Jun 9, 2010

They Reminisce Over You


The pomp and circumstance that surrounds the passing of public figures has become a time honored ritual in our heavily mediated society.   The routine is pretty straight forward at this point.  A legendary figure dies, their supporters reminisce and mourn, while the media goes about laying out a narrative that surveys the public figure's life and career.   Some deaths, like that of Ronald Reagan or Michael Jackson, command global audiences, while others like that of the recently deceased former UCLA coach John Wooden, reverberate throughout the larger basketball world.  This public mourning and reminiscence has taken on added meaning in the digital age, particularly in that ever consuming space otherwise known as social media.

Recently, upon the announcement of Coach Wooden's death, perhaps the greatest coach the college game has ever seen, I posted some comments about the man previously known as "The Wizard of Westwood"  on Twitter.    One of the comments I posted had to do with a long conversation I had many years ago with one of Coach Wooden's most celebrated players, Walt Hazzard, who played on Wooden's first championship team at UCLA and later coached the Bruins in the mid 80s.

Hazzard told me that once back in the 60s he, like a lot of other people, was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  He said Wooden snatched the book out of his hands and told him that he shouldn't be reading what the coach considered to be inflammatory material.  Now such a response from Wooden shouldn't surprise people because of all the attention that Wooden's stoic Midwestern conservatism had received when he was coaching Bill Walton, a popular 70s free spirit who openly participated in the counter culture of that time as a college student and star player.  No one ever said John Wooden was a leftist, so it stands to reason that he would have certainly  been concerned about Hazzard's reading choices back in the 60s as well.

My point is this, Wooden liked to see himself as an educator, more so than a coach.  I think that it was irresponsible for an educator to tell a college student what they should and shouldn't be reading, simply because the book disagreed with Wooden's own principals.  It would have been better to encourage the fact that Hazzard was indeed reading, as opposed to trying to dictate what he read.  What Wooden did is not being an educator, it's called control.  Wooden might have been concerned that Hazzard would be able to draw his own conclusions after having read the book and if those conclusions went against Wooden's teaching then that would signal one less area of control for the coach.

This was only part of it though.  The other thing that I mentioned about Wooden had to do with the presence of an individual named Sam Gilbert.  Gilbert, who was often referred to as "Papa Sam" was a UCLA booster, a term that used to circulate readily throughout college sports.  Gilbert was accused of providing UCLA players with everything they could possibly want, from money to cars, even abortions for player's girlfriends, some assert.  Every great college program had boosters like Gilbert back then.  Things work somewhat differently now in college sports, as agents and other interested parties have come to occupy some of the same underground roles previously held by boosters.  The boosters still exist, they're just not the only one's in the mix now.  UCLA would eventually be put on NCAA probation because of Gilbert, but this was long after Wooden had retired. 

Wooden always claimed that he knew nothing about what Gilbert was doing.  Some suggest he had to know, while others assume that he consciously turned a blind eye to what was going on.  But then there are those who feel that Wooden would never be involved in something so shady, as these accusations went against the honest, Sunday school-teaching, all-around good man image that Wooden had come to cultivate.  Yes, Wooden was held up as a force for all that was right with the world.  He was celebrated for his morality and his integrity.  I'm not saying that any of this was untrue either.  What I am saying is that he was a more complicated a figure than the sweet, lovable grandfather that people made him out to be. 

Ronald Reagan was another figure held up as grandfatherly, and he of course used this image to his advantage.  During the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s, a scandal that directly influenced the rise and spread of crack cocaine throughout the nation at the time, Reagan claimed senility.  He didn't know what was going on.  Others took advantage of his advanced age he would imply.  Though Reagan's popularity took a dip momentarily, it quickly improved, and by the time of his death he was being celebrated as one of the nation's all-time heroes. 

In some ways this is like what we might the "the godfather syndrome."  Marlon Brando's role as Don Coreleone was so captivating and grandfatherly that people often forget that he is a mob boss.  Wooden cultivated an image and played to it.  I'm not saying it was false, but I am saying that it was an image created in a particular historical time.  Whenever I see pictures of John Wooden from back in the 60s and 70s, I'm reminded of figures like Barry Goldwater.  Again, I'm not saying it was a false image, but the image did serve a purpose.  Some people have a hard time linking that image with the facts of who Wooden really was.

Ok, so after posting my comments about Wooden, being especially careful to acknowledge and commend his accomplishments, I start to get a slew of responses in return.  Some responses were of the "thanks, I didn't know that" variety, while others were much more hostile.  Now when you're The Notorious Ph.D. hostile comments are part of package, but I thought I would use these most recent hostile comments as an opportunity to make a larger point.

In the age of social media, we can all declare our intentions out loud.  When famous people die, we can shout them out on our FaceBook status updates, we can post their picture in our profiles, we can write loving tributes explaining what these people meant to us and our lives and send this out over Tweeter.   Such activities allow us to feel connected, while participating in a form of digital public mourning.

Yet, it is important to also point out that these are public figures that I'm talking about.  And public figures deserve to be discussed publicly.  If you're someone like myself, then you make a living commenting on people, places, and things in the media.  For me this is work.  And one of the things that has always been at the forefront of my mission in life is to keep it intellectually real.  I don't agree that John Wooden or any other public figure deserves to be feted as a saint, when he was a human being who accomplished great things, but also made mistakes and sometimes engaged in affairs that were not as morally upright as people would like to believe.

Now, I wouldn't go to Wooden's funeral and tell the Hazzard story or bring up Sam Gilbert, but I'm not going to be invited to Wooden's funeral.  I never met Wooden and other than signing a copy of my book Young Black Rich and Famous--my book on basketball and hip hop, which I'm sure Wooden hated, if he ever got around to reading it--that someone asked me to sign so as to give to him, I had no direct dealings with John Wooden.  My reactions are in relationship to the public figure, because I didn't know the private man.

Last summer, when Micheal Jackson died, this idea that the numerous controversies that had defined the so-called King of Pop's life should be held at bay while his supporters mourned was rampant.  If Micheal's life wasn't public, nothing is.  Public figure don't get a pass.  There is no statue of limitations when it comes to how much time must tick off the clock before someone can say something critical about a deceased public figure.

That sense of social etiquette that your mama taught you about not saying something bad about someone who has just passed away doesn't apply here.  It's not in bad taste to offer critical comments at the death of a public figure. This is not a funeral, it is the public domain.  And in the public domain, it's real in the field!  This sense of social etiquette isn't always followed either.  It changes depending on the public figure. Not all receive this specialized treatment.

It is a person's whole life that determines their ultimate legacy.  A public figure like John Wooden can be celebrated for all that he has accomplished, while also having the controversies that arose during his lifetime discussed as well.  In the end, I think John Wooden was an incredible coach.  He modernized the college game.  But he was also a conservative man of a certain era who was able to hide behind his squeaky clean image.  People tell stories about how Wooden never cursed, for instance, but many wished that he would have because the things he could say without using curse words was perhaps even more abusive than if he had cursed like a sailor.

As a public figure, in the digital public domain, Wooden, and any other public figure for that matter, can be celebrated, but his entire legacy must be held accountable as well.  Like my man Curtis Mayfield once said, "not trying to offend anyone, just basically tellin' it like it is."

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