LA Times: That Wooden Obituary Smear? Sorry!

Sad retraction today from the LOS ANGELES TIMES correcting the obituary of John Wooden that the newspaper published on June 5.

John Wooden

John Wooden obituary: The obituary on John Wooden that ran in Section A on June 5 and in a commemorative section June 13 included information attributed to former UCLA basketball player Andy Hill regarding controversial booster Sam Gilbert.

The article reported that Hill had told The Times that former team trainer Elvin “Ducky” Drake was something of a watchdog for the team, and that Drake had apparently missed what was going on with Gilbert.

Hill says that he did not discuss that with the reporter and that Drake would not have been in a position to do anything to detect Gilbert’s involvement or stop Gilbert from any inappropriate action.

Here’s the passage attributed to Hill in the Wooden obituary:

Sam Gilbert was a former UCLA student and wealthy contractor who opened his Los Angeles home to players beginning in the late 1960s and liked to think of himself as their surrogate father.

In 1967, when Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen were dissatisfied with life in Westwood and thinking seriously of transferring, Gilbert counseled them and was instrumental in persuading Allen to stay.

In a 1981-82 Los Angeles Times investigative series, several UCLA players said that Gilbert had helped athletes in ways that violated NCAA rules.

The improper benefits allegedly ranged from buying players’ game tickets at inflated prices to helping them buy cars and arrange for loans at steep discounts. On occasion, Gilbert also reportedly helped arrange abortions for their girlfriends.

Former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps called Gilbert the “Sugar Daddy” of the UCLA program. After the Times series ran, the NCAA placed the team on probation.

None of the violations were tied to Wooden, but the retired coach acknowledged harboring suspicions about Gilbert during the 1960s and ’70s, and former players spoke of Wooden’s see-no-evil relationship with the booster.

Andy Hill, a former guard who later became a television producer and motivational speaker, told The Times that he believed that Wooden relied on longtime trainer Elvin “Ducky” Drake to be something of a watchdog for the team, and that Drake had apparently missed what was going on with Gilbert.

“Among the things Coach Wooden was good at,” Hill said, “was knowing what he didn’t want to know.”

Three days later, Chris Dufresne of the L.A. TIMES wrote a story in the newspaper titled, “The Dark Side of UCLA Basketball.

In reponse to that piece, here’s a letter Hill sent to Dufresne in which Hill notes that he was misquoted in the Wooden obit:

Chris:

I am a former UCLA basketball player and a lifetime subscriber to the L.A. Times. Your column this morning made me sick to my stomach.

While our city grieves the loss of the greatest coach of all time, you dust off this rumor-filled piece of innuendo-filled garbage and call it journalism. Do you call relying on 29-year-old articles reporting?

Why didn’t you reach out and do some original research? It was bad enough that I was completely misquoted by your newspaper in Coach’s obituary regarding Sam Gilbert and his influence on UCLA basketball.

Is it just about selling newspapers? Is there some point in time when your conscience will kick in and you will simply tell your editor, “No thanks, find someone else to write that one?”

So I guess I can look forward to your next column on Kobe’s rape problems in Colorado when the Lakers win the title. How about a rumor-filled column on Pete Carroll’s supposed young Malibu girlfriend for the next football preview?

How about a piece on Mark Sanchez raping a girl when the Jets are in the playoffs?

Really, is this what you think your readers want?

And again, what about the timing…not even a week after Coach’s passing, while so many people around the world are both grieving and paying their respects for a life well-lived?

But of course, it’s Journalism 101 and there must be “balanced” reporting…no matter the extraordinary circumstances, and that the information is old, tired and rehashed. Nice.

If you want to actually know what happened, why don’t you try finding out for yourself?

It is truly astounding to me that the man in charge of UCLA athletics, J.D. Morgan, who told Coach that he would “handle” Sam Gilbert, is never mentioned in any story anywhere…not once.

If you had contacted me, or lots of others who could have led you to me, we would have had that discussion, maybe even leading to some original information and some ultimate truths, which, after all, is what journalism is really about. What a concept!

If I wanted a rehash of old columns from your own paper, I can just use Google. Which, by the way, might be a good tool for you to use in helping to locate information and key sources for an original story about Sam Gilbert.

- Andy Hill

I can understand why Hill was so hot - after being misrepresented in the Wooden obit. Though the obit wasn’t written by Dufresne.

I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect that the Times, if it was going to revisit the Gilbert material after the obituary, make an effort to contact some of the involved parties who are still around to get some clarification on what was reported in the past. And perhaps shed some new light on the situation.

It also might been more appropriate to wait a few weeks before digging into anything involving Gilbert that wasn’t indisputably proven. At least as it pertained to Wooden.