George Morgan was just a college freshman, getting ready to transfer to UCLA, when the idea came to mind. Why not be a student manager for the basketball team? Why not even be bold enough to write the coach and ask?
Yeah, right. The coach was John Wooden, who was busy winning national championships and building a dynasty. What time would he possibly have for a kid from across the country in northern Virginia, unless he could shoot or play defense?
Strange thing, though. A letter quickly came back to Morgan from Wooden’s office. “Basically it said, ‘We’re always glad to hear from our future students, and when you show up on the campus, come and see us,’ ” Morgan said over the phone.
“And that’s what happened.”
So began a friendship that lasted decades, and resulted in 25 Wooden letters stored in Morgan’s home just outside Pittsburgh. This March 31, it will be 40 years since Wooden coached his last Bruins game and his last Bruins championship. To commemorate the moment, we could talk to the gaggle of UCLA All-Americans, and listen to how close he stayed to them. But doesn’t it say more about Wooden to hear how he was the same with the guy whose task was to have the towels and basketballs ready?
“I had forgotten how many letters I had. The good news is, I kept them all, including the first one,” Morgan said. “When I left school, I went into the Marines. I had letters when I was going through OCS [Officer Candidate School]. I had letters when I was at Camp Pendleton and in Okinawa. I had letters when I was in grad school.
“It was like he was treating you as part of the family, even as a student manager. It was genuine, those feelings.”
If Morgan wrote a letter or made a request, it was invariably answered. He has a photo of Wooden with a pensive look on the bench, signed “To George Morgan, is this what an old coach is supposed to look like?” Another signature begins, “To one of my boys …” And he said he must have 10 autographed copies of Wooden’s pyramid of success.
This is the student manager remember, not Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton. But Morgan was a Bruin, and that was enough for Wooden. In the official team photos from the 1970 and ’71 national champions, there Morgan is, sitting on the second row, one year next to assistant Gary Cunningham, another next to assistant Denny Crum.
Morgan spent three seasons with the Bruins, so he must have some real inside dirt on Wooden, right? Well, let’s see …
“He liked his ice cream sundaes,” Morgan said. Yes, Wooden was a serial eater of sweets. In later years, Morgan visited his apartment, and found two dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts lined up on a kitchen counter, ready for freezing, so Wooden would never run out.
Then there was Wooden’s violent language, full of, uh, eight- and five-letter words …
“You could see his anger sometimes, and that’s when the ‘goodness gracious sakes alive,’ came out. Then you knew he was upset. You sort of froze and hoped it wasn’t you he was talking to.
“I had probably one or two. Not as many as the players. We were all subject to it, but the players got the majority of the ‘goodness gracious sakes alives.’ “
OK, maybe not that violent. Morgan has a copy of the note Wooden sent to the whole team before the season to order them to be prepared. It conveys the attention to detail of a scientist.
“You should one, have your feet toughened and in shape to run without getting blisters. Two, wear no moustache, beard or goatee. Have the hair a reasonable length, with the coaches being the judge of what is reasonable.”
— George Morgan
No mention on how to wear socks or tie shoelaces. That was for the first practice, Morgan said. But not the managers. “We were exempt from that department.”
At least tell us the identity of the keeper of the sacred rolled-up program that Wooden was famous for clutching on the bench.
“We got him the programs,” Morgan said of his managerial staff. “He would do his own rolling.”
Morgan talks about the man with considerable reverence, as virtually all Bruins do with the passage of time.
“He told my ex-wife when she first met him — he was 92 at the time — that he wasn’t afraid of dying. He wasn’t going to rush it, but he wasn’t afraid of dying because he would rejoin [his late wife] Nell.
“The last time I saw him was February of 2010. He was wheel-chair bound and needed assistance with various functions. You had to reach down to hear him because he was basically whispering. What I saw was a very proud man, who was a great athlete and who was very independent … my sense was he was very close to being ready to go.’’
Wooden died four months later.
The Wooden letters are among Morgan’s most cherished possessions, as are two programs from the social landmark Kentucky-Texas Western championship game in 1966 on the Maryland campus, when Texas Western won with five African-American starters. The summer of 1965, his father had seen a small item in a Washington paper advertising Final Four tickets. All one needed to do was send in a certified check, so father and son went together. Four years later, Morgan was back in the same Cole Field House for another Final Four as a UCLA manager.
Morgan is donating one of the programs to the NCAA. He is also a community host for the first and second rounds in Pittsburgh next month. He also still follows UCLA.
Forty years ago, the Bruins’ golden age ended with a retirement announcement. Morgan, who spent his working career in business, will always be a part of that. So he was only a manager. John Wooden didn’t care.