TJ | 6th Jun, 2010

In Memorium John Wooden

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When my son was making the move from high school to college basketball, I decided to write John Wooden to see if I could get his autograph as a present for my son.  Not only did Wooden write back, he sent along a manila envelope full of Wooden memorabilia including an autographed copy of his pyramid of success, personally inscribed to my son, along with an autographed picture.  Apparently he did this for many others.  Wooden was so willing to sign autographs when he attended UCLA games, that finally his family and the University had to give this this ninety-year-old ex-coach some relief.

Wooden was one of those rarities of our times–the real deal.  By that I mean someone whose character and values matched his record.   If parents want to point their children in the right direction they could not find a better role model.  All they need to do is point to Wooden to show that it is possible to be a winner and still remain true to your values.

The Pyramid of Success

The foundation of Wooden’s values was that diagram he sent my son, the pyramid of success, about which he gave countless lectures to anyone who would listen.  There are many copies of the pyramid floating around and Wooden himself revised the official version several times, but what is reproduced below comes from the one he sent my son. I have removed what he wrote on it. You can go to the official Wooden web site to download your own copy as a PDF file.

The genius of the pyramid is not merely in what it says, which is profound, but in its structure where each level builds on the one before.  Note especially not the values at the top but those that form the base: industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm.  Pondering the pyramid over the years I have often felt if I could just get those five right, I would be doing pretty well.

The Wisdom of Wooden

Wooden was not known as the sage of Westwood for nothing. You could fill a good-sizes book with some of his gems of wisdom–and no doubt a few will be coming out now. Below are a few of my favorites.

I’ve had some players that didn’t have great natural ability “but they learned to do things properly – and maybe they couldn’t do them with the grace and quickness that the more natural athlete could, but they would still get the job done. You couldn’t have great teams if they were all like that, but I don’t think you can have a great team without some like that.

Don’t be too concerned with regard to things over which you have no control, because that will eventually have an adverse effect on things over which you have control.

If you get to the point where you think you know it all, you’re going to stop learning.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Now, in some cases, the other fellow is just better than you are, and that’s no failure.

You never really forget, but I think you can forgive without forgetting.

And I do believe in many ways, perhaps not in financial ways, that adversity from hard work does make you able to accept the more difficult things as they would come along later in your life.

“If I don’t feel comfortable doing it, then I’m not going to do it, regardless of how much money they want to pay me…I may not have their money, but I do have my peace of mind.

The Meaning of John Wooden

John Wooden lived almost a century which means he came from a time very few Americans experienced first hand.  He was born before there had been a World War or weapons of mass destruction.  In his childhood ordinary people still traveled from here to there with horses.  The first Model T came off the assembly line only a few years before he was born.  The Wright brothers managed to fly a few hundred feet over the dunes at Kitty Hawk just before Henry Ford conceived that first Model T.

It is tempting to see John Wooden as a throwback to those times for we Americans have always had a nostalgic streak–especially in the past few years–that looks back for Golden Ages, and a few obituaries have already painted a portrait of Wooden as someone from the past.  Yet to see Wooden as a artifact of an earlier time as if he were some display in a museum is to deny his relevance for our own times–and more important–to deny the timelessness of the values by which he sought to live his life.

If America has come to that–if it sees what John Wooden stood for as something from the past–then I worry about America.  The values Wooden personified may have been nurtured growing up in Indiana, but that is only because that is where he was raised.   Of course, all of us are shaped by time and place, but what made John Wooden great–and what makes America great–is that we take those values shaped by time and place and make something more universal of them.

In a month we will celebrate another Fourth of July.  Just as with John Wooden, the values that lie in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were shaped by people with all their quirks and faults and they were shaped at a particular time and place in history. But the American story, like John Wooden’s story is shaped by the universality of its values.

Nothing illustrates that better for John Wooden and America than the issue of race.  When John Wooden grew up in Indiana America was still a segregated country.  When he played college basketball people of color were not allowed in the door–in some places not even to watch the game, let alone play in it.

Yet when college basketball finally allowed people of color to play, John Wooden was at the forefront of that movement. People forget that his UCLA teams were among the first truly integrated teams. His first undefeated NCAA championship came in 1964 and featured Walt Hazzard as its star player.   At that time teams like the Universities of North Carolina and Kentucky deliberately did not have a single player of color. The Duke team UCLA beat in the title game was also all white.

Wooden related the following story about the integration of his team:

A reporter in my presence asked one of my black players: ‘Tell me about your racial problems,’ and he said: ‘You don’t know my coach, do you? He doesn’t see race at all, he sees ball players’ – and he turned and walked away from him. I was very proud of that.

In these times of strife and ideological rigidity we need to remember what truly timeless values mean and no one exemplified that better than John Wooden.  Many years ago there was a popular t-shirt that said, “Basketball is life.” Never was that truer than with John Wooden.

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