MOLDER OF MEN
Wooden Award Craftsman, John Billings
By Gregory M. Fields
If there's anything you could point out where I was a little different, it was the fact that I never mentioned winning.
If it were possible to Google a location for “cognitive dissonance”, you would likely find hard court coaching legend John Wooden posthumously residing there. For a man who never talked about winning, Wooden won a ton. His UCLA teams dominated collegiate basketball to a degree unparalleled in modern college sports history. The numbers verge on absurd: ten national championships; seven of those back-to-back when no team has ever won more than two consecutively. From 1970-1974, Wooden’s roundballers won 88 straight games – a standing record that has never been remotely threatened. Even as a player for Purdue – where he also won a national championship - he took home All-American honors three seasons in a row. “First ever” and “only” are common qualifiers for Wooden’s professional achievements. That would include his induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
But to Wooden, winning was the afterglow; the shortchange, Wikipedia summary of his achievement. Success was the substance; but did not always require victory. Winning for the sake of winning was a shallow, ultimately unsustainable pursuit, according to Wooden. As an end unto itself, winning makes compromises easier to justify. And Wooden was not one to tolerate compromise. To him, the scoreboard was a simplistic, one-dimensional metric of winning. Self-satisfaction, character and doing one’s best were the true rewards of success.
Had the marmish Wooden stayed a high school teacher in Indiana, it is unlikely we would still be talking about him. Instead, he instilled his belief system in the minds of many remarkable young athletes. Though he certainly coached some spectacularly talented players at UCLA – Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabaar come to mind – most of his players and many of his teams were not always exceptionally gifted. His teams often won championships without a single player over 6’ 5” tall. Yet Wooden inspired a desire for excellence and his teams responded with execution that bordered on superhuman.
But Wooden didn’t just inspire greatness in his players. He touched the lives of nearly everyone around him, including a 17-year-old recent high school graduate. But this young man did not play basketball. He was not a student. He worked in shipping and receiving at the UCLA’s student union. His name was John Billings and John Wooden knew who he was. “He’d always say hello; but not just that. He was interested in my life”, Billings recalled. No one knew it at the time, but Billings would become the primary keeper of Wooden’s most important legacy. From that point forward, John Billing’s life would be forever entwined with the Wizard of Westwood.
SOMETHING OF A DINOSAUR
“I’m something of a dinosaur”, Billings recently confessed over lunch in the dark paneled comfort of LAAC’s gastro pub, Invention. “I guess my title would be “Master Mold Maker”. Now 74 years old, Billings is soft spoken; thoughtful. He pauses philosophically after a statement occasionally, as if he himself is surprised by the new insight that has just occurred to him. He is the quintessential artisan: a man of artistic sensibility shaped by manual skill. Not surprisingly, his idea of an art collection is unique. It involves metal figurines and plaques.
For forty four years, Billings has been designer and maker of some of America’s most prestigious awards. He redesigned the remolded the Grammy awards – making 350 replicas for last year’s show alone. He restored Judy Garland’s damaged Grammy award at the request of her family. But perhaps his proudest achievement and longest standing association with the Club is the Wooden Award: an intricate trophy representing the five disciplines of basketball and awarded to the America’s finest collegiate player. Though the award ceremony is now off-site, the Wooden Award was originally handed out at the LAAC for many years. But even today, Billings and his artisans hand finish the trophy and personally transports it to the City of Angels from his workshop in Ridgway, Colorado – a one signal town ensconced between the Cimarron and San Juan mountain chains.
THE MEDICINE MAN OF MAN-TO-MAN
A native of Los Angeles’ San Fernando valley, Billings lifelong association with John Wooden verges on mystical. Over the course of his life, he was drawn into Coach’s orbit repeatedly; almost randomly; as if their relationship were drafted by a screenwriter. “There’s a part of (Wooden) in me”, Billings muses. It may seem surprising that a legendary figure such as Wooden would interface with a shipping and receiving clerk at UCLA student union back while he was piling up basketball championships. But this was apparently a common theme with Wooden. “He didn’t demand respect, he gave it to you first”, Billings remembered. And that apparently applied to Billings, helping to pack jerseys for Wooden’s summer basketball camp.
What was it like being in Wooden’s presence? “I wouldn’t call Coach a religious man; but he was definitely very spiritual. Almost like a Medicine Man”, Billings recalled. Present for nine of Wooden’s ten championship years, Billings remembers the championship coach’s palpable intensity. “(Wooden) was never a threat, but you listened to what he said because you felt like at any moment he was going to haul off and pop you in the head”, Billings chuckles. “But of course, he never did”.
Billings would eventually leave UCLA in search of a career. He was seeking more tactile work that would reward his artistic sensibility. The idea for his artisan calling was planted early on while growing up in the San Fernando Valley in a “pop-up” neighborhood thrown up virtually overnight for returning G.I.s. He vividly remembers visiting the neighbor who worked out of his garage making sports trophies for several local companies. Billings found himself “just hanging out” at the workshop, fascinated by the molds used to cast the trophies. “Everything was backwards; facial features; everything. I was fascinated by it”, recalls Billings. Years later he attended dental school and learned how to cast teeth. At night and while still working at UCLA, he’d hand craft turquoise and silver jewelry. He even utilized his intensive attention to detail at the local dry cleaner as a licensed spot cleaner.
But things took an auspicious direction when he returned to the garage workshop of his youth many years later. That same trophy mold maker - Bob Graves – had cultivated a good living and plenty of work, but he’d been slowed by diabetes. He’d ran himself on daily dialysis via a machine in his garage. Needing assistance, Billings started as an apprentice for a few hours a day. He’d help Graves with the more physically demanding facets of the job. He was sweating; crafting; learning.
THE CHARACTER IN THE FLAW
Graves happened to be friends with Duke Lewellen, the LAAC’s Athletic Director at the time. In 1977, he and Wooden had come up with an idea for a sports award to be presented in his name. First, they photographed Wooden’s players engaged in the five disciplines of basketball: passing, guarding, rebounding, dribbling and shooting. Then Graves created molds for the bronze player representations that would sit atop the trophy. The molds were multifaceted and complicated, requiring eight separate pieces and meticulous detail. As his apprentice, Billings helped make the first awards from the molds Graves created – the same molds that are still used today for the annual Wooden Award.
Though it would seem to be rather routine, molding and finishing the castings for the eponymous award is fraught challenges every single year. The casting, hand filing and finishing process alone takes a full month; and that’s if a piece doesn’t break or split. Only manual filing tools can be used. An electric dremmel, “isn’t precise enough”, according to Billings. Every trophy is idiosyncratic and distinct. Perfection is not the goal; in fact, quite the opposite. Because the results of the casting process can be unpredictable, one of Billings most important decisions every year is distinguishing between “flaw” and “character” in the cast figures. “Sometimes was have to decide between the two”, comments Billings. If one were to guess, this master mold maker would probably veer in the direction of his lifelong mentor. Much like looking beyond winning to find success, Billings is often looking beyond the flaw to find character. And perhaps this is John Wooden’s greatest legacy.