Tuesday, June 8, 2010

John Wooden: A life well lived

I was deeply touched by the news of the death of legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John R. Wooden, who passed away last Friday.  He was 99.  We lost a national treasure and I lost a role model of my youth.

Nicknamed the Wizard of Westwood, a reference to the site of the campus in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, Wooden left a defining impact and rich legacy during his tenure at UCLA from 1948-75.  Four of his teams finished with undefeated 30-0 records, and from 1971 to 1974, his UCLA teams won 88 consecutive games, still the NCAA record.  He was a great teacher and leader as much as he was a successful coach ~ his UCLA teams won a record 10 national championships in a 12-year stretch from 1964-75, an incomparable dynasty ~ and he remained a conscience of the sport for years after he coached his last game at Pauley Pavilion.

Although I never had the privilege of meeting Coach Wooden, he was part of my Los Angeles sports fabric, someone whom I admired as I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Tarzana, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb.  I was an enthusiastic UCLA basketball fan as a kid ~ I listened to all of their games on my transistor radio ~ and I gleaned as much as I could about Wooden and the Bruins from the Los Angeles Times sports section.

The slight, professorial Wooden was the ultimate role model a young collegiate athlete could have ~ his championship teams included Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Keith Erickson, Gail Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson ~ even if his scholarly wisdom may have been wasted on these young, extremely talented-but-impressionable basketball players during an era of civil and political unrest and experimentation on campus.  It was later in life, long after their basketball careers had ended, that Wooden's players found an appreciation in their beloved coach's foundation for success and excellence on the hardwood court.

In a 1995 interview with the the New York Times, Wooden said his coaching philosophy was centered around three main ideals:  Getting his players in the best possible condition, quickness, and teamwork.  "You better play together as a team or you sit," said Wooden.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000: "He broke basketball down to its basic elements. He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius."

Wooden used a team-oriented approach to build his winning foundation, which included 19 conference championships and an .808 winning percentage (620-147) in 27 seasons at UCLA.  The soft-spoken, Indiana native carried with him a written message from his father:

* Be true to yourself.
* Make each day a masterpiece.
* Help others.
* Drink deeply from good books.
* Make friendship a fine art.
* Build a shelter against a rainy day.

From this creed, Wooden shaped his Pyramid of Success, 15 building blocks which taught his players not only how to be the best they could be, but also how to be gracious winners.

I searched the Internet this week for John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and was easily impressed not only by its simplicity, but also by its timelessness.  Wooden spent 14 years developing his Pyramid of Success, which he completed in 1948.

The 15 building blocks (from the bottom foundation to the apex) are:

* Industriousness
* Friendship
* Loyalty
* Cooperation
* Enthusiasm
* Self-control
* Alertness
* Initiative
* Intentness
* Condition
* Skill
* Team spirit
* Poise
* Confidence
* Competitive greatness
* Success

"The first two blocks of the pyramid are the two cornerstones because to be strong, you have to have a strong foundation," wrote Wooden. "The cornerstones of success to me, in anything are hard work and enjoy what you're doing.  So, one cornerstone is industriousness and the other is enthusiasm."

In Wooden's Pyramid of Success, he believed that the right combinations of ambition, sincerity, adaptability, honesty, resourcefulness, integrity, fight, reliability, faith and patience would result in ultimate success.  "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming," wrote Wooden.

"To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith," wrote Abdul-Jabbar in the New York Times. "He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence.  Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything.  He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents.  In essence, he was preparing us for life."

Wooden leaves us with a legacy of a job well done ~ on and off the court ~ and a life well lived.  Both of them enduring qualities.

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