Sports as Shalom

Michael Metzger

He never spoke of winning yet his teams won ten NCAA Basketball championships in 12 years. He never yelled at his players yet he commanded their attention. This past Friday, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden passed away at the age of 99. It has been 35 years since Wooden coached. Thirty-five years is roughly a generation in the Bible, the cycle in which renewal is necessary. Remembering Wooden’s example of 35 years ago might help renew college basketball, since he coached sports as shalom.

Wooden was born in 1910 and grew up an Indiana boy. He attended Purdue and was a three-time All-American player, leading the Boilermakers to a 17-1 record, a Big Ten title and a mythical national title as a senior in 1932. In his final college game, Wooden matched his own school record with 21 points as Purdue beat Chicago 53-18. He is the first person enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach.

He went on to successful coaching stints in local high schools, eventually catching the eye of prestigious colleges programs, particularly the University of Minnesota. But a moment of indecision by the Gophers, along with a temporarily inoperative phone line between the Gophers and Wooden, gave the program at UCLA an opening to contact John. They offered him the head basketball coaching position. He took it.

Wooden succeeded Wilbur Johns at UCLA in 1948. Johns had gone 12-13 the previous year. In Wooden’s first year, UCLA went 22-7. But it would be another 16 years before he led UCLA to an upset of heavily favored Duke in the 1964 NCAA Basketball championship. Over the next 12 years, Wooden assembled the most formidable power in college sports. He suited up some of the finest athletes ever to play the game, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton. In that dozen years, he won 10 national titles (including seven in a row), ran up a record of 335 victories against just 22 losses and finished a record four seasons undefeated at 30-0. No college coach has ever so dominated a major sport. Then John Wooden retired in 1975.

Wooden however will be remembered for more than winning. A man of deep Christian faith, Wooden was first and foremost a devoted husband of 53 years to Nell. Junior high school sweethearts, they were married in 1932 yet almost had happiness cut short. In World War II, Wooden was scheduled for a tour of duty in the South Pacific on the USS Franklin. But an emergency appendectomy put him in the infirmary and the Franklin left without Wooden. The ship was eventually hit by a kamikaze, killing 724 crewmembers. Wooden came home to Nell—and coaching.

Every year, before every game, as part of his routine, John turned to where Nell was sitting behind the bench and winked at her. After Nell passed away in 1985, Wooden planned to co-author a book on his coaching career and love for Nell. Up until the end, he couldn’t do it: “It’s still too early,” he’d tell friends. But he would write Nell a love note every month and set it on her side of the bed. When he died, Wooden had never kissed anyone else. When UCLA decided to name the Pauley Pavilion basketball court after John and Nell, Wooden refused unless Nell’s name was featured first. Today, it’s the “Nell and John Wooden Court.”

Wooden also stands out for his demeanor on the bench. In an age of screaming and preening coaches, Wooden was self-effacing. The late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray articulated the most widely held view of the man in the single most famous line ever written about him: “John Wooden’s so square he’s divisible by four.” Texas coach Abe Lemons remembered Wooden as “sitting on the bench with a rolled-up program, gently tapping it on his other hand or chin, legs crossed, as if he was watching a ballet.”

Wooden didn’t curse either. The closest he ever came to profanity was his oft-heard exclamation, “Goodness gracious sakes alive!” In 27 years at UCLA, Wooden remembers getting only one technical. “I really didn’t deserve it, either,” he said. “Someone behind me called the ref something not very nice. And the ref thought it was me!” He always blushed telling the story.

Wooden was old-fashioned and hated the dunk and “one and done” where high school players pretend to attend college for one year before jumping into the NBA. In the 1960s, he successfully recruited a tall, skinny kid from Powers High School in New York City named Lew Alcindor. Alcindor was seven feet tall, nimble, and could dunk. But Wooden believed dunking would make Alcindor a one-dimensional player. He remade Alcindor’s game by introducing the young center (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to the skyhook. In the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar finished his career as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points. Imagine if Shaq had learned to shoot a hook shot.

Wooden was also unique in that he never spoke to his players about winning. He simply asked them after every game if they had done the best they could. “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.” Yet UCLA did win—and big. My favorite was the 1970-1971 team that beat Jacksonville University for the NCAA championship. Jacksonville featured two seven-footers, one by the name of Artis Gilmore and the other Pembrook Burroughs. UCLA had no one over 6’7”. Led by forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe—along with 6’6” center Steve Patterson and guard Henry Bibby—UCLA throttled Jacksonville 80-69 at the University of Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse.

These stories have faded over time—35 years, in fact. Yet they tell us how far sports have come… or gone. Beginning July 1, Wooden will fade as we turn our attention to the LeBron James Sweepstakes. We’ll hear of offers in the hundreds of millions—which reminds us of one last example from 35 years ago. John Wooden never earned more than $35,000 a year. That was his salary in 1975. And he never asked for a raise. If there’s such a thing as practicing sports as shalom, John Wooden was it. If we’re ever going to return college sports to college sports, we might do well to remember the legacy of the previous generations—especially John Wooden’s—and see if there are clues to renewing what it means to practice good sports.


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  1. Mike,
    Thanks. I participated in a leadership conversation yesterday with about 30 men and women…John Wooden was the subject….I’ll send your post to them…thanks again.
    Best Regards,

  2. Like Mother Teressa and others like them, John Wooden’s life will never be measured in the size of his bank account, but in the investments he leaves behind.

  3. Thanks, Mike. It helps me know the man. I knew his reputation as a winning coach, but this is the rest of the story: the man behind the reputation. In a sport dominated by big men and big egos, John Wooden stands out as a big man with a clear conscience.

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