UCLA coaching legend John Wooden did not grant an abundance of interviews.

As you would expect, sportswriters working the beat for Los Angeles-based newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s were given regular access during the basketball season, but Wooden generally shied away from the press in favor of protecting his family and his privacy.

That makes the good fortune of my unlikely two interviews with Wooden — conducted more than 40 years apart — both a checked-off bucket-list item and a head-scratcher of the highest order.

At the pinnacle of my sportswriting “career” (I’m using that term loosely), I wrote for the Signal Newspaper, the community daily in Santa Clarita, a bucolic bedroom community in northern Los Angeles County. While it hardly qualified me for a sit-down with Coach, my pair of interviews actually occurred before my stint at the Mighty Sig. That’s the head-scratcher part.

I’ll explain.

I held my first interview with Wooden in October of 1964, when I was a 10-year-old 4th-grader. I had the advantage of a father who graduated from UCLA three years after the end of World War II. My dad, Jack Leener, served as sports editor of the Daily Bruin his senior year in 1948. He went on to become president of the university’s original athletic alumni organization known as Bruin Bench. That gave him a certain amount of clout in Westwood.

The person who set the table for me was Mrs. Lewin, my totally awesome 4th grade teacher at Sherman Oaks Elementary. Mrs. Lewin dished out a class assignment to conduct an interview with “someone in authority.” While my classmates were chasing down the local grocery store manager and the mailman, my dad made a couple of phone calls and arranged for me to interview UCLA head basketball coach John Robert Wooden, the man who, months earlier, had led the Bruins to a 30-0 season and an NCAA national championship.

So, eight months prior to the completion of Pauley Pavilion, there I was, southbound on the 405 Freeway riding shotgun with my mom in the family truckster, her 1962 Chevy Bel Air station wagon. The destination was Wooden’s modest office within the UCLA athletic department building. I was armed with a bulky 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder, 27 handwritten questions and pure moxie.

Coach had the patience of a saint as I plowed through my questions, even numbering them aloud, as if that information were somehow as important as the questions themselves.

One particularly memorable passage:

Craig: “What do you like most about coaching?” I asked in my squeaky, pre-adolescent voice.

Wooden: “There are so many things about coaching, Craig, that are interesting and appeal to me, that it would be most difficult for me to single out any one particular thing. However, I would say …”

Just then, UCLA assistant coach Jerry Norman walked into the office, and I instinctively shut off the tape recorder, no doubt thinking Norman wanted to speak frankly and off the record.

Norman: “Coach, we’re starting the practice in a few minutes.”
Wooden: “Thanks, Jerry. I’m just wrapping up here with Craig. Get it started, and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Norman gracefully exited the room.

Wooden: “I would say that just the opportunity to work with young people is the thing that appeals to me most of all.”

Craig: “How do you feel about your team members breaking records?”

Wooden: “The principle record in which I’m interested, Craig, is winning games. As far as any scoring records or individual records of that sort, I feel that it’s best not to become too interested in those things. I feel that it’s a coach’s responsibility and duty to think always of the team first, and he must try, to the best of his ability, in every honorable way, just to win basketball games.”

It was vintage John Wooden, and I was there to record it all.

Fast-forward to January of 2005. I had taken some time off from corporate life in the entertainment industry to return to school, enrolling at College of the Canyons in the Santa Clarita Valley. Like my dad, I was sports editor of my school newspaper, the now-defunct Canyon Call.

COC had just established an athletic hall of fame and arranged for 94-year-old Wooden to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural dinner.

Just prior to the banquet hall’s doors opening, the college’s sports information director Bruce Battle whisked me and two actual sportswriters — the Signal’s Bob Dickson and Daily News staffer Gerry Gittelson — into the ballroom for 15 minutes of 3-on-1 time with Coach.

Bob and Gerry were writing on deadline, so in deference to unwritten sports-journalist honor code, I hung back while they asked their questions. Battle was looking at his watch as the guys wrapped up, so I knew it was now or never. I stepped forward, punched the record button of my Sony TCM-50DV analog cassette recorder and re-introduced myself to the man who helped me ace that 4th-grade assignment.

