Wooden Leads Founding Class Into Collegiate Hall of Fame

Nov. 20, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -John Wooden still gets around, albeit with the help of a well-worn cane and a good friend like Denny Crum.

The former English teacher still teaches in that articulate, deceptively powerful voice that he lent to the ears of youngsters first at Indiana State and later UCLA.

But a month after celebrating birthday number 96, the 'Wizard of Westwood' still does not forgive Bill Russell and his San Francisco teams for spoiling more than a few good nights.

'A couple of times I thought that I had a pretty good team and we had to play them in the tournament and they knocked us out,' said Wooden, his lips curling into a smile. 'He never said he was sorry.'

Wooden joined Russell, Oscar Robertson, Dean Smith and Dr. James Naismith as the founding class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame during a ceremony Sunday at the Crown Center Exhibit Hall.

It was a festive evening during which basketball's royalty spent much of the time trading barbs.

One moment, Robertson was talking about how he ended up at Cincinnati because Indiana wouldn't have him. The next, Texas Tech coach Bob Knight was offering to put him on the floor when his Red Raiders play Monday night.

Russell would later tell Robertson that he had 'never seen a better basketball player,' then quickly add, 'I never saw me play, but that doesn't count.'

The five luminaries represent an inaugural class of 152 players who already are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Class members were chosen by a committee based upon their collegiate careers, rather than professional accolades.

'I'm kind of blase about this kind of stuff,' said Russell, part of his 6-foot-9 frame wedged beneath a table as he sat between Robertson and Ian Naismith, the grandson of Dr. James Naismith. 'But when I saw the list of the people you had here, I was so honored to be with them in anything, because every one of these people I have a lifetime of respect and affection for.'

That includes Wooden, whom Russell said cost him just as many unpleasant evenings.

'We won those back-to-back championships, and I remember the last game we lost was to Coach Wooden in Westwood,' Russell said. 'And we left there with the conclusion that if you wanted to lose a game, go to Westwood.'

Wooden coached the Bruins for 27 years, retiring in 1975 with a record of 620-147 and 10 national titles. He also had four perfect seasons and an 88-game winning streak that many say will never be matched.

'To play for John Wooden was the greatest thrill of my life,' said Bill Walton, who made the presentation for Wooden with the kind of lengthy oratory for which he is known. 'They were the most challenging, demanding things I've done in my life.'

Before Robertson became an NBA star, he established 14 NCAA records and earned three national player of the year awards with the Bearcats. He went on to average a triple-double over an entire season as a professional.

'It's a timing situation, where you are,' said Robertson, quietly and demurely. 'I played basketball because that was the fate that was dealt to me.'

Russell, who was so lightly recruited he said he had to beg for a scholarship to San Francisco, was the catalyst for national championship teams in 1955 and 1956.

Smith still holds the Division I record for most career victories with 879, including 11 Final Four appearances and two national titles.

'You're probably wondering why I'm here,' Smith said with a straight face. 'I am too.'

Perhaps it was fitting that Knight was on hand to see Smith into the Hall of Fame. Knight is only seven wins shy of taking over the top spot on the career list.

'The real reason I'm lucky enough to be here are the players,' Smith said. 'Anytime you get something like this as a coach, it's because of the players.'

The Hall of Fame is part of what will be the College Basketball Experience, a 40,000-square-foot interactive attraction to be incorporated into the Sprint Center, Kansas City's new downtown arena set to open in fall 2007.

Once the College Basketball Experience is complete, exhibits honoring college basketball's greats will be on the first floor. On the second floor, visitors will find multimedia exhibits designed to recreate the atmosphere of the college game.

'This is a big night for college basketball,' said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. 'It captures more than 100 years of history and lays the groundwork for the future of it.'

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