Pat Williams, the co-founder of the Orlando Magic, was a big John Wooden fan. In general, Williams is a fan of any person in a leadership position who makes a meaningful impact on a team. In particular, Williams chose Wooden as the subject for the seventh book in his “How to Be Like” series of books not because Wooden led so many winning basketball teams to so many basketball victories, but because of the person that Wooden chose to be whether he was winning basketball games or not.
Wooden showed the sports world that a big-time coach of a big-time team can teach his players to value ethics, integrity, and character more than a win-loss record. And even though winning was a secondary consideration to a Wooden-led basketball team, they still managed to do a lot of it. Wooden, and his 10 NCAA championship teams proved that good guys can, indeed, finish first.
The praise for Wooden in the days after his passing are effusive and plentiful, coming from basketball superstars and sports personalities that are larger and more famous than Wooden ever would have wanted to be. One of the best tributes, however, comes from the first chapter of Williams’ book, “How to Be Like Coach Wooden: Life Lessons from Basketball’s Greatest Leader.”
This one simple story from early in Wooden’s career explains why this year’s NBA finals are rightfully sharing the spotlight with this true basketball legend. This story also explains why John Wooden is known and admired by people all over the world who don’t really care much about the really tall people who work so hard to get the orange ball through the metal hoop.
A Tribute to Coach John Wooden from Pat Williams in “How to Be Like Coach Wooden”:
How do I even begin to sum up a giant of a man like John Wooden?
That’s the question that gnawed at me as I began working on this book.
How do I sort through thousands of wonderful stories about John Wooden and decide which ones don’t make the final cut?
How do I even begin to tell you about the impact this incredible man has had on just about every one who has had the privilege of knowing him?
I think I’ll start back in 1948.
That was the year a young coach by the name of Wooden had put together a pretty good basketball team at Indiana State University. That team included a young man by the name of Clarence Walker. Walker wasn’t one of the starting five, but he came off the bench to help Indiana State win an invitation to the NAIA basketball tournament in Kansas City. Thirty-two teams were invited, and one of them would emerge as the small-college national champion.
But there was a problem.
Walker was black.
Remember that this was just the year after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and was subjected to death threats and verbal abuse for breaking the “color barrier” in Major League Baseball. Racism was rampant in Indiana and most of the rest of the nation.
Tournament officials called Wooden and told him that his team was invited, but Walker wasn’t. “We’ve never had a black person play on the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium floor,” they said – only they didn’t say “black person.”
Now that tournament was a big deal, especially to a young man just starting out in his coaching career. But John Wooden didn’t even have to think about it.
“If I can’t bring Clarence, we’re not coming,” he said.
Fine. Indiana State was disinvited from the tournament. That’s where the story might have ended, except for the fact that the national news wires got wind of the story. An article appeared in the New York Times, and it came to the attention of officials at Manhattan College, the consensus pick to win the tournament that year. Manhattan’s coach called the NAIA offices and said, “If Indiana State can’t come with that young man, we’re not coming either.”
Faced with the loss of their biggest draw, tournament officials backed down, and Clarence Walker became the first black to play basketball on the floor of Kansas City’s municipal Auditorium.
Stan Jacobs, who played on that Indiana State team with Walker, says he will never forget his coach’s courage. He remembers that Walker wasn’t one of the stars on that team. “But Coach’s decision wasn’t based on how the outcome would affect him. His action was motivated by only one thing – his own personal character and his decision to do the right thing.”
John Wooden [was] a man of impeccable character. He always followed his own advice to “be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” I love the way Wooden’s former star center Bill Walton put it:
John Wooden represents the conquest of substance over hype, the triumph of achievement over erratic flailing, the conquest of discipline over gambling, and the triumph of executing an organized plan over hoping that you’ll be lucky, hot or in the zone. John Wooden also represents the conquest of sacrifice, hard work, and commitment to achievement over the pipe dream that someone will just give you something or that you can take a pill or turn a key to get what you want.”
As Coach always said, “The true athlete should have character, not be a character.” What is character? Coach said, “It’s how you react to things – sensibly, without getting carried away by yourself or your circumstances. A person of character is trustworthy and honest, and for a dollar, he or she will give you a dollar.” He also said, “I believe ability can get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”
Lorenzo Romar, head coach at the University of Washington, smiles as he remembers something that happened when he was head coach at Pepperdine in the early 1990s. “I took the whole staff to visit Coach Wooden at his condo,” Romar recalls. “We spent four hours with him. He called me the next day and said, “One of your coaches had seventy-five cents slip out of his pocket into my sofa. I want to get it back to him.”
Seventy-five cents? That wouldn’t be a big deal to anybody – except a man of absolute character like John Wooden.
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