There have been better recruiters. (He never made more than a dozen home visits in his life). There have been better motivators (he was no Geno Auriemma and never cursed beyond his ubiquitous “gracious sakes alive!”).
But there was never a better teacher in the history of basketball than John Robert Wooden.
I don’t write that because of sentimentality following Wooden’s death this week at the age of 99. I don’t write it because the Wizard of Westwood won 10 titles in his last 12 seasons at UCLA, including an insane seven championships in a row. I don’t write it because his lifetime coaching record was 664-162. I write it because winning for Wooden was merely a sign that the teaching was going well.
As former UCLA great, Bill Walton, once described, “He rarely talks about basketball but generally about life. He never talks about strategy, statistics or plays but rather about people and character. And he never tires of telling us that once you become a good person, then you have a chance of becoming a good basketball player or whatever else you may want to do. Of course we didn’t understand or realize any of this while we were living it. We thought he was nuts, crazy. And why not? We won all of our games during our first three and a half years at UCLA. It wasn’t until we started to lose at the end of our senior year, it wasn’t until we left UCLA and ran into the adversity that he told us would be there, that it started to dawn on me just how special we had it at UCLA.”
His objectives on the court were to see young men learn, mature, and transition to adulthood. If those goals were met, the winning would come. He told a reporter last year that if he had to start from scratch today, he would coach high school and teach in the classroom. That’s it. No more, no less.
Wooden knew that there isn’t an NCAA school in the country that would have patience for a philosophy that saw winning as secondary. His motto was, “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Armed with this moral compass, he was a midwife to some of the most important basketball players of the century. Even more impressively, Wooden’s success spanned an era when our campuses were battlegrounds over the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights. During the height of Wooden’s tenure he coached two of the most talented—and politically militant—players in the history of college basketball: Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Walton. Both men, like all of Wooden’s players, still swear by his teachings today.
When Wooden was asked last year how he was able to stand having anti-war players, given his own history as a World War II veteran, Wooden said, “”I’m not going to say I was opposed to the Vietnam War. I’m going to say I’m opposed to war. But I’m also opposed to protests that deny other people their rights … Taking over the administration building when there’s people who have jobs in there to do, I think that’s not right.”
He taught a simple “seven-point creed” handed to him by his father Joshua before Coach Wooden’s 12th birthday. It was: * Be true to yourself. * Make each day your masterpiece. * Help others. * Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. * Make friendship a fine art. * Build a shelter against a rainy day. * Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.
I can see that these might seem hokey to a 21st-century audience schooled on 140-character tweets for ironic guidance.
But it’s John Wooden’s life that gives them resonance. His life was remarkable not because of the many honors earned that very few of us will experience. It was remarkable because he really did try to make every day a masterpiece. He really did work hard to make the kinds of loyal, lasting friendships that spanned decades. He really did try to help those in need. This is what makes Wooden’s legacy so unique: he didn’t just teach Alcindor and Walton. He taught all of us smart enough to listen. And that’s what makes him the greatest teacher/coach of all -time.
A version of this column will appear in SLAM #141.