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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the most important message from John Wooden that made him attend UCLA: "Basketball is temporary but knowledge is forever"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & John Wooden

The conversation between Kareem and John Wooden that changed Kareem's life

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar describes his first meeting with the legendary head coach John Wooden after which he decided to attend UCLA after high school.

The importance of obtaining knowledge

When it comes to true NBA legends and one of the best players in the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's often get mentioned in those conversations. Kareem is one of the most accomplished and successful basketball players on this planet. Before he embarked on his 20 year-long NBA career, Kareem made his name known on a college level, being mentored by the legendary coach Wooden.

Since Kareem was one of the most established high-school players in the country, he received numerous offers from various universities that wanted him to come and play for them. In his book "Becoming Kareem" he talks about his meeting with Wooden at the UCLA campus that had a significant impact on him and made him rethink his future and understand UCLA was the best choice for him.

Unlike other coaches Kareem met during all those university visits, Wooden's approach was different. Wooden emphasized the academic program UCLA will offer to Kareem. He honestly said there is no guarantee that Kareem will become a professional basketball player but that he will get the knowledge to help him succeed in the real world.

“He gave me a long look through his nerdy black-frame glasses. “I’m impressed with your grades, Lewis,” he finally said. Really? He wanted to talk about grades? He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I knew he was serious. “For most students, basketball is temporary. But knowledge is forever.” “Yes, sir,” I said. “You can only play basketball for so long, then you’ve got to get on with the rest of your life.” I nodded.

Wooden was a true mentor and wanted his players to get the best possible education while at the same time supporting their growth as basketball players. It was essential for him that his players keep good grades in school.

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“My players graduate with good grades. If they choose to continue to play basketball, that’s great. But if they don’t or can’t, they then have the education to choose another path. That’s why you’re in college in the first place. To give yourself choices.”

Wooden was honest to Kareem

Kareem, an excellent student himself and someone who wanted to learn, and basketball wasn't his only aspiration, found Wooden's approach different and refreshing than all the others he heard previously from other coaches.

"That was unexpected. I had visited many other colleges and universities, and their coaches had mostly flattered me while hard-selling their sports programs that would bring me glory and national adulation. This was the first coach to emphasize academics over athletics. He was more concerned about our long-term happiness than our win-loss record. He didn’t treat me as a basketball player, but as a student who would be playing basketball on the side."

Their conversation was relatively brief, and surprisingly they didn't even talk about basketball that much. Wooden even told Kareem he never coached someone as tall as him since Kareem was 7 feet 2 after high school but was willing to learn how to implement him into the existing system at UCLA.

“We talked for about thirty minutes, only briefly touching on basketball. He told me that most often he recruited players for quickness rather than size and had never coached someone as tall as I was, but added, “I’m sure we will find the proper way to use you on the court. I am looking forward to coaching someone like you.”

Kareem knew he was making the right decision

Hearing what Wooden had to say and the fact that Wooden didn't sugarcoat anything made Kareem realize this is the place where he wants to spend the next four years of his life. But, as any other teenager, he had to consult his parents one last time before making a life-changing decision.

“The challenge. That’s what I was looking for in a school, and somehow he knew that. Rather than tell me how easily I would fit in and how smoothly everything would go, he appealed to the competitor in me. I flew back home to my box full of scholarship offers, but I was pretty sure that UCLA would be my new home. First, though, I had to have my parents’ final approval.”

Needless to say, Kareem made the right decision because he soon became a UCLA legend, and his college career was full of individual and team success. He is still considered one of the best college players in NCAA history, and Wooden perfectly found a way to implement him into their system. On top of that, Kareem and Wooden formed a great relationship in which Kareem received immense mentorship that would prepare him for his personal and professional career in the NBA. During his recruitment, Wooden approached Kareem with honesty and a challenge that suprised Kareem but also made him realize it was in line with his ambitions and goals he set out for himself.

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