Norman Rockwell, the iconic American painter and illustrator, enormously talented as he was, had his share of critics. The more cynical of these have charged that his art was an invented expression of an America “that never was and never would be.” Even the kindest of his naysayers said his work was old-fashioned, commonplace and overly nostalgic.
In response to this he would gently retort that, “common places never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative… we find that it is not a new scene that is needed, but a new viewpoint.” He further mused that “without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
What made him so extraordinary was, no doubt, his enormous God-given talent. But more than that was his ability to observe in all his subjects the purest essence of humanity. He captured this essence beautifully in his art.
If Norman Rockwell was able to bring to life on his canvas the true essence of humanity, John Wooden, the famed collegiate basketball coach, was able conjure it on the canvas of life itself. His impact on those around him, as well as those who never met him, is even now both heart-warming and astonishing.
This exceptional ability, he would readily cede, was not entirely of Wooden’s making. It was his early mentors who were inspirational, especially his father, Hugh Wooden.
In free societies, the family is the most prolific creator of social capital. In this the Wooden family was in no short supply. Hugh Wooden was never a wealthy man. In fact, he was poor most of his life. But the riches he imparted to his son John and John’s siblings were far more valuable than paper or coin.
Their lives were modest. The little farmhouse they lived in had two bedrooms and a living room with a “three-seater” outhouse nearby. The house had no electricity or running water and was heated only in part by a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.
There was much to do on a farm in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1917 John’s dad planted wheat, corn, potatoes, and alfalfa on the family’s fifty-eight acre tract in Morgan County, Indiana. Hugh insisted that his children carry their own weight. When barely a boy of seven, John had to clean out the cattle stalls and milk the cows daily. In the kitchen garden he hoed rows, pulled weeds, and meticulously removed the worms from ripened tomatoes with his tiny, but nimble, hands.
His mom worked just as hard as his dad. John would recall years after she had passed, “When I think of mother, I think of hard work: cooking, canning, mending, washing on the washboard, churning our own butter. I think of perseverance.”
To John, his father Hugh was the perfect combination of immense strength and saintly serenity. Once when they came upon a man furiously whipping a team of horses who were straining under a heavy load, John watched in awe as his father calmly walked up to the horses, gently grasped the bridle and in the quietest of tones led them forward. John remembered that scene as “an incredible reminder that gentleness can fix in a moment what an hour of shouting fails to achieve.”
John learned from his father that pride and humility were two sides of the same coin. He would tell him often to “Remember this…you are as good as anybody. But never forget you’re no better than anybody, either.”
He would grasp this lesson not long after it was imparted.
In grade school, John was one of the star players on his basketball team and was “probably cocky,” he later admitted. On one occasion, the opposing team had informed his coach that their bus had broken down and that they would not be able to make the the scheduled game that afternoon. John, thinking the game was cancelled, left his jersey at home.
The opposing team’s coach called a bit later and informed John’s coach that they were able to fix the bus and that they would thus make the game on time. John, being a starter on the team, presumed that his coach would send one of the less talented teammates to retrieve John’s jersey at the farm. Instead, he was flabbergasted when the coach struck him from the starting roster.
At that moment his father’s prescient words no doubt echoed in his head. It was certainly true that he was “as good as anybody,” but his coach reminded him that he was “no better than anybody, either.” While knowing that they would likely lose the game, his coach was willing to teach John the lesson that winning was secondary to responsibility and humility. John languished on the bench as his team fell to defeat. It was a victory in the long run, however, as the lesson he learned that afternoon would be passed down to hundreds of his own players.
That same year he graduated eighth grade and his father gave him a brand-new two-dollar bill as a congratulatory gift—quite the tidy sum in those days. But what he treasured most was the thick white card his father pulled from his pocket. On it contained words his father had penned just for him. On one side was a favorite poem and on the other was Hugh’s own Seven-Point Creed. The gift was so special to John that he kept it in his wallet his entire life. Whenever it became tattered from use, John would replace it by copying it precisely as his father had written it on a new card. It read:
1. Be true to yourself
2. Help others.
3. Make each day your masterpiece
4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible
5. Make friendship a fine art.
6. Build a shelter against a rainy day
7. Pray for guidance, and count and give thanks for your blessings every day.
While John’s father and mother were founts of wisdom and knowledge (they were especially well-read), he also looked to the outside world for direction. Like Norman Rockwell, John Wooden would observe and share with others what “they might not have noticed.” Like all successful people, he always kept a sharp eye out for life’s main chances but, more importantly, he developed in himself an enormous capacity to revere—a capacity to revere greatness, kindness, patience, industriousness, poise, loyalty and other noble qualities.
During the throes of the Great Depression, John was to be married to his high school sweetheart, Nellie. He had spent every spare moment working any job he could get in order to save money for his future. In his teens he and a friend would hitchhike in the summer, going from town to town (and sometimes state to state) in search of opportunities, which he always somehow managed to find.