Craig: “Hello, coach, I’m Craig Leener. I’m not sure if you remember my father, Jack Leener, but he passed away a couple years ago, and I wanted to make sure you knew that.”

Wooden, his thinning gray hair parted neatly toward the center of his head and wearing a conservative suit, looked up at me with steel-blue eyes and a tender smile.

Wooden: “Yes, I heard about that, Craig, and was saddened by the news. He was a wonderful supporter of the basketball program.”

I had a follow-up question in the can.

Craig: “This isn’t the first time we’ve met, Coach. Do you remember when I interviewed you for a class assignment back in 1964?”

The coach bowed his head and grinned.

Wooden: “You know, Craig, I did a lot of those back then.”

We both enjoyed a good laugh, and the SID signaled the end of the interview session.

Wooden went on to deliver an inspirational speech on the importance of honoring the pioneers in our lives, which I have the privilege to do via this blog post.

Note: You can find my original interview with John Wooden in the Podcasts section of this website, courtesy of my good friend and audio engineer John Walker, who resurrected the aging tape via Pro Tools in his home studio.

For folks who once played basketball at the high school level, an essential part of the experience, at least while living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, was summer league.

If you were to Google the phrase “life doesn’t get any better than this,” there’s a better-than-even chance you’d find a weathered action photo of my Van Nuys High School teammates trucking downcourt on a fast break in the fourth quarter of a seesaw summer league matchup.

The most memorable summer league basketball game I ever played in was against John Burroughs High School of Burbank at the North Hollywood High gymnasium in August of 1971.

It wasn’t memorable because of how close the final score was — we beat Burroughs by, as I recall, about 30 points. What made the game unforgettable was that actor and future filmmaker Ron Howard was on the opposing team.

More on that in a moment.

The beauty of playing in summer league was that our head coach at Van Nuys High, Burt Golden, never attended the games. We never knew why, but I’d like to think he was secretly affording us the opportunity to bond and figure things out for ourselves.

The ritual of preparation for game day always began with my teammates Lloyd Waxman, Bob Wells and Ric Garcia. Lloyd would commandeer his mom’s Pontiac LeMans so we could take a field trip to Santa Monica beach, where we prepared for competition by scoping for chicks and improving the outer self. Then we’d drive back to the San Fernando Valley, customarily arriving at North Hollywood High just prior to tipoff.

But there was something different about the Burroughs game.

The guys and I had heard the rumor that Ron Howard was on the team. His career up to that point consisted of eight seasons as a child actor on the Andy Griffith Show, as well as appearances on more than 30 other TV programs and several feature film roles. His work on Happy Days, American Graffiti, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, to name just a few, was years away.

When Burroughs came out of the locker room for pre-game warm-ups, there he was. We had a few things in common back then. We were born just three days apart, and neither one of us was the best player on his team. I could tell how he carried himself that, like me, he understood his support role in something that was bigger than he was. For us, basketball offered a chance to fit in and contribute for the greater good.

So, the game got underway, and our tanned and rested team from Van Nuys High exerted its influence over the guys from Burroughs. Lloyd worked in the paint, knifing to the basket for numerous layups and short bank shots. Bob tossed up 18-foot jumpers from the wing and worked his butt off on defense. Ric served as our enforcer, throwing pointy elbows as he pounded the boards and rifled quick outlets to the guards. I played my usual role as facilitator, providing encouragement and crisp passes that led to assists.

Before long, we pulled away and then put it in cruise control, nursing a big lead as time was about to expire.

That’s when it happened.

With just a few seconds left, I threw a pass and a player from Burroughs stole it. That kid found a wide-open Ron Howard standing at midcourt. Ron caught the pass, took a couple of dribbles as he crossed the half-court line and heaved up a 40-foot line drive just before the final horn sounded.

Then three things happened in rapid succession: 1) The crowd hushed, 2) the shot banked home, and 3) the gym erupted.

There was one thing that never happened: Ron Howard never called “bank.” But it didn’t matter. An enormous celebration ensued, he was mobbed by his teammates, and the guys and I stood around wondering what just happened.

