RIP John Wooden

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The Wizard of Westwood. June 5, 2010.

Most people can live with the vague. For instance: What is success? Well, um, you know, um, there’s that old line about art: I know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. Success is like that, right? I can’t quite put it into words what success means, and other things like “happiness,” or “class,” or “integrity,” but I don’t need the words, right? These are things that come from wordless places deep inside, things that cannot be defined, things that we believe transcend definition. That’s OK. We KNOW what success means, even if we can’t really SAY what it means. Most of us can live comfortably in that hazy world.

But some people cannot live there. Some people keep asking, “wait, what are we talking about here?” Some people need to find clarity, need to get in deeper, need to understand, need to take these cloudy perceptions and ideals that we talk around every day and inject some light, grasp for something concrete in them. Philosophers do that. Great teachers do that. John Wooden did that.

John Wooden died Friday at age 99, and it will be written again and again that there is no way to sum up his career and life and grace. This is true. As a basketball man, he went into the Hall of Famer as both a player and coach. As a leader, he guided his UCLA Bruins to 10 National Championships in 12 seasons. As a thinker he said wise things such as “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts,” and, perhaps my favorite Woodenism, “Be quick but don’t hurry.” As a teacher, he influenced more people in American sports than anyone else — you will hear it said again and again that he was the best coach in American sports history and I believe that as well. As a man, as Rick Reilly once wrote, he spent the 21st day of every month going the gravesite of his departed wife Nellie then returning home and writing her a love letter that he would put with all the others, tied together with a yellow ribbon.

No, there are no words powerful enough to condense John Wooden’s life. And yet … we should try. Because perhaps the most striking talent of John Wooden was his ability to put words to the wordless, to explain what we believe we already know — to make the ordinary transcendent. He never stopped trying to figure out what is real in all this. Take his famous pyramid of success. Wooden had worked up to come up with a very simple and satisfying expression of what success means. “Success,” he said and wrote, “is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

It’s all there, right? Success is a peace of mind. How do you get this peace of mind? How do you reach success? Well it comes from knowing that you tried as hard as you could try and did the very best you could with your life. Wooden had spent a lot of time thinking about success, a lot of time asking himself “What does it really mean?” When he came up with this definition, it sounded right to him. Yes. Success is peace of mind. Yes, the key is trying your best.

But, of course, even these things were too misty and blurred for John Wooden’s unshakeable curiosity. What does THAT mean? What does it mean to try your best? How does someone go about trying to become the best person he or she is capable of becoming? On John Wooden’s amazing website there is a series of fascinating interviews with him about life and love and his father and so on. Two of my favorite little videos come out of the direct questions: What were your strengths and weaknesses as a coach? John Wooden said that his biggest weakness was as a basketball strategist — he thought himself too stuck in his ways and not willing enough to change. And he said that in the early years of his career, he allowed things that were beyond his control (such as UCLA’s terrible practice facilities in those first 17 years) to affect him.

And when asked asked about his strengths he said that he really knew how to organize a practice, knew how to get the most out of the short time he and the team was given. He did this by reducing, constantly reducing, digging deeper and deeper until he reached the heart of the matter, the crux of things. So, when Wooden realized that his reduction of success was still too indistinct, he spent the next 14 years coming up with his pyramid of success. You’ve seen it. And it’s up at the top of this post.

Competitive greatness is at the top — that, to Wooden, is success. Competitive greatness. That’s where the peace of mind rests.

How do you get there? Wooden figured you needed to key things: Poise and Confidence. What is poise? Wooden said it was being true to yourself. Not getting rattled when faced with adversity. What is confidence? That self knowledge that Wooden believed was at the core of success, that belief that you have prepared all you can and are ready for whatever comes.

Well, wait, how do you develop poise and confidence? Wooden had three principles below: Condition, Skill and Team Spirit. Condition is that preparation, mentally and physically, for whatever you are trying to accomplish. You have to prepare; nothing great comes without preparation. Skill, Wooden said, is knowing what you’re doing and being able to do it fast and right. You have to develop that ability. Team spirit is that eagerness to sacrifice your own glory for something bigger. Wooden had originally used the word “willingness” in place of eagerness but did not think it was strong enough. You have to be eager to contribute to something larger.

There’s another layer below (Self Control … Alertness … Initiative … Intentness) and then another layer below that (Industriousness … Friendship … Loyalty … Cooperation … Enthusiasm). And when you dive into the pyramid, really study it, really see how one principle fits into another, how Wooden was saying that the willingness to work hard cannot lead to success without a sense of cooperation and how enthusiasm is naked without the ability to control your emotions, it’s then that maybe you can begin to see the genius of John Wooden. He did not ever rest, did not ever fall back on “oh, you know what I mean,” did not ever stop pushing through the fog.

The most often repeated cliche in sports, I suspect, is “You have to take it one day at a time.” Athletes, coaches, executives say those words again and again, each time as if it is something profound — take it one day at a time, take it one day at a time — and perhaps in those words IS something profound. Perhaps somewhere in those words, there is a secret to sports success, and life success, and happiness. But where? Most of us don’t think much about it. Wooden did.

“Be prepared and be honest,” John Wooden said. And also “Never lie, don’t whine.”

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” he asked.

“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” he said.

“When everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking,” he said.

“If you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect things over which you do have control,” he said.

“No one achieves; we’re all underachievers to one degree or another,” he said.

And so on and so on. See, John Wooden wasn’t interested in the simple notion that you have to take things one day at a time — he cared about HOW you take things one day at a time. He wasn’t interested in winning games — he wanted to build teams that played so well together that winning simply happened. From the days when he was young and shot free throws, one after another, in a small town in Indiana, John Wooden wasn’t interested in what life taught about basketball. He was interested in what basketball taught about life.

I got the chance in my life to talk three times with John Wooden. The first time, I was a columnist at the newspaper in Augusta, Ga., and my friend Ed Price and I had put together our own list of the 100 most important people in basketball history. And, we impulsively put John Wooden No. 1 — even ahead of James Naismith, who merely invented the game. We figured that while Naismith invented it, Wooden — with his brilliant playing and coaching and teaching — perfected it. I did not expect the chance to talk with Wooden … but it turned out to be easy to reach him. John Wooden was always available to teach. He was kind and patient and thanked me at the end for calling.

I spoke with him twice more, each conversation ranks among my favorite moments as a sportswriter. John Wooden was the only coach I ever spoke with who made me wish I was 7-feet-tall with good feet and a soft touch around the basket — not because of the fame and fortune it might bring but because I wished I could have played for him. I remember one conversation when I asked him what he thought was the most important thing in the world. He said, “Love.” And then he repeated what he called a poem, but it is actually a rarely heard song written by Oscar Hammerstein from “The Sound of Music:”

“A bell is no bell ’til you ring it.
A song is no song ’til you sing it.
And love in your heart wasn’t meant to stay
Love is not love ’til you give it away.”

I bring this up here because I have spent much of the morning listening him to say those lyrics from memory — if you go to the Web site, you can hear John Wooden recite those words. And in reciting them, of course, he infuses them with meaning beyond what even Oscar Hammerstein probably intended. That’s what John Wooden did in his 99 years. He infused life with meaning. He found essence in the haze. He won a lot of basketball games without ever thinking that winning was the point. And he gave away a lot of love.

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