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Love and Basketball: John Wooden as Coach

I don't have any more accolades to add to those being heaped upon John Wooden at his death at the age of 99. I did have the pleasure of growing up watching his teams play and having his style of play and coaching imprinted upon me as an ideal to be sought and admired. But more important for me and some students, I teach his books, especially his biography/coaching manuel They Call Me Coach.

The book always startles my students who aspire to become coaches. At first they get impatient becuase he really tells a love story between him and his wife Nellie from Indiana. His growth as a hard working midwestern country bow weaves through the love story and ties in his discovery and love of basketball. His earliest high school coaches taught him how to grow but also deal with failure and success.

The students wonder why they are reading about this story that seems so far away. Young basketball players have no clue about him and very few students have heard his name. But slowly its power holds sway as he discusses various coaching and playing styles he assimilated as well as how he strove to create a balance with family, Nellie and basketball. He was lucky because his passion for Nellie matched, nourished and renewed his passion for basketball. His first lesson for my students is that love matters in life and you need to work hard to find it, nurture it and respect it.

After establishing loving centers living. He discusses of coaching and the cumulative impact of his championship teams. He speaks of the roots of his conditioning and defensive philosophies. He speaks at length about the need to adapt to the talent you have and how his teams evolved in light of his various teams and players especially Lew Alicinder/Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Bill Walton.

In modern America we don't normally associate coaching with love. Too many of us have memories of psycho-dads screaming and demanding as coaches or spectators. The indelible image of Vince Lombardi and win at any price and Woody Hayes attacking players at the end of his career tend to erase the deeper more lasting reality that many great coaches and Wooden excelled them all, coach from and through love.

The biography reveals the second love, love of the game. He revels in exlpaining how much he learned from others. The book is not about X's and O's, but he reveals a deep curiosity and sheer joy in discovering a complex zone defense, adapting it to his players and other teams and integrating conditioning and quickness into a philosophy of play. His stories reveal how the losses linger and at the end of each season and beginning of each he sets goals that infuse what he does. The game and its intricacies always remain with him with his fine mind mulling, thinking, inventing. The point of the game is love of the game.

But the most important love for a coach is love of his players. I don't mean love in a sort of dry agape way that thins out because it encompasses everyone; I certainly don't mean love in an erotic or homoerotic channeling towards players. No I mean an abiding care, a rock bottom emotional commitment to the player and team as individuals. This care, this emotional focus upon the person seeks the best for that person. It has a family resemblance to parenting, but without the sometimes twisted variations or self-identifying that can infuse parental love. Abdul-Jabaar said "he was preparing us for life." His players often mentioned they knew he cared for them even if they fought him and the lessons only really sank in later. A truest test of a coach and teacher is if students return to meet with him and his players constantly returned.

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Wooden was not a nice coach. He makes that clear. He rode referees and players (something he truly regreted later). His coaching style demanded an immense commitment from student athletes. Essentially it demanded that individuals meld or subordinate their talent to a team concept. His most interesting stories and the ones he clearly values and relishes are discussing how players like Sidney Wicks and Bill Walton who struggled against his strictures, fought with him and worked with him to grow into superb players. Over some issues, it was simply "my way or the highway." Wooden also makes clear he learns from them. He demanded that players earn respect but gave them love. He may not like them but gave them love and they knew it as a rock bottom reality to their lives.

This mutual learning never sacrifices his authority, but it grows from his love of the players. He knew them, watched them, demanded of them. His intimate knowledge of them coupled with his vision of whom they could become enabled him to match their talents to the evolving system so well.  Even when one would quit, he always gave them second chances because once long ago, and he never forgot, he had quit a team out of anger and perceived injustice. His own high school coach let him back and Coach Wooden beleive that loving a player required room for players to redeem themselves.

I sometimes think his idea of love can only flourish at high school and college. Something about the nature of professional sports, of the contractual nature, the money, the self-protective brutality of the sport to both its players and its coaches--in most sports it is cheaper to fire a coach than a star player, makes the type of patient, demanding, forgiving love that Wooden exemplified, impossible.

Wooden's testament, as he insisted, has never been the trophies or the unexcelled record of 10 NCAA championships. It remains the quality of people his players became. Wooden did not walk in the sands of time with footsteps that blow away. He helped boys grow into men, and those men helped their own children grow into adults. Even today his books help me help others grow into coaches. Certainly that is love at its best.


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