Philly's Andre McCarter recalls John Wooden

Andre McCarter, an Overbrook High grad, ran the point for UCLA coach John Wooden's final NCAA championship team in 1975. "We became close, and then got closer," McCarter said.
Andre McCarter, an Overbrook High grad, ran the point for UCLA coach John Wooden's final NCAA championship team in 1975. "We became close, and then got closer," McCarter said.
Posted: June 06, 2010

The point guard for UCLA coach John Wooden's first national championship team was from Philadelphia, from Overbrook High. And the point guard from Wooden's last NCAA winner was from Philadelphia, from Overbrook again.

"Bookends," said Andre McCarter, who never left the floor during UCLA's final glorious NCAA run under Wooden, who died Friday at age 99. McCarter said he didn't realize until some time later, watching a replay of the 1975 title game, that he scored the last basket of the Wooden era, driving the middle as the Bruins protected their lead.

McCarter admits, however, to being a little jealous of Walt Hazzard, who quarterbacked UCLA's first title run in 1964.

"Walt did more because Coach needed him more," McCarter said yesterday in a telephone interview. "He had to let Walt go. By my time, his system had gotten fine-tuned. Coach had everything mapped out - if we just do this, we'll reach close to our maximum as a team."

And who could argue? From 1967 to 1973, UCLA won the NCAA title every year. The Bruins once won 88 straight games. They won 10 NCAA championships in Wooden's last 12 seasons as coach. Wooden became known as the "Wizard of Westwood" although he detested the nickname.

"There wasn't any magic or wizardry," McCarter said. "It's one thing to have something in your mind. But to get people to master some of those small details was incredible. It wasn't complicated in that sense. He just held his ground on it. People say, 'Nobody tested John Wooden.' Yes, they did, all the time. 'Why do I have to do that? Why that jab step?' He held his ground."

McCarter knows as well as anyone, describing how when he first got to UCLA - "I hadn't lost my Philly mentality. I didn't stop for anybody. This is Bill Walton? So what! He's going to get tricked like anybody else."

McCarter vividly remembers one workout when he put the theory into practice. He faked a behind-the-back pass but didn't throw it, cupping the ball. ("Guys today think they created that play.") Holding the basketball, McCarter said he got Walton to commit to defending the pass, giving McCarter an open lane for a layup. Everyone else in the gym was laughing, but Wooden was sputtering. He wouldn't curse, McCarter said, but he had the Philly kid in his office afterward. He pulled out a piece of paper, a bunch of statistics proving that the simple pass would work 98 percent of the time while McCarter's fancy move was only good for 70 percent. McCarter said he walked out convinced.

"I'm going to go with the higher percentage," he told himself.

He redshirted one year while a guard named Greg Lee got the ball to Walton and Keith Wilkes.

"They didn't really need somebody who could constantly get to the basket," McCarter said, adding that during his redshirt year, "I studied Wooden, to figure out what he was talking about when he wanted me to adjust my game."

It meant a lot to him, McCarter said, that Wooden later admitted that he probably hurt McCarter's future pro prospects by having him sublimate his skills too much. Still, the fact that Wooden always had him on the court for that '75 team - "He went from disdain for my flair to trusting me with the ball."

He'll never forget how Wooden told them after their great victory over a loaded Louisville team in the '75 semifinals that the final would be the coach's last game. "We weren't going to lose that game, no matter what," McCarter said, eventually understanding it was his own defining game.

McCarter is finishing up a project he's worked on off-and-on for the last two decades, a history of UCLA basketball that had Wooden's blessing, and will have a forward written by Wooden. McCarter also was one of the leaders of a successful effort to get Wooden awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"The relationship evolved to friend/mentor/father-figure/buddy," McCarter said. "I live close enough I could have walked to his house. The last time I saw him, we really talked for hours. He knows I love him. We became close, and then got closer."

It makes sense. McCarter had one trait that Wooden prized above all.

"My particular thing was, win championships - playground, Y league, anywhere," McCarter said.

Wooden put out his own famous Pyramid of Success, starting with traits such as industriousness, friendship, and loyalty, moving up to the top line - competitive greatness. UCLA's coach didn't talk specifically about the pyramid to his own players, McCarter said. They just lived it.

"I think he put it together for kids so they could think about what true success was, ultimately," McCarter said.


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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