John Wooden

The Last Lesson I Learned from John Wooden

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John Wooden

John Wooden

When John Wooden died, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I didn’t grow up in his era of dominance, never met him or watched him much in TV interviews, and didn’t go to school on the West coast. I assumed he was a great man by the way men like Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar talked about him. When ESPN anchor Neil Everett talked about John Wooden’s interview with him where he said, “My peace assures that I’m not afraid of death,” I said, “Now, I gotta watch Sportscenter to find out more about the man.”

The general sports community knows the basics. 10 titles in 12 years. First person in basketball history to get into the Hall of Fame as a coach and a player. UCLA, the team he coached, holds the record for most consecutive games won in NCAA men’s basketball history, 88 games. The numbers are astounding, and nothing to blink at. Yet, the greatest lesson he taught the world weren’t numerical, per se. Rather, it was the 18 years he went without winning one title. He won conference titles with Indiana State and UCLA during those years, but he hadn’t even seen a title until that 18th year.

From there, he got hot.

Then again, I’ve grown up at a time where the longest any coach lasts these days is 3 years, even if they constantly increase their win totals, so a coach that keeps his job for longer than a presidential term is astonishing for me. Development doesn’t matter, and longevity has no place in a multi-million dollar industry concerned with change just for change. People switch coaches at the drop of a hat, and with few exceptions, this is warranted. But none of this can bode well for any coach wanting to stay in any major sport for a while. The owners don’t care to wait for you to develop or learn how to manage the assortment of players you have now. Just get it done, drive up the numbers or else.

Sound familiar?

And John Wooden is in many ways the godfather of a generation of coaches that not only cared about the player’s athletic gifts, but also their person. He cared whether they graduated from college as much as whether they could drop a few points in a hoop, and rebounds were from personal tragedies not from a ball off a backboard. Hate to say it, but coaches like Mike Krzyzewski matter because, along the lines of Wooden, he wins with quality people and players … and Duke’s administration has given him the key to their whole program in ways others can’t.

As a young teacher, I’ve noticed that the best teachers in my building have had a decade or more in the classroom to get their minds right. Even those who told me they didn’t like their jobs to begin their career said they had a chance to change their ways and took ample room (and reflection) to do so. Wooden got that chance, too, and gave UCLA many returns for their patience.

None of his success is magic. It’s experience. And an experience we’re left with long after he relieved us of his presence.

Jose, who finds lessons wherever he goes …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.