The official scorebook documented the buzzer beater as just another two-point bucket. That’s because high school didn’t adopt a standardized 3-point line until 16 years later in 1987.

None of that mattered to Ron Howard and the Burroughs bunch. They found something positive in defeat, and they celebrated it — as a team. That is basketball’s inherent power, to bring people together so they can work toward a common goal.

On that night, it was a fleeting moment of glory played out in a hot gym by a teenager hoping to find his place in the world, one half-court prayer at a time.

 

This morning my wife and I had to put down Sophie, our 14-year-old Golden Retriever.

If you’ve never heard the term “put down” as it relates to family pets, it means to euthanize, which is a clinical way of saying to kill painlessly in order to prevent or relieve suffering.

It is the ultimate act of compassion — to see another living being through the process of gently exiting this world.

Sophie had been on the decline for the past few months. This morning it was clear her time had come. Our amazing veterinarian Dr. Stern was there to answer our questions and administer the drugs that propelled Sophie onto her next journey.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with Young Adult literature and basketball. Good question. I’ll do my best to explain.

With respect to YA literature, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book in the genre that didn’t contain at least one compelling act of selfless compassion, where the protagonist — or even the antagonist — put the welfare of another before his or her own.

Those heart-wrenching moments are what elevate human beings and give our lives a sense of fulfillment.

Consider this: When a young reader witnesses a character leading by example in such a remarkable way, the reader gets a sense of how one might live one’s own life with a greater sense of purpose. That is the power of a good work of fiction.

And then there’s basketball.

If you’ve read my previous posts here or viewed my video blogs, you already know that I’m fortunate enough to have a half-court basketball setup in the backyard of our home — a birthday gift from my awesome wife a couple of years ago.

Whenever I would hit the wall as I was crafting the first draft of “This Was Never About Basketball,” I would go outside and shoot free throws. The rhythm of the knee-elbow-wrist process eventually led to a renewed flow of words.

That’s where Sophie comes in.

For reasons known only to Sophie herself, she was obsessed with playing defense — or at least her own version of it — whenever she was hanging around the backyard and I stepped outside with a basketball.

She hawked me whenever I tried to take her baseline. She went after the rebound of every shot I missed. Once she secured the ball, she would try to puncture it with her teeth, which was not possible, given the size of the ball relative to her snout.

It was really the only time she ever showed her teeth. That’s just the way it was for an animal whose sole purpose in life was to offer abundant love in its purest form — unconditional.

We still have another dog, Beau, a 12-year-old Belgian Tervuren. While Sophie was innately friendly, trustworthy and kind, Beau is vigilant, stubborn and protective.

He’s a herder by nature, so it’s all about offense with him. Consequently, his game is one dimensional. He has little interest in doing the dirty work on D. All he wants to do is take the rock to the rack.

By contrast, Sophie was a lockdown defender. Think Detroit Pistons bad boy Dennis Rodman with better hair, or Chicago Bulls small forward Scottie Pippen with a lesser vertical.

That was Sophie.

Relentless.

Motor always running.

Defend to the end — and that’s exactly what she did.

RIP, sweet girl.

I’d first like to say that I’m overwhelmed by the positive response I’ve received about my novel’s theme and message from readers around the country. Your words of kindness are truly humbling.

I’m going to continue with this blog’s thread by answering another question from a reader. Veronica S. from Key Biscayne, Florida, is wondering about the book title. Here’s her email:

“Dear Mr. Leener: (I always prefer when young folks call me Craig, by the way, but I think Veronica was just being polite.) I was wondering about the title of your book. Even though it says the book isn’t about basketball, there’s quite a bit of basketball being played in it. I’m okay with that because I like basketball a lot, and I play on my team at school. I was just wondering why the title and the book’s contents seem to be at odds each other. I asked my older brother, Ernesto, but he said in a really annoying way, ‘How the heck should I know? Why don’t you ask the dude who wrote it?’ So I’m hoping you can explain it to me. Signed, Veronica.”

Well, Veronica, the sport of basketball drives the story along, but the book’s theme is that of redemption.

