Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland remembers that first job interview well. The faces in the room. The pounding of his heart. The high stakes at hand.
He doesn’t remember what he wore – just that his shirt was neatly tucked in – but he knew he had come to compete against heaven knows how many others for a tough-to-get position at UCLA.
"It was like a casting call for a commercial," Engelland says.
A small committee invited young teens, one at a time, into a room. Committee members posed questions. They expected well-thought answers. Engelland came prepared. When asked which player he admired most and why, Engelland reached for a word near the top of John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success – "poise" – and worked it into his response.
He defined poise – "calm under pressure" – and used it to describe then-UCLA star Keith (later "Jamaal") Wilkes. Engelland got the job and learned a telling lesson. “Coach Wooden was very detail oriented," Engelland says. "He sweated the small stuff, all the way down to the ballboy."
As an eighth grader in the fall of 1974, young Chip began a basketball education that carried him through middle school, high school, college and beyond. He grabbed rebounds for the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, mopped perspiration off the floor and watched Wooden work his wizardry in Westwood.
In truth, there was no magic. Wooden waved no wands. He made his players work -- hard and methodically and with purpose. One cornerstone of the famous pyramid is "industriousness," of which Wooden once explained, "Worthwhile things come from hard work and careful planning."
Small stuff? He taught freshmen how to properly put on socks and sneakers. He considered himself a teacher, above all, and Engelland remembers one lesson well. Patience. "Take your time," Engelland remembers Wooden saying. "Rome wasn’t built in a day. You are trying to improve every day. It never happens overnight."
Wooden modeled patience for decades. He spent 14 years developing his pyramid of success. Then, after arriving at UCLA in 1949, he took another 15 years to win his first national championship. When Engelland became a ballboy, Wooden had won nine championships in the previous 11 seasons. But few expected the Bruins to contend for a 10th in 1974-75. Wilkes and Bill Walton were in the NBA. Only one starter was back.
It was a perfect season to watch the master, a perfect season to rebound for the next set of stars, Marques Johnson, Richard Washington, Ralph Drollinger. “What I noticed were the different personalities of players,” Engelland says. “Some were loose, some were focused and tightly wound. Everybody is different, and that was fascinating, I remember distinctly: one guy loose and joking, one guy wouldn’t laugh.”
To the surprise of many, the Bruins won a 10th championship. To the shock of Engelland, Wooden retired. Wooden’s departure, it turned out, didn’t mark the end of Engelland’s education in Westwood. It marked the beginning. “I went back to UCLA every summer after that until I was 30,” he says.
Engelland rode the bus from his home in Pacific Pallisades to Westwood -- a 45 minute trip -- to watch the Bruins train, to study the workouts of NBA players, to get in pickup games with graduate students and professors. When bus drivers went on strike one summer, Engelland hopped on his bike and pedaled to Pauley Pavilion.
And why not? Bernard King went there to work out. Reggie Theus. Sidney Wicks. Just about every former All-American at UCLA. The Los Angeles Lakers went, too. Over dinner one evening, Engelland gushed about one particular experience.
“Hey mom, I played in a pick up game today with Wilt Chamberlain.”
Mom: “Great honey. Pass the green beans.”
As Engelland grew, so did his game and influence. He recalls befriending a UCLA ballboy who came after him, Steve Kerr. “He became the first NBA player I worked with full time,” Engelland says.
Engelland kept returning to Westwood when he became a star at Pallisades High and led the Los Angeles city league in scoring. He kept going when he became captain at Duke and shot 53 percent from behind the three-point arc. He kept going when he turned pro and played in the Philippines and in Canada.
The faces of the elite players changed over the years but not their work ethic. Engelland marveled at the regimens of Magic Johnson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Reggie Miller and others. In the morning, they ran the hill and stadium steps. They did ballhandling drills. They took a break, ate a light lunch, then returned for pickup games in the afternoon. On occasion, Magic would pass the ball to Engelland with a command: “Shoot!”
More than a dozen summers at Westwood shaped a ballboy who would become an NBA shooting coach. “People have no idea how much work professional players put in,” Engelland says. “I was lucky to be in that environment. It was one of the greatest basketball fraternities.”
Before he became a ballboy, Engelland attended a Wooden basketball camp as a fifth-grader. One morning the kid did not arrive on time. At day’s end, he opened his locker, hoping to avoid the coach who did not tolerate tardiness. But then he turned and saw The Wizard.
“Why were you late,” the coach wanted to know.
“I’m sorry, coach,” the boy said, about to launch a fib. “My mother just had a baby.”
The sternness on the coach’s face melted. “That,” Wooden said, smiling broadly, “is the best excuse I’ve ever heard.”
Relief swept over the young camper, who left with a lesson near the top of that pyramid. When faced with sudden pressure, you’d better respond with poise.