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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Kingdom on Fire

Reviewed by Budd Bailey

I figured I'd meet the demographic to read and enjoy Scott Howard-Cooper's book on the UCLA basketball dynasty. I was a fan of the Bruins in my youth (I decided to pick a team to follow in 1966, and chose wisely), and it was a nice pairing with my interest in the Boston Celtics in that same era. In addition, I just wrote a basketball book on the NBA of the fascinating 1970s, and some of the names overlap.

Still, "Kingdom on Fire" topped of all my expectations. The story of that compelling dynasty era is fully told here, as tales familiar and surprising come crashing down like waves on the reader. There are plenty of names here, but three stand out: John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.

UCLA had won national championships in 1964 and 1965 under coach Wooden, but the two titles feel like a different era here. Howard-Cooper essentially starts with a fellow named Lew Alcindor, who became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The high school sensation was perhaps most heralded prospect to come out of high school when he graduated from Power Memorial in 1965, and the recruiting battle was unprecedented and intense. UCLA somewhat unexpectedly won the right to have Alcindor on its team; Wooden rarely recruited east of the Mississippi, let alone in New York. 

The pressure on Alcindor started right away, when he led the freshmen team to a win over the top-ranked and defending national champion varsity in a preseason contest. That pressure never really went away until the final win of his career wrapped up the third of three straight championships in 1969 (and for the school, five out of six). There wasn't a ton of joy in winning games that everyone assumed you'd win, but in hindsight Alcindor and Wooden probably handled it as well as it could be done.

By the end of the 1960s, UCLA was doing more selecting of players than recruiting. The Bruins had more than enough to win championships in 1970 and 1971, but they weren't done winning. Walton had grown up a UCLA fan while living in San Diego. He was a little bit under the radar at first, but that took about a half to change. In terms of expectations, the Bruins were back to Alcindor-levels of expectations. And for two years, they met all of them but not losing a game. 

Finally in 1974, the dynasty showed some cracks. The biggest one was that Walton had injured his back in a game, and the problem was misdiagnosed - causing the center problems for the rest of the season, and really, the rest of his life. The team also became a little full of itself, in part because of the turbulent times. Wooden admitted later that he didn't do his best coaching with that group, maybe because he simply wasn't that good at bridging the "generation gap." UCLA still could have won a national title, but fell in the Final Four to North Carolina State. After the departure of players like Walton and Jamaal Wilkes, the Bruins had enough "leftovers" to win one last title in 1975. Then Wooden, tired of battling the pressures of the job, retired. 

By this point in time, all of the principles have had their say in one medium or another - books, videos, etc. Howard-Cooper talked to Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, among others. He also obviously went through a ton of sources to fill up the book with often fascinating material. Who knew that H.R. Haldeman, one of Richard Nixon's "henchmen," was one of UCLA's biggest basketball fans? Who has heard that Wooden became friendly enough with Jerry Tarkanian enough to recommend him for jobs? And who realized how ridiculously underpaid Wooden was? (He earned more in his first two years of retirement than he did in his entire tenure at UCLA.) This book offers a complete picture of the dynasty, which includes some not-so-flattering "photos" of Sam Gilbert, the UCLA "booster" who broke several chapters worth of NCAA regulations in supporting the team.  

Howard-Cooper also takes an interesting approach in that he doesn't write about the games very often. They obviously come up at certain points along the way, but the author is more concerned with the people involved. There's even a happy ending in that sense. Abdul-Jabbar and Walton couldn't have been more different than Wooden in personality, but they worked out their differences and became close friends during Wooden's long and fruitful retirement (he lived until he was 99). 

The Bruins were at their best a long time ago, but they still have the ability to fascinate. "Kingdom on Fire" shows that all of that winning wasn't as easy as we thought, and maybe we've found a new reason to appreciate those teams and a run that will never be duplicated. 

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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