1. When worlds collide: Midwestern Hick Meets Harlem Hoopster
“A coach’s primary function should be not to make better players, but to make better people.”
Our relationship had been born over basketball, but eventually that became the least important aspect of it. Our friendship blossomed and grew over shared values, over complicated loves and devastating losses, over a never truly satisfied search for understanding of this world and our place in it.
“I’m impressed with your grades, Lewis,” he said.
Grades? I thought. You’re the coach of one of the best basketball teams in the country and you’re talking grades? What about my impressive stats?
He looked me straight in the eyes to make sure I knew he was serious. “For most students, basketball is temporary. But knowledge is forever.”
He was worried about our long-term happiness, not our win–loss record.
He told me that most often he recruited players for quickness rather than size, and he had never coached someone as tall as I was, but he added, “I’m sure we will find the proper way to use you on the court. I am looking forward to coaching someone like you.”
Coach Wooden recruited character as much as ability. He wanted a certain kind of person, so he studied the background of potential recruits, explaining, “I could learn so much about each individual by studying the environment that he had been around before I would have him come to UCLA.”
a potential recruit snapped at his mother for a comment she made, and at that moment lost his chance to play for John Wooden. He explained, “I did not want a person who was that disrespectful on my team.”
The other kids did not appreciate the fact that I was a good student, so I was singled out as a nerd. They called me the egghead. Honestly, I sort of liked that—it was nice drawing attention to myself because I was smart rather than because I was tall.
My mum pushed me, she continuously pushed me to be better, to work harder. She was a very pragmatic woman, and she had dreams for me long before I had my own.
Education mattered in our home. I remember her pointing out to me that the great boxing champion Joe Louis did not speak very well. He stuttered when he spoke and at times had difficulty expressing himself. “I don’t want you to be like him,”
In some ways my father’s musical career was like a sentence ending with a comma: There should have been more to it.
his disappointment was clear. I vowed I was not going to live an unfinished life; I intended to keep trying until I reached the period at the end.
While certainly I got my love of jazz from my dad, listening to him practice “Moonlight Sonata” day after day taught me that to be good at something, at anything, you have to work at it and work at it.
Perhaps one reason I eventually fit so well into Coach Wooden’s program was that my parents had laid the same strong foundation that Coach often preached to us: “Don’t hope. Hope is for people who aren’t prepared.”
John Wooden was born into a different world. It was almost as if he had grown up in a painting even Norman Rockwell would call corny. He was born on a farm in rural Hall, Indiana, in 1910. The farm had no running water, no electricity, and his family ate what they grew. In the winter for heat they warmed bricks in the stove and wrapped them in towels. The toilet was an outhouse in the yard. When he spoke to me of those times, he spoke fondly, never with bitterness.
As Coach Wooden once said of his father, “He refused to speak an unkind word against anyone.”
Coach Wooden was exactly the same way. In fifty years I literally can’t recall him saying anything unkind about someone else. I could tell when he had a problem with a person because he would avert his eyes and change the subject.
“I probably didn’t appreciate my father at all. But thinking back, some of the things he did became so meaningful. I didn’t realize it at the time.” Ironically, that is precisely how his players felt about Coach. We weren’t aware that we were learning what he was teaching until we needed that knowledge years later.
“I didn’t have as much size as many,” he said. “But I was quicker than most, and that was my strength.”
Here comes the Hollywood twist: the lives-changed-forever event. For my father it was a missed audition for Count Basie’s band; for Coach Wooden it was an unexpected storm.
The phone rang again an hour later. Minnesota’s athletic director was calling to apologize. A freak snowstorm had knocked down all the phone lines, he explained, and he hadn’t been able to get through, but he was pleased to offer jobs to both Wooden and his assistant. But having given his word to UCLA, Coach had to turn down the job he really wanted. That was the way John Wooden walked through life. He had given his word. There wasn’t any more discussion about it.
I wasn’t consciously thinking about Coach Wooden when I made that decision. But Coach Wooden had been an integral part of my life for four years. He had developed my athletic skills, had nourished my intellectual pursuits, and had been a moral lighthouse that showed the way. My parents had laid a strong ethical foundation, but he had built upon that foundation, not just by showing how to determine the right thing, but by giving us the strength of character to do the right thing.