Rembering John Wooden

This week the sports world will moan the death of a legend. “The Wizard of Westwood,” as he was called, is being heralded as the greatest coach – in any sport – of all time.

This is a great honor for John Robert Wooden, who would also drop pearls of wisdom to those who played for him and admired him. Such sayings as: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” “Flexibility is the key to stability, ” and “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Early in my journalism career, I had the esteemed pleasure of hearing one of Coach Wooden’s lectures on leadership. I was also honored to have the chance to interview him. We spent 35 minutes alone and I was able to instantly see what everyone who came in contact with him saw: Greatness.

This is not an adjective that I use lightly. When you meet someone so humble, so genuine, so gracious and so blessed, you recognize very quickly that he’s just not like the rest of us.

John Wooden sat and talked to me in three ways. I know that sounds strange, but in part of the conversation he was a coach to me – not basketball coach, but life coach. In another moment he was a father to me, sharing the lessons he learned in life very intimately. And in still another moment he was a true man of God, giving God all the credit for the man he had become.

It was weird in a way because his actions were nothing like I expected.

I wanted to talk to him about his coaching career and his 10 NCAA championships. I wanted to talk about all the great players he had coached. And I wanted to talk sports period with him and get his take on who he thought would win the championship that year.

I even remember being given the assignment because everyone else was out covering games and I was on the sports desk that night. The sports editor at the time said that if I wanted to, I could cover the talk or just write something up from talking with the event planners.

For us, this wasn’t big news.

After all, the guy had been retired from coaching for at least 15 years. He had written a book and was talking to the Boy Scouts or Boys and Girls Clubs – I actually can’t remember which one now.

But what I recall most from that interview was the fact that he didn’t think his accomplishments were as big as the people he had come into contact with throughout his career. He didn’t want to discuss basketball as a part of life, but life itself and what really matters in life.

Coach Wooden retired in 1975. He could have coached anywhere and clearly he was healthy enough to continue coaching. Obviously, Wooden was not coaching just for the love of basketball. It was his vehicle. Basketball was his means of telling God’s secret to everyone he came in contact with during his career. I call it God’s secret because it seems as though the rest of the world has forgotten it – and continues to forget it.

God’s secret is LOVE. Remember John 3:16?

Wooden was a savvy preacher because he never made you feel like he was preaching to you or that he thought you were lacking in an area so he had to instruct you. Without coming across as “holier than thou” or being inappropriate in regards to mixing religion into his business, he just lived his life in a way that reflected the image of God in the face of the people he met.

I remember reading about how Jesus did that same thing. Jesus then turned around and told His disciples to do the same thing.

Clearly Coach Wooden was listening.

And as he is put to rest and the media, fans and his family spend the next week laying him to rest, it is my wish that basketball never comes up and they don’t even talk about what he’s done, because he wouldn’t.

I hope they remember him for the man he was, and not the things he did. For the latter doesn’t even compare to the character of this great man.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, search the internet for his famous “pyramid of success,” for by reading and studying it, you will know everything you need to know about John Wooden and how you, too, can have a successful life.

R.I.P. Coach!