A Conversation With Legendary Basketball Coach John Wooden

At 94, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden may not be quick getting to the phone in his Encino, Calif., apartment. But once he starts talking hoop, his mind's as impressive as a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. He cracks jokes and easily recalls details like the names (and heights) of the starters on his 1964 national championship team (the first of his record 10 NCAA titles). Wooden, chairman of the McDonald's All American Games (the 28th annual matchup of high-school all-stars is March 30), spoke with NEWSWEEK's David Noonan.

A lot of top high-school players are going straight to the NBA. Bad for the game?

I don't think it's particularly bad for the college game, because there is so much talent today. What it's bad for is the individuals themselves. For some it's OK, but it's not good for the vast majority, who are losing several years of wonderful association with those of their own age and their own interests. They are thrown in with a group that is older whose lifestyle is quite different, and they're not prepared for that.

Could Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor, when he played for Wooden) have gone straight to the NBA?

I don't think he would have been the star he became after four years of college. Lewis was not physically strong enough at that time; he was a little thin, skinny. In his case, rather than accelerating his playing, it probably would have decelerated it.

Should the dunk be banned?

Kids love to dunk, but I think it's bad for the game. But the fans love the fancy stuff. I'm entirely against the fancy stuff. I wouldn't permit behind-the-back passing and that sort of thing. I like it when a player comes in there for a dunk and misses, and the ball bounces out. I like that.

Who do you like in the NCAA Tournament this year?

Of the teams that I have personally seen, Illinois is the best.