John Wooden: Lessons for basketball and life
John Wooden was UCLA's legendary basketball coach who took some of the most challenging egos in the country and fit them into a championship mold of his own making.
Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was an every-day Bible reader from Indiana who took some of the most challenging egos in the country and fit them into a championship mold of his own making. He did farm chores as a boy when they began before the sun came up and took hours to complete.Skip to next paragraph
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Gothic to the core, as rustic as a pitchfork, and with a haircut that always had a bunkhouse-bowl look to it, Wooden, who died Friday in Los Angeles, never looked the part of the spoiled, well-oiled cartel. He loved the concept of five players on court riding a bicycle with the same precision as the Flying Wallendas and hated the importance others placed on statistics.
Yet high up in every obituary you’ll read about the Wizard of Westwood is the fact that he won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA. His Bruins also put together an 88-game winning streak between Jan. 30, 1971, and Jan. 17, 1974. Twenty-four of his players – and not just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton – made All-American.
When all-conference center Walton showed up for practice one day with a full beard and insisted that as much facial hair as he wanted was his right, Wooden didn’t argue. All John said was: “I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. Bill, we’re all going to miss you!”
Twenty minutes later, Walton was so clean shaven that he could have made a commercial for any razor company in the world.
With Wooden, it was always: Get everybody in peak condition. Teach them the value of fundamentals. Drill them to play as a team and hit the open man on offense. Learn that defense is mostly hard work and can often be sustained game after game. Don’t put it all on your shooters, who are often in danger of losing their touch.
How to put on your socks
Wooden also paid rapt attention to the little things. For example, on the first day of practice John would spend half an hour teaching his players the proper way to put on a sweat sock.
“Wrinkles can lead to blisters,” he’d warn. “Be quick but don’t hurry,” was another of his wall mottos. Yet when fashions began to change, he did away with his mandatory coat-and-tie rule on road trips.
Years ago, at a dinner honoring Wooden, I asked John about the growing problem of athletes and drug testing.
“If they don’t want to be tested, don’t let them play,” said the man who holds the distinction of being a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. At Purdue he was considered a mid-size guard, a three-time All-American who was always willing to take a few enemy elbows en route to the basket. On defense, he was like a piece of barbed wire.
“Having worked with young people all my life, I can tell you for a fact that today’s kids are crying out for discipline,” Wooden said. “Unfortunately, they aren’t getting the discipline they need at home or from most of their teachers. Until we give them the proper standards to live by, we will continue to be a nation whose young people will be in and out of trouble.”