Steinbrenner, Wooden among year's losses in sports

By Fred Lief

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 21 2010 5:12 p.m. MST

George Steinbrenner

Chris O'Meara, File, Associated Press

He was The Boss, and George Steinbrenner came to revel in all it would suggest.

He filled a room with loud talk and big money, making promises of players to come, games to be won and the titles that must follow. He was the principal owner of the New York Yankees, but commander was really more like it.

John Wooden was the Wizard of Westwood, a nickname he never much cared for, although the poet in him might have enjoyed the alliteration.

Teacher — not something with a whiff of alchemy and mysterious doings — would have been closer to the mark. For that's how generations of basketball players at UCLA came to regard him. He won plenty of championships, but what mattered most was the lifetime of lessons imparted.

Wooden and Steinbrenner — two towering figures in sports — died in 2010, each having transformed his game in a distinct but enduring way.

Wooden, the only member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, had roots that practically went back to peach baskets and the genesis of the game itself. He died at 99, just a couple months short of a century.

"In my opinion, if he's not as important as Dr. Naismith, he's right next to him," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. He was, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "a giant in all of sport."

Gripping a rolled-up program like a baton, Wooden was the consummate maestro. The Bruins won 10 NCAA titles and seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. There was an 88-game winning streak that has enjoyed renewed attention thanks to the Connecticut women and their dynasty a generation down the road.

But, as Wooden would be the first to note, he never scored a basket during that run. It was all the players, and what players they were: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes. For all the victories, however, it was the daily practice that drove Wooden. That's when basketball was taught. When the game itself arrived, he would have been happy to sit in the stands and see what became of his instruction.

"He taught in a very simple way," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation."

Steinbrenner's reign had the subtlety of a bullhorn. His teams also produced titles — seven World Series crowns and 11 pennants — but if UCLA thrived under the quiet, scholarly tutelage of Wooden, Steinbrenner's Yankees cranked up the volume and brought a showmanship and self-promotion that has come to define much of professional sports.

"George was The Boss, make no mistake," said Yogi Berra, who for years cut himself off from the Yankees because of Steinbrenner. "He built the Yankees into champions, and that's something nobody can ever deny."

Steinbrenner died of a heart attack at 80. He was a shadow of himself in his final years as his health weakened, the bluster and mighty pronouncements fading as his sons took control of the team. By the end, the man who was twice suspended from baseball on the way to building a sports empire was something of a beloved figure.

He was a long way from the owner who saw himself as a gung-ho football coach and inspired fear and trembling among employees, spending wildly on free agents, clashing with the likes of Berra, Billy Martin and Dave Winfield, and firing and rehiring managers in what became comic opera.

"I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary," said Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees for 12 years.

But no matter how much noise the Yankees created, none of it matched the din from the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Bobby Thomson, whose home run decided the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants, died this year at 86.

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