This article, written in 2000, is being published, in honor of the coach’s passing.)
John Wooden shouted zen koans at his basketball players while they raced furiously down the court: “Be quick, don’t hurry, Be quick, don’t hurry!” A distinction I honor and teach to this day. The Bruins were always the quickest but also the most precise. When asked by reporters how he was going to play any particular opponent, he had only one, invariably tranquil, answer: “The same way we play all of our opponents. We never change our style to match the competition. We only play our own game.”
While earning a master’s degree at U.C.L.A in 1974., I took a job selling hot dogs at Pauley Pavilion because I Hated basketball… was only too happy to work during the games. Gangly grabbers wildly clawing. A game too tame for the “honest contact” of football– yet as wrestly and bickery and bruising as the post-game frat parties.
When I reluctantly went out on break to watch John Wooden-style basketball for the very first time… I was stunned. I had no idea what I was seeing… but it was clearly the work of a master. This team played like a single, multi-celled organism. They flowed with the grace and finesse of ballet… they operated as a single group mind… transcending ego and separateness as if devotees… of the dignified old shaman sitting quietly at the sidelines… program rolled up in one hand.
This was the man who taught unruly showoffs the meaning of “team” and “higher cause.” He taught personal character and the purposes of life off the court. And secondarily, how to play a game called basketball. His “pyramid of success” for holistic growth led countless athletes to become more than… well, athletes.
I saw him in the UCLA cafeteria every morning. I, who was not a joiner, who never played a team sport in my life, nodded and called him coach. Greatness is everywhere and always the same. Unmistakable in its dignity and purpose. Each day I saw him, I lost something I did not need, gained something I still cannot describe.
And now, 27 years (even more now) after he won that 10th national title in 11 years… led young men to 2 and 3 year long streaks of victory between single game losses… set records never to be broken: John Wooden appears on my television late at night, apparition from an ancient past…
And I am in tears at the sight of this man… how could he still be alive? He is being interviewed by the greats of his sport. Millionaire giants with mist-filled eyes. Men who found a teacher deserving lifelong respect.
And now he is speaking once again, now at 90 years old! A voice so personal, so familiar so deep in my marrow… I didn’t know Ii knew it so well. It could have been the voice of my very own father… except that I respect and love this man. At the age of 90, he’s as clear and precise and authoritative as ever. Still unwilling to say a single, disrespectful word about another human being in public.
My coach lives! My coach is still filled with wisdom and insight…. with secrets and stories that no one has heard, that no one else can tell. Still setting an example like no other I have seen. He’s still quoting 40 and 50 line poems from memory to illustrate, inspire and instruct… just as he has always done. Never having changed his style-even a molecule– to match the competition.
He’s still playing his own game. And it’s not basketball.