The word redemption is defined as “the act of making amends or atoning for a fault or mistake.”

In this case, the book’s lead character, Zeke, makes a really big blunder during the most important basketball game of his life, and that sets a whole bunch of bad stuff into motion. When Zeke eventually finds out what he has caused, he sincerely tries to make it right, mostly for the good of others.

That’s true redemption.

Toward the end of the book, an authority figure in the story teaches Zeke a vital life lesson. That person explains to Zeke that while the sport of basketball played a prominent role in recent difficult circumstances, Zeke’s inability to control his temper was the root cause of his life unraveling so spectacularly.

The story serves as a reminder that human beings are not perfect. We sometimes make mistakes that carry consequences. It’s always a good idea to avoid screwing up, but when we do, it’s equally important to recognize it and try to make it right, not only for our own sake, but for the good of those around us.

If Zeke would have failed to recognize his blunder, the world would have suffered greatly — and my novel would have been a lot shorter and not nearly as suspenseful and action-packed. Phew, that was a close call.

Veronica, thank you for taking the time to put pen to paper. It was an excellent question, and I hope I was able to clear up any confusion that you and especially Ernesto were having about the book’s title.

I’ll be on the bench until the next question arrives in the mailbox.

Hello, dear reader. Welcome to my first-ever blog post on this newly minted website.

These words were fueled by a hot cup of coffee and the sound of our two aging but attentive dogs, Sophie and Beau, barking at goodness-knows-what in the backyard.

My goal in these posts will be threefold: 1) to provide thought-provoking insight into the creative writing process of Young Adult fiction, 2) to explore basketball’s profound impact on the world and the folks who populate it, and 3) to respond to your questions and comments about “This Was Never About Basketball” in a meaningful (and hopefully entertaining) way.

I’m going to kick off this post with a question I received from Steven L., a young reader and basketball enthusiast from Fairfield, Ohio. In his email, Steven inquires about a sentence in the “About the Author” section at the back of the book.

It was encouraging to receive Steven’s note so close to the novel’s publication date because it alludes to the fact that Steven read everything else in the book to get to that point, which is every writer’s dream. So, Steven, assuming that actually happened, thanks, pal!

Anyway, Steven writes: “The About the Author section says you purport to be an 87% free-throw shooter on your backyard home court, but it also says the claim has never been independently verified. C’mon, that’s a way better percentage than most everyone in the NBA, so it’s more than a little suspicious that you’ve been unable to have anyone independently verify it. What gives?”

That’s a good question, Steven. I’ll do my best to answer it.

First of all, I’m fortunate to have a basketball court in the backyard. It’s actually a half-court, meaning there’s only one backboard instead of the customary two you’d find on a regulation court. It’s about half the size of a normal half-court, but the backboard has official NBA dimensions — it is 6 feet wide and 3.5 feet high. The best part of all is that my wife arranged to have it built as a birthday present a couple of years ago, and that makes me pretty lucky.

So, here’s the deal. It took me about seven months to write the first draft of the novel. Most of my free-throw attempts during that time happened when I was experiencing something known in writing circles as writer’s block. Writer’s block, otherwise known as “Blank Screen Syndrome,” is a temporary condition whereby a writer is unable to think of what to write.

Whenever it set in as I was hammering away at the keyboard, I would head for the friendly confines of the backyard for endless attempts from the charity stripe.

Since writing a novel is mostly a solitary exercise, it meant, by extension, that free-throw shooting would be as well. Tossing up a continuous stream of shots 15 feet from the rack helped to clear my head — think lots and lots of knee, elbow, wrist, repeat. The unexpected side-benefit was an increased skill level from the line.

Since I’m a numbers person in addition to being a word person, I found myself loosely keeping track of the make-to-miss ratio in my mind. So, Steven, I’m pretty sure my success rate is right around 87%, but with no one around to confirm it, I was asking my collective readership to embrace it and take it on faith.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’ve asked readers to do with the storyline of “This Was Never About Basketball” — embrace Zeke’s journey into the unknown and take his basketball sojourn on faith.

Steven, thanks for taking the time to write. I really appreciate it.

Next question, please.