John Wooden Gifts His Legacy At 99

John R. Wooden, Always-Forever


GV885.W64 is the reason I never lost a basketball argument that didn’t include guessing the future. NEVER.  GV885.W64 is the Library of Congress call number of a book entitled Practical Modern Basketball by John R. Wooden (The Ronald Press Company 1966)  which I borrowed one day in the 1970s from the Chicago Public Library and simply forgot to return.  It was a book I picked up back in the day when I was learning to play every sport (tennis, swimming, football, hockey, chess) by the book or with a book close by.   For years, in between imitating McAdoo’s jumper, Tiny’s drive, Jabbar’s hook, Jo Jo White’s bank shot, Iceman’s finger roll, Dr. J’s one-handed flip shot, Maravich’s free throws and Jerry Sloan’s defensive feet slide, I would run home and read a bit of Wooden to make sure I understood what I was doing and what I was teaching others to do.  While my hands, torso and legs never quite grew into all those fantastic moves I tried to perfect, Wooden made sure that I understood the game I loved and was able to make enough adjustments to compete to the best of my ability.

There is no doubt that reading a book can’t make you more physically gifted, but this one book by this one man could automatically raise one’s basketball IQ several notches

Today, the book, still covered in plastic and possessing that old library smell of decades ago, rests in an honored position among my basketball reference books.   It sits atop all of the newer books, such as the NBA Coaches Playbook by the National Basketball Coaches Association.   The NBA Coaches Playbook includes articles by Phil Jackson, Tex Winter, Doug Moe, Avery Johnson, Pete Carril and Mike D’Antoni among others.  Yet, when I want to be certain about some aspect of basketball coaching or skill, when I want to be sure that someone I’m arguing with doesn’t quite understand what the hell he is e-talking about, I refer to John Wooden’s tome before all other  references.  Why not?  Coach Wooden was so thorough that he even wrote a section on how to handle loose balls including drills for getting it right. You can’t go wrong quoting or paraphrasing Coach Wooden. I, like many others, never did.

When he wrote the book in the mid-1960′s, Wooden was not quite the legend of 27 seasons coaching the UCLA Bruins yet.  He had not won seven straight national championships which he did from 1967 to 1973.  He had not won 88 straight games which he did from 1971-1974.  He had not coached all of his 29 winning seasons yet.  In 1967, his bio was relatively modest — relatively:

John R. Wooden is Head Basketball Coach at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has coached several National Collegiate Association Championship teams, including that for 1967, and he is one of the five collegiate coaches to have won two successive NCAA Championships.  Coach Wooden’s teams have won five Athletic Association of Western Universities titles and three straight Los Angeles Classic crowns. The winner of many awards and honors, Coach Wooden is especially proud ot have the rare distinction of being voted Coach of the Year twice, in both 1964 and 1967, by the National Basketball Coaches Association,

I never met more than the Wooden persona.  However, what I know of him as a man, I learned through his seminal work which started with his coaching philosophy and his Pyramid of Success.  Knowing of Wooden and his emphasis on values  such as humility and earnestness,  through his book,  it is unlikely that he wrote the bio.  Now as we look at his life and legacy, we, as beneficiaries, are fortunate that he lived in a time when media scrutiny was not so impersonally personal, a time like now when it is sport to turn sports icons inside out by exposing every personal flaw.  For us, his deeds as a player and basketball coach are not his greatest attribute, but an opportunity to highlight what he strived to be as a man, a human being.

Wood and Alcinder


Ironically, although I had not realized Wooden was sick or that he was almost 100 years old, I had been working on what I considered to be a controversial piece on “Love and Basketball” inspired by one of Wooden’s most recent books on leadership and success.  In his book, Wooden elaborated on his pyramid of success concept and focused on an element I had long thought was missing — an element that men have trouble dealing with: Love.  Wooden, in his later years, talked about how love — in the familial sense — was the most important element for a team to function efficiently as a unit.  So often, we hear that players and coaches need not like each other in order to be able to perform at the highest levels, but many basketballers who have achieved the height of their professional team performance will tell you that it is selfishness diminished by love that encourages and propels players to perform for and with their teammates.

