Saturday, June 26, 2021

On Playing Second Fiddle - by Gary North

I am going to offer some examples of second fiddlers from college basketball a long time ago. They did not respond to their position in the same way.

"Second fiddle" sounds third rate.

What is second fiddle? Wikipedia defines it as follows: “A second fiddle is a fiddle that supplements the first fiddle in the string section of an orchestra. It may also refer to a subordinate or assistant role (for example that of a sidekick).” Another definition: “. . . usually the second violins play a supportive role harmonically and rhythmically to the first violins which often play the melody and the highest line of the string section.”

Second fiddle means you are second-best. It is like the silver medal in the Olympics. Nobody remembers who won it. The only person who wants to have won a silver metal is a person who won the bronze medal. But an Olympic competition is a one-time event. Second fiddle may last for decades.

If you are second fiddle to Itzhak Perlman, that is not a disgrace. If you lose the Oscar to Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep, you should not feel that life cheated you. In life's many competitions, almost nobody is good enough to be second fiddle.

I am going to offer some examples of second fiddlers from college basketball a long time ago. They did not respond to their position in the same way.


John Wooden burst into national spotlight in the 1963–64 year. His team went undefeated. Yet the tallest member was 6 feet 5. It was the quickest team in the nation. More than any other team that year, it was a team. It had no superstars.

Wooden had been at the top of the heap in his college career. He was a first-team All American for three years. He was the first player to achieve this distinction. He was the national player of the year in 1931–32, when he led his Purdue team to the national championship. He had always been the top player in high school in Indiana, which in the 1920s meant that you are the top high school player in the world.

He taught high school English and coached winning teams for 11 years. After World War II, he coached for two years at Indiana State. He coached winning teams.

Then he spent 15 years at UCLA laboring in the shadows. His teams won, but they did not make it to the final four.

UCLA had the worst basketball court in the league, the famous B.O. Barn. Basketball was not a big deal at UCLA, not even when Jackie Robinson played. (Robinson may have been a better basketball player than a baseball player, but professional basketball was segregated, and players were poorly paid. Still, he would have made a great Harlem Globetrotter.)

In the mid-1950s, his teams could not get to the NCAA finals because they had to get by San Francisco. San Francisco was setting the then-all time record of 60 consecutive wins by means of Bill Russell and K. C Jones. Those teams took two NCAA championships in a row. In the late 1950s, Wooden had to suffer more slings and arrows: Pete Newell’s UC Berkeley teams. Newell was the last of the slowdown coaches: the opposite of run and gun. It was excruciating to watch a Newell team, unless you rooted for Cal. But his team beat West Virginia and Jerry West in the NCAA finals in 1959, and the next year lost to Ohio State in the finals, which was led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.

[Havlicek was the greatest second fiddler in basketball history. He played second fiddle to Lucas in college. Then he became the greatest "sixth man" in the history of the NBA with the Celtics. He would come off the bench and win. Finally, he started. He scored over 26,000 points, the all-time scorer for the Celtics, and third in the NBA only to Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson when he retired in 1978. Coach Red Auerbach called him "the guts of the team."]

Wooden’s team finally made it to the semifinals of the NCAA in 1962, playing Ohio State, but did not make it to the finals because of a controversial charging call in the last seconds against freshman guard Walt Hazard. Two years later, Hazard led the team to the NCAA championship.

In the 1962–63 season. UCLA made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament, but lost.

In the fall of 1963, Wooden had spent his coaching career playing second fiddle. With respect to the NCAA, it was still "close, but no cigar."

Then came manna from heaven.


For two years in a row, Los Angeles high school phenomenon Edgar Lacy had been named to the first team All-America team. In his senior year, 1962–63, he was the player of the year. He decided to go to UCLA.

Wooden did not personally recruit players. Lacy made this decision.

I saw him play in the final game of the L.A. city championship, which his favored team lost. He was the best high school player I have ever seen play in person.

Then came 1963–64 and 1964–65. UCLA won the NCAA twice. Lacy was on the 1964–65 team as a sophomore, which starred Gale Goodrich. Wooden was now first fiddle. He was about to become the greatest college men’s basketball coach of all time.

