Among those things that Coach Wooden and I did have in common was the belief that playing basketball wasn’t the end, but rather the means to make our lives more fulfilling.
It was an overwhelming thought: I could choose to attend pretty much any university in America, and it wouldn’t cost my parents a dime. All I had to do was play basketball.
I knew I wanted to go to a school where I could get a quality education while playing on a winning basketball team. I wanted a school that respected its students and athletes of any color or background, so that eliminated most of the schools in the South.
So there were a lot of reasons for me to pick UCLA. But in the end the only one that really mattered was John Wooden.
There are two ways that a great teacher influences students: first, by the practical value of their words in teaching the student how to do things they couldn’t do or can now do better; second, through the purity of their actions. Preaching moral platitudes is easy, but walking the line and living them takes great strength. Yes, Coach Wooden taught me a lot about basketball through his words. But more important, his example as a man of unbending moral strength taught me how to be the man I wanted to be—and needed to be.
2. The game is afoot: It's never about winning and other courtside lessons
“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
-- John Wooden
As I’d gotten older, I’d learned just how devious aging was. When someone asked me how old I was, my first thought was thirty-five. Then reality shook me by the shoulders and I’d realize I was off by almost thirty years. Whenever I flipped on the bathroom light and suddenly saw my reflection in the mirror, it startled me. I always expected to see someone much younger. It was a crude form of time travel.
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
-- Mother Teresa
Zen in the Art of Archery: Basically, the idea is that through years of practice, the archer no longer thinks about the bow, the arrow, or the bull’s-eye because their body takes over unconsciously. Theoretically, a Zen archer is incapable of missing the bull’s-eye.”
Some, like me, had turned down full scholarships at other schools just to learn at the feet of the great John Wooden.
We leaned forward, ready to tattoo his wisdom on our brains for eternity.
We knew what he had accomplished, we knew that his program had produced great basketball players, and we were excited to learn from him. These were the first minutes of the first day of our four-year college career. We were eager to begin learning the techniques that had turned UCLA into a championship program.
“If you do not pull your socks on tightly,” he said firmly, “you’re likely to get wrinkles in them. Wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters force players to sit on the sideline. And players sitting on the sideline lose games."
“Number one in your life is your family. Number two is the religion of your choice. Number three is your studies: You’re here to get an education. Number four is to never forget that you represent this great university wherever you are, whatever you are doing. And number five, if we have some time left over, we’ll play some basketball.”
I didn’t change my play, because I always played as hard as I could. My parents had instilled in me a disciplined work ethic that dictated that I always try to work harder than anyone else in the room. I’d look over and see him studying us as if he were waiting for eggs to hatch, but it didn’t make me nervous as it did some of the others. I was confident. Things were already going the way I wanted them to go.
Besides, I was studying him as hard as he was studying us. I respected his reputation, but this was four years of my life we were talking about. And whatever professional career I hoped to have afterward. I had to make sure that he wasn’t a million dollars of promise worth ten cents on delivery. It wasn’t arrogance, but self-preservation, survival. This was the only shot I would get, and I had to make it count.
Other coaches saw their teams as a deck of cards. If one card dropped off, they just grabbed another card from the deck. The cards were interchangeable because they only looked at the backs of the cards. Coach Wooden looked at the face value of each card. No two cards were alike, just as no two players were alike. Even more interesting, he realized that a particular player was not the same player one day that he had been the day before, that each time one player progressed or faltered, the whole team’s ability to read one another and predict what each would do was affected.
you can’t shepherd impressionable boys for four years without you changing them—and them changing you.
The biggest misconception people have about Coach Wooden is thinking that he focused on winning. It’s an easy mistake to make, because he was one of the winningest coaches in history. But he didn’t. In fact, he did the opposite.
Coach told us. “Sure, we want to win. I love winning. But winning isn’t our goal.”
“Winning is the by-product of hard work,” Coach explained patiently, “like a pearl is the by-product of that clam fighting off a parasite.”
“The goal is hard work. The reward is satisfaction that you pushed yourself to the edge physically, emotionally, and mentally. It is my firm belief that when everyone on a team works as hard as possible until they feel that glow of satisfaction in their hearts and peace of mind, that team is prepared for anything and anyone. Then winning is usually inevitable.”
‘If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.’
After retiring from basketball, I began writing full time. Books, articles, movies, novels, and even comic books. Each was a challenge because I knew that there would be people out there criticizing, “Stick to basketball, Kareem.” But I just wrote and rewrote and polished and then rewrote again, putting everything I had into every page. That process of trying my hardest was joyful. What happened afterward to the work, whether triumph or disaster, didn’t matter as much.
Coach Wooden’s Golden Rule of Basketball—and Life—was one short sentence: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
he said it often, as if he wanted the words to seep through our skulls and into our brains in flashing neon lights.
“Talent comes first,” he said. “No one wins without outstanding talent—but not everyone wins with it, either!”
Talent only took you so far; preparedness took you the rest of the way.
“The harder you practice, the luckier you get.”
I had another ability I didn’t even realize many of my teammates lacked. I had incorporated working to my fullest capability into my daily life. I never questioned it, I just did it.
He didn’t talk much during practices. Mostly, he taught us by demonstrating things himself.
“Rebounding is positioning, Lewis,”
All that contact around the basket is an effort to get the best position.
During a game, what often appeared to be spontaneous on the court was actually the result of hours of practicing until our responses finally became spontaneous and instantaneous.
“Just remember, everything we’ve worked so hard to get done today can be destroyed if you make a bad choice between now and our next practice.”
The three top bad choices we could make were drugs, alcohol, and sex.
he pummeled us with preparedness to the point that we always felt confident when we faced an opponent that we were prepared for anything they could throw at us.
Coach Wooden’s philosophy has proven to be a lifelong lesson for me. When I am scheduled to give a speech, I write it, then practice it, then practice it some more. When I write an article or a book, I research and research, then research some more. My opponent now is myself, my inclination toward laziness. The discipline I learned through those conditioning drills has allowed me to face my devious opponent and beat him consistently.
Coach emphasized teamwork over everything else. It was teams that won games, not individuals. A good team had room for individuals to rise, but their rise must lift everyone with them. That was the deal. No one on the team was a Robin to someone else’s Batman.