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A little extra ‘Magic’ propelled Wizard of Westwood

A look at the aftermath of John Wooden’s retirement for UCLA
UCLA's head coach John Wooden during the 1972-73 season

John Wooden in 1973

Betting on March Madness from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s revolved around finding value in how the UCLA Bruins would win the NCAA Division I championship. John Wooden led the juggernaut UCLA teams to 10 national championships over his career, including seven straight from 1967 to 1973. While Wooden would get a lot of credit for his team's success, headlined by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton, the success would ultimately come at a cost.

Wooden was able to recruit and retain a lot of his best players due to what was going on in the background. While the actions of booster Sam Gilbert do often appear as a footnote in Wooden’s career, especially with more modern reporting, UCLA’s program didn’t suffer until long after the legendary coach stepped down.

The Bruins to this day haven’t replicated their dominance in basketball, just winning a single national championship in 1994, though UCLA has played for the crown twice since then. Here’s a look at the aftermath of Wooden’s retirement.

Papa Sam comes aboard

UCLA had already won two national championships under John Wooden before Gilbert, referred to as “Papa Sam” by UCLA players, got involved with the program around the 1966-67 season. Gilbert was introduced to Abdul-Jabbar by fellow Bruins player Willie Naulls, who brought the star player to Gilbert for counseling.

Gilbert, who attended UCLA but never received a degree from the school, owned Sam Gilbert and Associates, a construction company based out of West Los Angeles. Gilbert would use his money from the business to pour a lot of money into the pockets of UCLA players. He bought clothes and cars for them while, in some extreme cases, arranging for abortions for some of the girlfriends of the players.

Wooden steps down, Bartow, Cunningham follow shortly after

Following Wooden’s retirement after the 1974-75 season, Gene Bartow stepped in as UCLA coach, taking the program to the Final Four and Sweet 16 before leaving to take over as the Athletic Director and men’s basketball coach at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Bartow may have been afraid of being associated with Gilbert.

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In 1991, a letter Bartow wrote to an NCAA investigator was leaked, thanking them for not investigating UCLA in 1976. Bartow wrote that he believed Gilbert was “Mafia-related” and was afraid his life would have been in danger had they investigated him at that point.

Bartow was replaced by Gary Cunningham, who coached two seasons, leading UCLA to the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 before resigning. Cunningham always wanted to be an administrator and didn’t want to stay as a coach.

Larry Brown takes the fall

Larry Brown, who would later win an NBA title as head coach of the Detroit Pistons, would get UCLA back to the national championship game in 1980. While the Bruins lost in the final to Louisville, something much darker was lurking. All of Gilbert’s illegal activity was starting to come to the surface.

While Brown would later get caught up in a scandal of his own while coaching SMU basketball, he didn’t have much to do with UCLA getting punished in 1980. Brown would quit the job when sanctions hit the program. UCLA would be banned from the 1981-82 tournament, and Gilbert was told to dissociate himself from the program. The Bruins were also forced to go on probation.

Gilbert has a tough end of life

In 1987, Gilbert was caught up in a federal investigation into money laundering that included racketeering charges. According to the investigation, Gilbert was being charged with a plan to launder money received from marijuana sales to help build the Bicycle Casino in California.

Gilbert would never see a trial as he died in 1987. He would be indicted on the charges four days after his death.

What did Wooden know?

When Wooden was interviewed about Gilbert, he denied having any connection and told players to steer clear of Gilbert. However, he also admitted to having “tunnel vision” and not asking as many questions of his players as he should have. Wooden also spoke in interviews about being uncomfortable with the players’ relationships with Gilbert but denied knowing of any NCAA wrongdoing that came as a result of that relationship.

All of the wrongdoing by Gilbert and UCLA was never tied to Wooden. While the program would eventually suffer, Wooden never had any games vacated or his guilt confirmed in any way for any wrongdoing.

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