Then came the jackpot: the freshman squad of 1965. It starred Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He had been the national high school player of the year for two years. It also had second-team All-American Lucius Allen at guard. Wooden’s #1 ranked varsity lost to the frosh in a pre-season exhibition game in the fall of 1965, 75 to 60. The varsity was still ranked #1 the next week. The coaches knew what would come in the next season. As Alcindor said years later, “They were #1 in the nation and #2 on campus.” That was the first game ever played in the finest college basketball arena on the West Coast, Pauley Pavilion.

Lacy suffered a pre-season injury in 1966. He did not play on the 1966–67 team. This would have been his junior year. The team did not need him. It went 30–0. Only one team came close to beating them: an overtime win against the University of Southern California. UCLA defeated USC decisively in three other games. They were so good that the nation’s coaches banned the dunk after the season ended. Every college basketball fan knew why: to stop Alcindor. “No more of this stuff!”

On Playing Second Fiddle

[I got an article out of this rule: “Lew Alcindor and the Gold Crisis.”]

So, Alcindor continued to work on his sky hook. He had been working on it ever since the sixth grade. There was no defense against that shot over the next 22 years.

[The coaches' rule backfired on them in the 1970 finals. If Jacksonville's players had been allowed to dunk, UCLA would have lost. Their front line was 7 feet 2 (Artis Gilmore), 7 feet, and 6 feet 10.]

The anti-dunk rule had no visible effect on the 1967–68 team, which suffered only one loss. That loss was viewed by more people than had ever watched a college basketball game. It was a mid-season game. Alcindor had suffered an eye injury three games earlier, and had not played in the two preceding games. In this game he was comparatively ineffective. A fired-up University of Houston team (#2) beat UCLA at the Houston Astrodome: 71 to 69. This was the largest live crowd ever to see a college basketball game: 52,000. It was nationally televised. Except for the NCAA final games, which had begun two years earlier, this was the first nationally televised college basketball game. It even has a Wikipedia Entry: “Game of the Century (college basketball).”

[My friend R. E. McMaster, the newsletter writer and commodities trader, was a cheerleader for Houston that night. I did not meet him until a decade later.]

In that game, Wooden benched Lacy after 11 minutes. Lacy begged to be put back in. Wooden refused. Three days later, Lacy quit the team. He did not participate in the rest of the season. UCLA destroyed Houston in the NCAA semi-final game: 101 to 69. Wooden cleared his bench to hold the score down. After Houston's loss, coach Guy Lewis said: "That’s the greatest exhibition of basketball I’ve ever seen." Lacy would have started in that game and the next: the championship game, in which UCLA easily defeated North Carolina.

In terms of eligibility, this was his junior year. He might have been a starter the next year, although that is not clear in retrospect. Two other sensational forwards from Southern California arrived: Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, who had been a first team All American in high school. (Wicks was better at UCLA.) Plus, the sharpshooting forward Lynn Shakelford returned. Wicks and Rowe both played for over a decade in the NBA. Shakelford played for a year in the ABA. What a team that would have been!

Instead, Lacy played for one season with the Los Angeles Stars, in the ABA, where he scored five points a game. The Stars had no stars, except for the coach: Bill Sharmon. Sharmon was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1976 and as a coach in 2004. Only four other men have achieved this honor. The first was Wooden (1960, 1973). He was ready to teach Lacy, but Lacy was not ready to learn. The team finished a distant fifth in the Western division. Lacy quit. Then he disappeared. He died in 2011. His Wikipedia entry mentions the confrontation with Wooden. “I've never enjoyed playing for that man.” He is long forgotten.

He refused to play second fiddle for half of one game on what was probably the greatest college basketball team of all time, a team coached by the most respected coach. A year and a half later, his fiddling days ended.


Nater was born in the Netherlands in 1950. He came to America at age 9. He grew tall. He tried out for the basketball team as a junior in high school. He was cut. He did not try out again as a senior. He played for two years at a community college in Southern California. He barely played in his freshman year. In his sophomore year, he was an All-American community college player. He was a true overnight sensation locally.