Having saved $909.05 (about $17,000 in today’s money), he was ready to put it to good use. Two days before his wedding he went to withdraw his money from his savings account, but when he got to the bank, he found the door locked. His bank, like many others of the era, had gone out of business. All the money he had saved, his “life savings” as he called it, was gone.
John was about to be married. He had even ordered a new car for him and his bride, but suddenly all he had to his name was the $2.00 bill his father had given him a decade earlier. John, though devastated and depressed, did the sensible thing. He cancelled the car, and he and Nell even called off their wedding.
But then the young groom-to-be gleaned another of his philosophical tenets when a local businessman, hearing of John’s troubles, gave him $200 so that he and Nell could be wed. This episode, at such an important time in his life, surely informed him when he would later advise others that, “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” John did pay the man back (he didn’t like to owe people money) but the power of that selfless offering by a stranger stuck with him throughout his life.
Another of John’s favorite tenets comes to us down the ages as, “It is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” This saying is a paraphrase from a newspaper column of one of the early twentieth century’s great sports writers, Grantland Rice. John knew it by heart in its original form—“For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”
John not only took this to heart, he made it both his life and coaching philosophy. It utterly permeated his being.
He would remember this in the way he treated his wife. Always faithful, they were exceptionally close and devoted to one another (she never missed a game).
He thought it disrespectful to others to curse. When he was really angry, the worst thing he ever said was “Goodness, gracious, sakes alive!” He wouldn’t let his players use foul language either.
In light of today’s social mores, he certainly had very stringent rules for his players. He admonished his players when on the road to leave their hotel rooms neat and tidy. He insisted that excessive celebration after a victory (and they had many—88 in a row during one stretch) was undignified, and he prohibited it. He would tell his players that, “You met some people going up to the top. You will meet the same people going down.”
Coach Wooden insisted that his players be neatly groomed and keep their hair cut. On one occasion his star player, the great Bill Walton, showed up with long, straggled hair. Walton was known as a student radical (he had joined in the anti-Vietnam war protests on campus), and, given his star-power, he expected to get away with it. Coach Wooden politely told Walton to cut it, per the team standards. Walton insisted he had the right to wear his hair anyway he wanted. Wooden gently smiled and agreed that was true but reminded his star player that he had the right to choose who played on his team. As Wooden recounted those episodes (it happened more than once), “Bill would think about it for a moment then get on his bicycle and pedal down to the Westwood barbershop for a trim.”
Coach Wooden’s stringent philosophy was a tough thing to swallow at the time but his players would later be grateful for his high standards. Bill Walton, that same floppy-haired boy, would recall, “When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time, the quality of my life went down. That’s how special it was to play for John Wooden…”
More often than not his teachings were less immediate, more like messages in a bottle to be picked up on some distance shore. Jamal Wilkes, one of Wooden’s many great players in the 1970s, would in time recount, “It wasn’t until…after college, after the NBA, when my life focus began to change on marriage, divorce, children, the business world, that I began to sense how special a man he was.”
Wooden’s philosophical approach was not just theater to be played on life’s grand stage, it was exceedingly effective on the basketball court. His record of 10 national championships (11 if you count the one he achieved as a player) is the most impressive feat in the history of sports. He accomplished this in an amazing run between 1964 and 1975. 7 of the 10 championships were consecutive, an accomplishment not likely ever to be repeated.
Inside that run of championships he managed to compile four perfect seasons (30-0). Both of these accomplishments, plus the run of 88 straight NCAA victories, still stand today un-accosted. No other coach, team, or franchise has even come close to matching his success. A recent poll of more than one-hundred coaches and sportswriters named him the number one coach of all time, in any sport.
What is most odd about Wooden was that, despite the enormous success he achieved by winning, he didn’t enjoy the games very much. What he savored were the practices. He couldn’t teach his students during the game as there was no time, but during practices he could talk, cajole, prod, and impart to them the wisdom he had learned from others. He often said that this was what he lived for.
Even now, years after his death, we can learn from him. When in his thirties, just after World War II, Wooden’s enthusiasm for all the wisdom he had acquired drove him to codify his knowledge in what he called his “Pyramid of Success” The “building blocks” are qualities such as Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, and Poise, set one upon the other in a pyramid. These were the pieces by which he was able to achieve unrivaled success in the competitive sports world and inspire legions of his acolytes who even now look to his indelible memory for guidance.
John Wooden lived almost a century in the country he loved, passing away mere months short of his 100th birthday. He was of hearty mid-western stock, steeped in the ways of the hardscrabble life that a man who toils in the land must live. He was raised in an age when men and women were wrought on the anvil of adversity and better for it. In short, he personified the original American ideal—that of common decency, ruggedness and an unshakable belief in something larger than oneself.
In 2003, President George W. Bush stood behind a beaming ninety-two-year-old John Wooden and clasped a ribboned-medal around his neck, awarding him the highest civilian honor that the American nation can bestow, The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
If only Norman Rockwell have lived long enough to capture that moment’s essence.
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