Not So Trivial Pursuits

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Who is the greatest athlete ever coached by legendary U.C.L.A. Basketball Coach John Wooden?

Left: Rafer Johnson standing during a ceremony at Rome Olympics. Right: Rafer Johnson winding up for the discus throw during his gold medal performance at the 1960 Olympics.

The greatest athlete to ever suit up for Coach John Wooden at U.C.L.A. is not named Jabbar or Walton. Neither is his name Goodrich, Wilkes, or Wicks. This young man did start for the Bruins in the 1959-1960 season, and although he never played a single minute in the N.B.A., after completing his college basketball career, he would go on to accomplish the greatest, single, athletic feat of any of Coach Wooden’s players. The name of this athlete is Johnson, but not Marques Johnson, rather Rafer Johnson.

In the tenth and final event of the 1960 Olympic decathlon, Johnson ran a personal best in the 1500 meter race to secure the gold.

In the Spring of 1960, after completing his final season playing basketball under the tutelage of the man who would come to be known as the Wizard of Westwood, Rafer Johnson set his third World Record in the decathlon, and later that summer in Rome, he went on to become the Olympic Gold Medal Decathlon Champion setting a new Olympic record in the process.

Friends, teammates, and international rivals Chuan-Kwang Yang and Rafer Johnson just after completing the decathlon competition in Rome.

In the process of going for the gold in the decathlon in Rome, Rafer participated in one of the greatest duels in Olympic history. C.K. Yang of Taiwan was Johnson’s track and field rival, and the two ran neck and neck in the 1960 Olympic Decathlon competition. Yet, although Yang competed for his native country of Taiwan, he also attended U.C.L.A. where he and Johnson were teammates on U.C.L.A.’s Track and Field Team.

Rafer Johnson, U.C.L.A. Track and Field Coach Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake, and Bruin teammate, friend, and rival Chuan-Kwang Yang on the track at U.C.L.A.

Back in Los Angeles, the two were workout partners constantly helping, encouraging, and competing with each other. However, in their 1960 Olympic Decathlon duel, they each waged a fierce battle. Yang actually won seven of the ten events, but Johnson’s performances in the three field events were so overpowering, they ultimately gave him enough points to edge out his friend and rival.

U.C.L.A.’s track and field stadium bears the name of the legendary coach Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake who was able to coach his Bruin athletes to gold and silver finishes in the 1960 Olympics.

The competition came down to the final event, the 1500 meter race, in which Yang was the decidedly stronger performer. The young Bruin-Taiwanese national needed to beat Rafer by ten or more seconds to overcome his friend and rival’s lead and take the gold for himself and Taiwan. Legend has it, in Solomon-like fashion, Coach Drake counseled Johnson to stay close to Yang and be ready for "a hellish sprint" at the end, and advised Yang to put as much distance between himself and Johnson before the final sprint as possible. Johnson ran a personal best in the event finishing just 1.2 seconds behind Yang to take the gold. Below is a link to a video documenting the historic duel.

1960 Decathlon - Rafer Johnson vs. C.K. Yang

Despite being pursued by N.F.L. and N.B.A. teams, Johnson chose to pursue acting, broadcasting, and public service. Although he chose a career path other than professional basketball, Johnson acknowledged Coach Wooden’s profound influence on his life. "Many of the things that I've accomplished beyond my years at UCLA, including my relationship with my family and friends and the fact that I'm very much interested in giving back to the community, have a great deal to do with what I learned from coach Wooden."

John Wooden - Sportscentury

The legendary Bruins basketball coach admired Rafer’s abilities and accomplishments, and among his former player’s many talents, he considered Johnson a great defensive basketball player. In his later years, as he reflected on his coaching career, Coach Wooden lamented that he may not have fully developed Rafer’s basketball potential. He sometimes regretted holding back his teams early in his coaching career, remarking, "imagine Rafer Johnson on the break." Above is a link to a short film documenting John Wooden’s amazing coaching career. The documentary includes many interviews with his former players, though sadly not Rafer Johnson.