They called him 'Coach'

Matthew May
His obituaries will document his success as the "Wizard of Westwood," the UCLA coach who won ten national championships in twelve seasons; the coach who masterminded an 88 game winning streak; the coach whose Pyramid of Success is studied by countless coaches and players not only in basketball but other sports as well (ask Peyton Manning). The litany is well known to even the casual sports fan.

From where did all of this success and wisdom come? It came from where it usually does - the heartland of this country. For Wooden, it happened to be the small bergs of Hall and Martinsville, Indiana. His childhood days were filled with farm work and scant luxuries beyond life's necessities. Yet he considered himself rich because of the teachings of his parents, who instilled in him a love of God, poetry, and the English language.


Wooden learned the game that would lead to everlasting fame by shooting a ball of nylons sewn together by his mother at a goal forged by his father, fastened to the family barn in a small town in Indiana. Is there anything more American than that?


He emerged in West Lafayette and became a three time All-America at Purdue. Many say he was the first collegiate superstar in basketball. It is an amazing feat when one's coaching success nearly obscures a nearly unparalleled playing career. Indeed, John Wooden was the first person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. Had Wooden played in a different era, his accomplishments would have earned him a fortune immediately upon graduation - had a player with such talent even bothered to graduate or go to class.


As it was, Wooden had the opportunity to make a very good living as a professional basketball player, even in the nascent leagues forming following his graduation. Near the end of his senior year, Wooden discussed his opportunities with his coach at Purdue, Ward "Piggy" Lambert. Lambert, by the way, was the most successful basketball coach in Big Ten Conference history until a man named Bob Knight came along.


Lambert listened patiently as his young student described the handsome monetary opportunities available to him as a basketball player. When Wooden was finished, Lambert simply asked young John Wooden if he had enrolled at Purdue to learn how to earn money as a professional athlete. No, the player answered. He had enrolled to earn a degree so that he might earn a living in a profession such as teaching. And so he did, honing his craft in the classrooms and basketball courts of South Bend and Terre Haute before landing in Los Angeles. The basketball world would have to wait more than 30 years before Wooden again reached the top of college basketball.


The sadness of Wooden's passing is not necessarily that he no longer walks with us here - indeed, he is no doubt happier to be reunited with his wife who preceded him in death all too soon, a woman to whom he wrote letters long after her demise. No, the sadness is that the death of John Wooden is the quiet extinction of a bright light from our past, when the fundamentals of the game and of our lives were not treated as quaint anachronisms but the recognized and undisputed paths to goodness and success.


We would do well to honor the life of John Wooden by studying and emulating the lessons he learned and the lessons he taught. They are as applicable in everyone's lives as they are on any basketball court.


Matthew May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com

His obituaries will document his success as the "Wizard of Westwood," the UCLA coach who won ten national championships in twelve seasons; the coach who masterminded an 88 game winning streak; the coach whose Pyramid of Success is studied by countless coaches and players not only in basketball but other sports as well (ask Peyton Manning). The litany is well known to even the casual sports fan.

From where did all of this success and wisdom come? It came from where it usually does - the heartland of this country. For Wooden, it happened to be the small bergs of Hall and Martinsville, Indiana. His childhood days were filled with farm work and scant luxuries beyond life's necessities. Yet he considered himself rich because of the teachings of his parents, who instilled in him a love of God, poetry, and the English language.


Wooden learned the game that would lead to everlasting fame by shooting a ball of nylons sewn together by his mother at a goal forged by his father, fastened to the family barn in a small town in Indiana. Is there anything more American than that?


He emerged in West Lafayette and became a three time All-America at Purdue. Many say he was the first collegiate superstar in basketball. It is an amazing feat when one's coaching success nearly obscures a nearly unparalleled playing career. Indeed, John Wooden was the first person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. Had Wooden played in a different era, his accomplishments would have earned him a fortune immediately upon graduation - had a player with such talent even bothered to graduate or go to class.


As it was, Wooden had the opportunity to make a very good living as a professional basketball player, even in the nascent leagues forming following his graduation. Near the end of his senior year, Wooden discussed his opportunities with his coach at Purdue, Ward "Piggy" Lambert. Lambert, by the way, was the most successful basketball coach in Big Ten Conference history until a man named Bob Knight came along.


Lambert listened patiently as his young student described the handsome monetary opportunities available to him as a basketball player. When Wooden was finished, Lambert simply asked young John Wooden if he had enrolled at Purdue to learn how to earn money as a professional athlete. No, the player answered. He had enrolled to earn a degree so that he might earn a living in a profession such as teaching. And so he did, honing his craft in the classrooms and basketball courts of South Bend and Terre Haute before landing in Los Angeles. The basketball world would have to wait more than 30 years before Wooden again reached the top of college basketball.


The sadness of Wooden's passing is not necessarily that he no longer walks with us here - indeed, he is no doubt happier to be reunited with his wife who preceded him in death all too soon, a woman to whom he wrote letters long after her demise. No, the sadness is that the death of John Wooden is the quiet extinction of a bright light from our past, when the fundamentals of the game and of our lives were not treated as quaint anachronisms but the recognized and undisputed paths to goodness and success.


We would do well to honor the life of John Wooden by studying and emulating the lessons he learned and the lessons he taught. They are as applicable in everyone's lives as they are on any basketball court.


Matthew May welcomes comments at matthewtmay@yahoo.com