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In December 1891, James Naismith nailed a peach basket to the wall of a gym in Springfield, Mass., creating the game of basketball. Less than 19 years later, in October 1910, Joshua and Roxie Wooden of Hall, Ind., welcomed their second child, John Robert Wooden, into the world.
Fewer than two decades separate the birth of basketball and the man whose leadership, ethics and example would make him the game’s most iconic coach. Growing up as the sport did, he became the first person inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. Yet he left an indelible imprint that transcended basketball.
John Wooden, known more affectionately as “Coach,” passed away on June 4, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. But the legacy he created will outlive him—and will outlive all of us. Yes, he led UCLA to an unprecedented 10 national championships, compiled an unbelievable 88-game winning streak and accomplished countless other basketball milestones with his Bruins teams.
But Coach was much more than… well, a coach. He always saw himself first and foremost as a teacher. He viewed it as his highest calling to teach his players how to become men of character, and if they picked up some basketball skills along the way, that was icing on the cake. He didn’t just coach basketball players; he taught them about life. In fact, he taught anyone who was willing to listen.
Coach often recited his father’s “two sets of three”: “never lie, never cheat, never steal” and “don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.” He also cited a seven-point creed passed along from his father, the most frequently cited point being “make each day your masterpiece.”
He taught his players the importance of basic preparation in winning championships, starting by demonstrating how to properly put on their shoes and socks so they wouldn’t get blisters that cut into practice time. He taught his teams respect by always insisting they leave the locker rooms of opposing schools as clean—or cleaner—as they found them. He taught other coaches the power of a calm demeanor and humble spirit by rarely losing his cool during a game and personally apologizing to the referee if he did. He taught the world that integrity and character are not old-fashioned notions or incidental aspects of success—they are its cornerstones.
And the path to true success was one of Coach’s most firmly held beliefs. His life philosophy, illustrated by his “Pyramid of Success,” was capped off with his own definition: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Mentoring was his true legacy, he insisted. Coach firmly believed that each lesson you can share that touches someone’s life, changes their perspective, strengthens their resolve or encourages their spirit is a lesson that will outlast any accolades, fame or fortune.
Coach stressed that mentoring didn’t have to be a formal process or relationship. As he explained it, anytime we provide an example to someone else, we are mentoring that person. This might be in a formalized mentoring program, but it might also be in simply offering a considerate word or gesture providing examples to others of ways we all can be a little kinder, think a little further beyond ourselves and make our world a little better.
That was what Coach wanted to be remembered for—not his titles and trophies, but enriching lives. And he succeeded. In fact, a number of years ago he even removed one of the railings on his home patio so the postal worker could more easily deliver the daily crate of fan mail by simply sliding it through. That was Coach’s way. It wasn’t just that he was eager to read each letter that had been sent his way; he also wanted to make the mail carrier’s job a little easier.
For Coach’s birthday this past year, more than 7,500 people left him messages on a website set up specifically for that purpose. Thousands more sent him cards in the mail.
“You remain an inspiration to us all,” wrote Tony Barnhart of CBS Sports. “Thank you for your wisdom and your willingness to share it.”
Legendary sportscaster Dick Vitale offered his wishes: “You have been an inspiration to me throughout my career. Your character and integrity have influenced my life in more ways than can be imagined. I am proud to be among the thousands of people who are wishing you the happiest of birthdays and extending a great big thank you for all you have done for so many.”
Retired LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, a longtime Wooden friend, wrote: “On several occasions over the years, I’ve heard you mention that the four things that mankind craves the most are freedom, happiness, peace and love. None of these can be obtained without first giving them to someone else. Oh, how you’ve given for these many years.”
One after another, they thanked Coach for his example. Just as telling were the comments offered for the back cover of Coach’s final book, released last year.
“My time learning from Coach Wooden—sitting and asking him questions, soaking up his answers—has provided some of the most significant lessons in my life,” wrote Pat Summitt, coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols and arguably the greatest women’s basketball coach of all time. “Any way you can be mentored by a giant like him… will provide great lessons for you, too.”
Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, wrote that “Coach Wooden is the most respected mentor I’ve ever met. He’s had a powerful impact on my life.”
The legendary Yogi Berra added, “Who better to learn you all his great experiences than John Wooden?”
Coach Wooden readily opened his door—and his life—not only to great sports figures, but to anyone who stopped by his home wanting to spend a few minutes or hours chatting with him. He was eager to share, never taking credit for the wisdom he possessed. Instead, he always deflected the praise to the mentor in his own life who had taught him that lesson. It was never about ego with Coach; it was about learning.
He was famous for urging his players to practice the basics like dribbling, passing and balance. His life, too, was a study of balance. “Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful,” he once famously remarked.
The home he shared with Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years who passed away in 1985, reflected that way of thinking. Hanging on the wall, just below his Presidential Medal of Freedom, is taped the kindergarten report card of his great-granddaughter. Meanwhile, stacks of awards—four and five deep in places—line the floorboards throughout the rest of the small California condo where he lived for nearly 40 years. He was honored to have received each one, but he did not treasure accolades the way he treasured relationships with people.
If you were talking to Coach, you had his undivided attention. He made every person in the room feel like the most important one. He ignored his ringing phone if someone was visiting him in his home. Everything he did was devoted to showing respect to the person in front of him, no matter who they were, what they did for a living or what they looked like. That was just his way.
One of the areas where this was most visible was with his precisely timed, planned and measured practices. He had every drill and exercise accounted for, down to the minute. This extreme efficiency, he explained, was out of respect for his players and his assistant coaches. Unnecessary time spent on the court due to a poorly organized practice was time taken away from their studies or their families, he felt.
Coach wasted no time in practice and no time on this earth. Retiring after the 1975 season, more than a third of his life was lived post-basketball. Yet, in retirement, he continued to be extremely active in his community, lending his name and support to a variety of causes he believed in, such as the Special Olympics. He authored nearly a dozen books, with topics ranging from leadership to ethics to mentoring to a children’s book. He was teaching until the very end. That was just his way.
John Wooden made a name as a coach but also a life as a mentor. Coach will be sorely missed and fondly remembered by the thousands—millions—of lives he influenced.
He is survived by a son and daughter, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren