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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.

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“Sometimes I wonder if most people even know what real discipline is,” he continued. “The purpose of discipline isn’t to punish but to correct. It’s not there to be used to antagonize an individual, but to help and improve him. It’s not yelling at someone, because that kind of approach never gets you anywhere. You can only get the response you want by acting fairly and rationally.”

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Wooden’s teams, like the man who masterminded them, always came prepared. The emphasis was on discipline, hard work, aggressive defense, team play, and getting everyone on the court involved as a unit. Nobody on those UCLA teams ever stood around looking bored or used profanity in or out of the locker room.

Part of Wooden’s success as a basketball coach was always based on upsetting the tempo and style of his opponents.

He did this by creating a running team, by stressing that his players controlled both backboards, and by keeping team mistakes to a minimum. His teams were also known for the way they continually harassed the man with the ball and how they always seemed to play as hard at the end of a game as they had at the beginning. Unlike most coaches, he never considered scouting opponents a top priority.

Wooden on college basketball today

Asked about today’s brand of college basketball, Wooden replied: “To me it suffers from two things: too much physical contact that interrupts the flow of the game and too much individual showmanship. I’m interested in teamwork; in the rhythm of the game; in the beauty of watching a play unfold that eventually leads to a basket.”

“If you’re big enough and strong enough, anyone can slam-dunk,” he continued. “It isn’t hard, and it calls attention to the man doing it. What I see mostly are too many individuals out on the court and not enough team play. I see coaches who have stopped coaching so they can become actors and get the TV cameras turned on them. Most of them have forgotten what the game and their responsibilities are all about.”

Early on, when Wooden was laying the foundation for the future, UCLA didn’t really have a gymnasium it could call its own. Often John had to share space with the school’s Greco-Roman wrestlers, cheerleaders, trampoline artists, or pom-pom girls. On rare occasions the Bruins would even practice on parking lots.

Although Wooden refused to name the two National Basketball Association teams that tried to hire him as a head coach, he was not reluctant to explain how he arrived at his decision to stay with college basketball.

Why he didn't go with the pros

“I was interested in the pros at the time because it seemed like such a big thing,” said Wooden. Financially, as I told my family, it was a tremendous opportunity and I could do a lot more for them personally if I took the job.

“But I left the actual decision entirely up to my wife and children,” he added. “They talked things over among themselves and decided it would be best for me to stay at UCLA. Of course, I knew when I asked them what their answer would be.”

At the time, Wooden reportedly was earning $32,500 a year at UCLA.

Phil Elderkin is the Monitor's former sports editor.

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