Review by Budd Bailey
The idea in the game of basketball is to score more points than the opposing team and win the game, one way or another.
There might be no better expert on how to do that in the college game than Larry Farmer.
The former UCLA standout played in 90 varsity games during his college career. He lost one of them. Let’s repeat that – he went 89-1 in college. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at the time) didn’t do that well, settling for a mere 88-2 during this three varsity seasons at UCLA.
Farmer wasn’t the biggest star on his Bruins’ teams. That distinction went to Sidney Wicks followed by Bill Walton. But he was around in the middle of a UCLA dynasty – 10 titles in 12 years – that won’t be duplicated anytime soon if ever. That gives his memoir, “Role of a Lifetime,” an easy introduction to those who want an idea of what those teams were like.
Farmer was a little bit different than many of the other players at UCLA then. He was from Denver, and something of a late bloomer. But Farmer’s play as a senior caught the eye of the coaches, and he was recruited to come join the rest of a squad that for the most part was led by Southern Californians. After sitting out his freshman year, which was required back then, Farmer saw his role increasingly grow as he gained experience. Larry moved into the starting lineup at times as a sophomore, and the team won a national title with only one loss all season.
Then Walton, Jamal Wilkes and Company showed up, and the team really came together. The Bruins went undefeated over two years, and rarely were even challenged. Those two seasons gave those UCLA players a claim as being a part of the greatest team of all time. They certainly are in the argument. Farmer did a little bit of everything for those teams, and you always need a guy like that around.
There’s not a great deal of drama in most of the story of those teams. Still, Farmer has some tales about legendary coach John Wooden. Larry certainly still sounds thrilled that he got a chance to play for him back in the day, which as far as I can tell is a rather common reaction among all who encountered the veteran coach. Some of the teammates are well known too, of course, and it’s fun reading about them too. For those readers who enjoyed every win and championship, this is enough to justify the purchase of the book.
Farmer comes off as a great guy who isn’t willing to say a bad thing about those who joined him in that era. That includes Sam Gilbert, a slightly notorious booster of the Bruins who was known to lend the players a hand when they needed it. Farmer relied on him a great deal, even renting an apartment of sorts from him at one point. Some NCAA regulations were bent a bit along the way, eventually leading to probation for the Bruins. Even Wooden admitted that he should have kept a closer eye on Gilbert’s actions.
Farmer wasn’t a high draft choice in the NBA and ABA, and couldn’t make the Cleveland Cavaliers as a rookie – perhaps due to a crowded roster. Farmer headed back to Los Angeles to work as a graduate assistant coach at UCLA under Wooden. That was a good education on how to be a coach. Farmer slowly worked up the ladder in Westwood under Wooden and his successors. He was named head coach at UCLA in 1981.
Farmer recites the details of a great many games from that era, one after another, and it’s a little easy to lose interest. The Bruins went 61-23 during his three years as head coach, but it sure sounds like UCLA’s athletic department hadn’t really adjusted to the idea that the sport’s talent base had become more balanced and dynasties were difficult to construct and maintain at that point. (Duke probably came the closest.) Besides, the university was put on probation for a while due to past mistakes. That didn’t help the team’s efforts to go back to something resembling the glory days. Farmer tried his best and did pretty well, but it’s a high bar to clear – even though Farmer did convince future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller to come to UCLA. They even lost some early-round games in the NCAA tournament, which hadn’t happened very often in the relatively recent past.
By the end of the third year, the Bruins’ athletic department was trying to force a couple of UCLA players from the past on him as an assistant coach. Farmer was feeling that pressure, and soon threw his hands up in the air, and resigned – leaving three more years of a head coaching contract behind.
And the book essentially ends right there, since it is billed as Farmer’s story concerning UCLA. That’s really too bad, because there is more to Farmer’s life than that – much more. Larry went to Weber State for three years and didn’t win. He went on to such stops as Kuwait, Loyola of Chicago, the Golden State Warriors, Western Michigan, Rhode Island and North Carolina State in supporting roles, and did some television commentating as well. Coaching in Kuwait from 1988 to 1990 and 1992 to 1997 (the Gulf War was in between) might have been worth a few fascinating chapters on its own.
Farmer comes off as a truly good guy and a good teammate, and there’s very little anger here at all. In this case, that translates to lot of praise and not much conflict. This might be enough for the UCLA fans (and I was one in that era) who want a little insight into those teams. Some of the reviews on Amazon read like rhapsodies in tone. For the rest of the basketball-reading audience, “Role of a Lifetime” probably won’t work nearly as well.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)