The world will remember John Wooden most as one of the greatest basketball coaches in history. Future generations Googling his name will be presented with a long list of his amazing coaching accomplishments. But those of us who knew him personally, and were lucky enough to be coached by him, will remember him not just as a great coach who changed basketball but as a great man who changed our lives. He didn’t just teach us how to be the best athletes, he taught us how to become the best men we could be. His genius as a coach and mentor lies in the fact that we were hardly aware that these valuable life lessons were being taught. We didn’t realize that all the drills and all the practices and all the instruction were preparing us for the most important part of our lives—the part that came after basketball.
Two memories of Coach Wooden stick out in my mind because each represents a totally different side of him. The first happened when the UCLA team was on the road. We’d just finished dinner in the university dining hall and were walking out through the student union. There were several pool tables lined up. Mike Warren and Lucius Allen both fancied themselves as pool sharks. Mike even had his own customized pool cue. They started shooting around, showing off a little to the rest of us. Suddenly Coach Wooden grabs a cue from the wall and starts drilling balls into the pockets. Bam, bam, bam. Within a couple minutes, he’d run the whole table. We all watched in open-mouthed amazement as he set up elaborate trick shots straight out of The Hustler. When he finally finished his demonstration, I asked how he was able to do that. He grinned and said, “The result of misspent hours of my youth.” It was so hard for me to imagine this upright, pious man as a teenager hunkered over a pool table hustling the locals.
My second memory isn’t something that happened to me but something I learned about him. When he was coaching at Indiana State in 1946, his team did so well that they were invited to the NAIA tournament. That was a pretty big deal at the time and would have been a major triumph for Coach Wooden. However, when they told him that he’d have to leave his African American player behind, he refused to attend. The thing was, the player in question wasn’t even a starter; he was mostly on the bench. But to Coach Wooden, a team member was a team member regardless of points scored. The next year, after yet another terrific season, his team was invited again. Again he refused because they didn’t want him to bring his black player. But this time they capitulated, and his whole team came to the tournament.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about Coach Wooden’s influence on me. He taught me to use all my potential, not just on the basketball court, where he encouraged me to sharpen my playing skills, but also in the classroom, where he encouraged me to sharpen my intellect. He was the classic example of the scholar-athlete who was driven to develop both mind and body in equal proportions. He was a lover of poetry. I was impressed to hear him recite from memory various lines written by his favorite poets. He was a very religious man who could quote his favorite passages from the Bible. He was a pool shark who could make some pretty fancy trick shots on the pool table. I think the qualities that most impressed me, however, were his humility and curiosity. He always felt that there was more for him to learn and that those lessons were what we were put on earth to experience. He was someone who walked it like he talked it. And he helped all of us do the same.
— As told to Raymond Obstfeld
Raymond Obstfeld is the coauthor, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of On the Shoulders of Giants (Simon & Schuster, 2007), about the Harlem Renaissance. A documentary based on the book will go into general release in theaters in February 2011. They have also collaborated on a children’s book, What Color Is My World?, about African American inventors, to be published by Candlewick in February 2012.