Remembering the Great John Wooden

by June 06, 2010

by Dave Zirin

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.”john-wooden

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.

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

A version of this column will appear in SLAM #141.