winning three straight New York City High School championships while posting a 79-2 record. This was before he won three straight NCAA championships at UCLA, and took home three NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards. The NCAA banned the “dunk” because of his dominance.

Why didn’t he win four national championships, some may ask? Freshmen weren’t allowed to participate on the varsity team back in the late ‘60s. All Alcindor’s freshman team did was beat the then-No. 1 ranked defending championship UCLA Bruins varsity team, 75-60, in the first game ever played in Pauley Pavilion.

In addition to the best basketball player who ever lived, Los Angeles reps the greatest point guard — the toughest position to play in the game of basketball — to ever grace the earth. At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, Ervin Magic Johnson was unlike anything we will ever see again.  Five championships, three MVPs and three Finals MVPs are what people often cite, but you have to watch Magic play the game to truly appreciate how special he was. In 1980, the man replaced an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and posted a line of 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals to clinch the championship, while becoming the only rookie to ever win a Finals MVP.

From the greatest player, to the greatest point guard, to the greatest coach in basketball history, we now bring up John Wooden. I don’t have to get too deep into the merits of Wooden, as his achievements will never be matched.  Ten NCAA championships in 12 seasons, including an 88-game win streak, and his name graces the award given to college basketball’s player of the year, “The Wooden Award.” I would say that qualifies you as a legend.

Jerry West was the greatest bridesmaid in the history of professional sports. Despite West Virginia not winning the 1959 NCAA Tournament, West was so dominant, he was selected as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Sadly for West, this would be a harbinger of what was to come. His Lakers teams consistently made it to the NBA Finals, only to lose to Russell’s Celtics time and time again, including the 1969 championship, when he became the only player from the losing team awarded the Finals MVP.

But you want to be a legend, how about being the player who was used as the silhouette for the NBA logo?

Kobe Bryant is still crafting his legacy, but while still in his peak, he’s become the player of the decade with four championships, eight All-NBA First Team selections, eight All-Defensive First Team selections, and a regular-season and Finals MVP award. In the next month, he could add to that total.

The Kings were able to lay claim to “The Great One” for nearly eight seasons. Wayne Gretzky took hockey to another level in Los Angeles, and, for a while, made it the game in town. Gretzky had over 120 points in four of his eight seasons with the Kings, and he took the team to its only Stanley Cup Finals appearance ever in 1993 when the Kings fell to Les Habitants in five games.

Tommy Lasorda is baseball. He is the game’s greatest ambassador, and for all he did with the Dodgers teams of the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s, you’d have to cite his greatest accomplishment as winning the gold medal for the U.S. at the 2000 Olympics. It was a team nobody gave a chance to beat Cuba, but people didn’t count on Lasorda freaking those kids out, and motivating them to play the greatest baseball of their lives. Tommy has two World Series rings, two manager of the year awards, and a giant mural of him hangs in the Smithsonian because he’s a true American treasure.

Finally, we have perhaps the best entry on the Los Angeles legends list: Sandy Koufax. I know this column went long, so let’s keep this short and sweet. If you were to have a draft of all the players in the history of baseball, there’s no possible way he’s not going No. 1 overall. He would win you three games in any given seven-game series. His four-year stretch from 1963 to 1966 is the most ludicrous set of pitching statistics ever recorded. Just under 1,200 innings pitched with a record of 97-27. An ERA of 1.84 and 1,228 strikeouts to 261 walks. Not to mention 89 complete games and a WHIP average of .910.

His excellence led to the greatest baseball quote of all time. Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell was asked what it was like to face Koufax. His response? “Hitting against him was like eating soup with a fork.”

When trying to determine which city has the superior set of legends, I would simply ask which players or coaches would be selected first given your choice to build a team from scratch. Gretzky is a no-brainer as the first choice for hockey, pitchers always trump position players, making Koufax the top pick for baseball. And I can’t see how you pass up Magic Johnson for Russell, Bird or MJ. Factor in that John Wooden’s accomplishments far outweigh any other coach on the list, and Los Angeles (while there is a gaping hole in the sport of football) is well ahead of any other city.

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