The passing of John Wooden, a personal hero of mine, seems like a really good time to pause and reflect on whether we (as a society or the sports industry in general) live up to the standards of excellence he helped establish. On second thought, that might be a pretty depressing analysis.
I was born in southern California and though I didn’t live there very long I was a huge UCLA basketball fan. The Bruins, if you don’t recall, were pretty dominant back in the 1960s and early 70s so it wasn’t as though it was tough to be a fan. The Wizard of Westwood’s success on the court is legendary. He has no peers in any sport. Ten NCAA championships, including seven straight from 1967 to 1973; an 88-game win streak; four perfect 30-0 seasons, are some of the more jaw-dropping records the great man amassed.
Wooden’s legacy though is about way more than wins and losses. It was always about doing things the right way. A one-man inspirational quote machine, Wooden spoke and wrote prolifically about character, work ethic, faith, and the true meaning of success. A personal favorite of mine is, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Hearing the many great players who Wooden coached gush about his teachings is refreshing in an age when drawing attention to one’s self seems to be job No. 1 of a celebrity. Bill Walton. likely one of Coach Wooden’s more unique challenges, recites his coach’s word with as much ease as the lyrics of his beloved Grateful Dead.
I feel fortunate to have met John Wooden, albeit very briefly, and to have seen him speak. Coach Wooden was the long-time ambassador for the McDonald’s High School All-American Basketball Game, the pre-eminent showcase for the top senior basketball players in the country. New York hosted the event in 2002 at Madison Square Garden. I happened to be in a back room at the Garden where players from J.J. Redick to Amare Stoudimire to Carmelo Anthony shuffled in to take a photo with the venerable coach. The players showed proper deference as they shook hands and posed. Coach Wooden had words of encouragement for each player which he delivered with that simple, beautiful smile that seemed like a permanent fixture on his face.
The night before the actual game, Wooden was a featured speaker at a banquet held at New York’s legendary Tavern on the Green in Central Park. At age 91, needing some aid to get to the podium, Coach Wooden delivered a speech that had me in awe. There was no doubt in my mind that the Wizard had grown somewhat uneasy about the direction of the game and the focus on individual stardom. Many in that room would go on to be NBA multi-millionaires. Many in that room may have wondered why this icon of another era was speaking to them. “Surely, things aren’t the same as they were back in the 60s and 70s,” many likely were thinking. I was a bit distressed over the level of attention afforded the Coach during his speech. After Coach Wooden’s talk, Jay Bilas, who served as the emcee of the event, sensed the same thing as I did and implored the players in the audience to heed the words they’d just heard.
Many of the kernels of wisdom shared by Coach that night are ones that I’d heard over the years. It was not the words themselves that had me in awe. It was the confidence he had that what he was saying was true and important. Perhaps he knew that those that deserved to hear his sage counsel would someday recall what they heard and it would help them focus on that which is important. And for that, he appeared thankful to have the opportunity to have a chance to speak to the young stars.
John Wooden will always be relevant to me. He had a formula for success but had complete respect for the individual (“Flexibility is the key to stability”). His counsel is there for all of us if aren’t so self centered to believe it matters.
“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
Thank you Coach!