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No, my dear, I'm a very good man...

Posted by Charles P. Pierce  June 7, 2010 01:28 PM

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...I'm just a very bad wizard.

   One of my best friends in this business was the late Alan Greenberg, who died too young in that he died at all. One of my best friends in this business still is Mike Littwin, now writing in Denver. On February 1, 1982, the two of them wrote one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism I've ever read, describing in greasy detail the activities of one Sam Gilbert, a California contractor of dubious employ who also was the de facto sugar daddy to the UCLA basketball program throughout its dynastic years.

(Here's the only link I could find  to the story, and here's Time magazine pretending to be four-years old on the same topic.)

This wasn't just journalism. This was a burial job. Greenberg and Littwin detailed how Gilbert fashioned a comfortable life for the Bruin players, supplying them with cash, cars, and in one particularly pungent detail unearthed by the two reporters, abortions. Gilbert began his relationship with UCLA in the middle of the 1960's. This coincided roughly with the beginning of the astonishing run of championships under Coach John Wooden, who died this weekend at 99.

Make no mistake. Sam Gilbert was an authentically dangerous man; one of Wooden's successors is said to have feared for his life, if the NCAA ever investigated Gilbert's relationship with the program. But UCLA was protected always by its influential athletic director, J. D. Morgan. With Morgan dead and Wooden in retirement, the NCAA finally got off the stump and belted UCLA with a two-year probation. Sam, on the other hand, was indicted for money-laundering four days after he died.

I was around the universe of college basketball at the time, as an undergraduate, and the funny thing is that almost everybody in that universe knew about Gilbert and UCLA. Jerry Tarkanian, then at Long Beach, and beginning his career as the sport's pre-eminent brigand, never shut up about it, and he wasn't alone. Once, the late, great Abe Lemons was asked on the radio what he thought of John Wooden's famous "Pyramid Of Success."

Wayull, Abe replied, I could get me a Pyramid of Success, too, if I had Sam Gilbert buying me the cement.

"I was not asked back on that program," Abe laughed, years later.

 Apparently, what his posterity would like us to believe is that the only person who didn't know what was going on was John Wooden. Look, I hate to be the skunk at the garden party here. And, by all accounts, he was a wonderful man. But it should be noted before we're all swept away in a tsunami of Hoosier piety  that anyone arguing for John Wooden's integrity based on the UCLA basketball program that he ran is simply arguing against the historical record, and doing a disservice to the work of Littwin and Alan Greenberg, whom I still miss. 

 

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