His coach, Don Johnson, had been an All-American under Wooden in 1952. He recommended to Wooden that Wooden grant him a scholarship. But there was only one scholarship left. Wooden said that he had already filled the position: Bill Walton. But Johnson made the argument that Wooden needed a true second fiddle: a player tall enough and good enough to challenge Walton in practice. Wooden recognized the truth of what Johnson said, and he gave Nader the scholarship.

Wooden wanted Nater for one purpose: to be on the losing team in practice. On the winning team would be Bill Walton. He would be the equivalent of a low-paid sparring partner for Muhammed Ali . . . daily, for three years.

Wooden told Nater from the beginning that he would probably never start a game at UCLA. Wooden was true to his word. Nater never started in two years of playing at UCLA. He scored a forgettable three points per game.

He also told Nater that if he stuck with the program, he might get an offer from the pros.

He sat out the first year: red-shirted. He therefore did not lose his eligibility to play for two years on the varsity after Walton came up from the freshmen team. He practiced against Walton daily even though he was not on the team. He had to work under Wooden, who was a task-master. He improved. He played on the varsity in Walton’s sophomore and junior years. He had to spend an extra year in college to do this.

This eased the pain: he played on two NCAA championship teams: 1971–72, 1973–74. Also, he got to play daily against the greatest college center since Kareem. He got to be coached by Wooden. Finally, someone else paid for his college.

At the end of his second varsity season, Bill Walton was asked by a reporter who was the best center he had played against that year. He replied, “Swen Nater.”

On Playing Second Fiddle

In 1973, he was drafted by the NBA in the first round, thereby becoming the only first-round draft pick in NBA history who never started on a four-year college team – not counting high school players who skipped college.

Nater decided to play with the ABA. He was rookie of the year in 1974. He was second team ABA in his first two years. In 1975, he was the ABA's rebounding leader. In 1980, he was the NBA's rebounding leader. He played for 11 years.

In his final season, 1983–84, he played with the Lakers. He played in a backup position. The Lakers’ center was Kareem. Second fiddle to Kareem? Who wasn’t? That team lost in the final series to the Larry Bird-led Celtics, four games to three. Life is tough.


Edgar Lacy was a high school sensation. He played for the greatest college coach in history. He played on what is arguably the greatest college basketball team ever assembled, the 1967–68 UCLA team. But he was benched after 11 minutes on national TV, and he could not deal with this. He was not going to play second fiddle to some bench-warmer. He was either going to be a star on the court, or else he was not going to show up.

Swen Nater was not a high school sensation. He was not a sensation in his freshman year in a community college. But he was something of a sensation in his sophomore year. That earned him a scholarship – free education. He needed the money.

He got better and better at the game. Walton made him better. Wooden and the other coaches made him better.

When he graduated, he did not have to play second fiddle. But, at the end of his basketball career, he wound up playing second fiddle to Kareem.

Life, as I said, is tough.

In these two careers, we see in operation the results of two rival attitudes toward playing second fiddle. It is clear which attitude is the correct one from the point of view of success.

Nater became a first-rate motivational speaker. Here are some snippets.

He has this slogan: "I've been rebounding all my life." It is a good slogan.

1. Assume the shot will be missed. (Change happens.)

2. Get in position. (Prepare for opportunities.)

3. Go get the ball. (Act.)

He got the ball almost 12 times a game for a pro career. Then he had a fine career at Costco.

It started with playing second fiddle.

[I spoke with both men, but several decades apart. In the fall of 1964, I was in the student union at UCLA. I spotted Lacy. I went up to say a few words. He was polite. I noticed that I was at shoulder level with him. Then Alcindor walked in. Lacy walked over to chat with the freshman. He was at shoulder height to Alcindor. That was when I realized just how tall Alcindor was.

In 2008, I chatted with Nater by email about his website. I gave him some advice. He is a gracious man who listens to free advice from strangers.]