Great coaches such as Pat Riley, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson understood the role of love in excellence as did Wooden who had assumed and revealed it until he clearly spoke it.  Today, we see the love Celtics players have for one another.  As a rule, Doc requires that when one man goes down on the court, all of his teammates must go to pick him up.  Kobe, one of the smartest basketball players ever, finally learned that to become a winner he had to have more appreciation and love for the team if not for the individuals. It was the animosity between him, Karl Malone and Shaq that tore the team apart.  This year we saw how caring for the team amongst teammates strengthened teams such as the Suns and the Cavaliers. When you listen to the Knicks legends talk about the Championships of the 70s, you cannot help but notice the love they have for their fellow teammates and how that followed them after the game as they continued to support each other.

Of course, the simple-minded will dissect the relationship of love to basketball and conclude that such an emotion is not essential to win a Championship.  Men (actually most fans), in general tend to be simple-minded in that way as they view athletes not as human beings but as commodities charged with the duty to entertain them and bring them happiness.   But Wooden saw the players as humans not commodities for his self-agrandizement. Wood saw basketball as a metaphor for life and a medium for achieving happiness and success which he defined as "a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."  Winning for Wooden, as it really happens over the long haul, is a by-product of an emphasis on personal characteristics that promote caring for the team.


There was one part of the book, “The Pyramid of Success”, that I did not really got into until the last year or so as I started reading more recent Wooden books as they appeared in the bookstores.  In my younger years, his tiered path to success seemed too formulaic, although it included all the right catch-phrases.  Perhaps I didn’t pay it much mind because my mother and many of my teachers taught us the same values he espoused as we grew up. They were not simply “middle American values” as some commentators will now claim.  Or perhaps that section of his book did not grab me because at the time the words and values of Dr. Martin Luther King rang throughout the nation and in our household on television and LP recordings, which my father, a Morehouse man like Dr. King, played over and over (almost as much as he played Richard Pryor albums).  In my house, my community I already felt as though I had a very good understanding of the values of success and that Wooden’s pyramid made life too simplistic and segmented.  I understood what he was saying through the pyramid but it just seemed too compartmentalized and simplistic.

What seemed to be missing from the pyramid was the importance of love in developing the whole character of a man (or woman).  And the blocks in the pyramid with its borders seemed to ignore the symbiotic relationship between many of the qualities it called for.  Truly separating friendship from loyalty and loyalty from enthusiasm into blocks did not reflect how they melded together. Back then, I thought, the pyramid reflected unrealistic perfection, not the struggle that it took to achieve personal and team success.

As I became older and lost the mentors who inspired me, I started reading more inspirational works which I would have looked at with disdain as a youngster who believed that self-motivation was all that I needed. (So often boys and men are taught that they should be able to work problems out themselves, handle their own business without aids like mental health professionals or coaches).  However, as I learned more about theories of success and Wooden’s pyramid, it was very clear that I did not understand the role of the pyramid.  He never meant for it to be taken literally, but it was a teaching tool to help students visualize what it took to be the best person, and therefore the best basketball player possible.

In his later years, Wooden grew to understand the need to state “Love” as critical to a successful life although it was not explicitly part of the pyramid.  But honestly Love does not exist without faith and patience, the key threads at the pinnacle of his pyramid.  He may not have got it all literally into the perfect triangle, but his pyramid contains all the energy for a purposeful, successful life.  Equally as important is that he was not looking for perfection, he was encouraging his players, his students to be their most excellent selves.  It was no accident that he wrote about his coaching philosophy and pyramid of success first in a book on basketball.  He was teaching life, not just basketball.  As one of the many people who also believe that basketball is not life, but a reflection of life, I should have seen that before.

Now I understand and have an even greater appreciation for the brilliance of John Wooden (Michaelangelo for the art fans).  I am so glad that I am smart enough to be on his side and have him by my side. What an unfair advantage for a blogger.