To Coach Wooden’s family from somebody who humbly appreciates the fact that I was allowed to become part of your family.
Prologue: Why It Took Fifty Years to Write This Book
Among them were Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Diana Ross, Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill and Melinda Gates, Bruce Springsteen, Cicely Tyson, and Robert De Niro.
And one other guy.
The president of the United States, Barack Obama.
what President Obama said was that I wasn’t up there just because of my basketball career, but also because of my seventeen years of writing books and articles about social injustice toward people of color, women, the LGBT community, Muslims, and immigrants (“he is advocating on Capitol Hill or writing with extraordinary eloquence about patriotism”). Then another thought hip-checked in: If there wasn’t social injustice, would I even be getting this medal? Was I somehow benefiting from social injustice? What kind of monster does that?!
President Obama closed the ceremony by saying, “Everyone on this stage has touched me in a powerful personal way. These are folks who have helped make me who I am.” That’s when I knew exactly why I felt so uncomfortable.
Someone was missing.
The man who, more than anyone else in my life, was responsible for me standing in the exact same spot where he had stood thirteen years earlier. That’s when President George W. Bush awarded Coach John Wooden the same Presidential Medal of Freedom I had just received.
I knew what he would have said: “Kareem, don’t overthink it. Enjoy the moment. Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.”
I looked down the line of the wonderfully successful people on either side of me and wondered if each of them had a Coach Wooden who, to quote President Obama, “helped make me who I am.” I hoped so, because without Coach, my life would have been so much less. Less joyous. Less meaningful. Less filled with love.
John Wooden died in 2010. So why did I wait seven years to write this book?
Because of something he taught me over the nearly fifty years of our friendship.
I had to climb over the seven years since his death to view what it all meant, measure how great his impact on me and others was. This book is that view. I could have written a book about him after I left UCLA. Or after I retired from the pros. Or after Coach died. But those books wouldn’t have been this book. This book spans almost fifty years of an evolving friendship seen through the eyes of a man who is old enough and mature enough to understand the truth about our relationship, even when I was too young at the time to recognize those truths myself.
Coach Wooden’s most important lesson was that we should never focus on the outcome but on the activity itself. “Don’t think about winning the game,” he’d say.
“Just do everything possible to prepare. As long as you know you have done everything possible and you have given your best self on the court, that is your reward. The scoreboard is meaningless.” This philosophy became the basis for his time as an English teacher and coach.
Trying to apply his philosophy solely toward winning would be like doing good deeds only because you hope it will get you into heaven. Being good is the payoff, athletically and spiritually. That’s why he didn’t care for sports movies in which the underdog team or player learns the hard way that winning isn’t everything, but then they go on to win at the end. To him, those movies should have ended with the lesson learned, the team taking the court happy in their newfound wisdom, the whistle blowing to start the game, and then freeze-frame and run credits. Showing the team winning sends the wrong message: that life lessons exist to serve as a guide for acquiring things that make you feel like a success. His point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination.
This book is not just an appreciation of our friendship or an acknowledgment of Coach Wooden’s deep influence on my life. It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren’t diminished or lost altogether.
Coach’s favorite novel was The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas about the crucifixion of Jesus. He reread it many times and quoted freely from it. One passage from the book he particularly liked was this:
Our life is like a land journey, too even and easy and dull over long distances across the plains, too hard and painful up the steep grades; but, on the summits of the mountain, you have a magnificent view—and feel exalted—and your eyes are full of happy tears—and you want to sing—and wish you had wings! And then—you can’t stay there, but must continue your journey—you begin climbing down the other side, so busy with your footholds that your summit experience is forgotten.
Over the course of our friendship, Coach and I climbed that mountain to share the magnificent view. This book is my attempt to make sure that our summit experience is not forgotten and that others can make that same climb and be filled with happy tears.