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Wooden transcended basketball
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Forsyth County News
John Wooden was a great teacher who also happened to be the best coach in college basketball history.

When Wooden died Saturday after 99 well-lived years, I wondered if he had any idea how many people he touched with his myriad life lessons.

He certainly had no way of knowing that I used to think of him while coaching soccer games. During every game, I could look out on the field and we’d be a player down, because someone had taken a knee to retie a shoelace.

So, when the next season began, I started our first practice just like coach Wooden used to begin each season at UCLA. We had a lesson in correctly pulling on our socks and tying our laces. Problem solved.

He also had no way of knowing that I keep a framed copy of his Pyramid of Success prominently placed on my desk. I refer to it every day.

The Pyramid is comprised of 15 building blocks of positive personal assets to strive for, such as poise, confidence, skill, alertness, friendship and loyalty. The blocks are held together by the mortar of traits such as resourcefulness, integrity and honesty.

Each block contains a concept. The top block, Competitive Greatness, contains the message “Be at your best when your best is needed.
Enjoyment of a difficult challenge.” What a concept! Don’t shy away from a strong challenge, rise up to it. Relish it. Savor it. Pass the test it presents.

Beside the Pyramid is one of coach Wooden’s quotes: “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.”

What makes my Pyramid special is what’s written underneath that quote. Procured at a business conference where coach Wooden gave a motivational speech and edified the attendees about the Pyramid, the autograph reads simply, “Thanks. John Wooden.”

That tells you all you need to know about the man. Thousands were there to hear the wisdom he imparted, and the word he chose was “thanks.”
Thank you for coming to listen to me.

Make no mistake; John Wooden was a great coach. In 1999, ESPN anointed him the best coach of the 20th century. Imagine, winning 10 NCAA basketball tournaments in 12 years. In the 35 years since he retired, no coach has won more than four.

Even though the tournament was smaller in those days — Wooden’s teams only had to win four games each year, as opposed to six today — only one team from each conference made the tournament.

We won’t ever see a college team approach UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak, which ran from 1971-1974. Heck, we haven’t even seen a team go undefeated since 1976.

We’ll never see a team have a 47-game winning streak broken (by Houston, 71-69, on January 20, 1968) and then come back and beat that same team in a national semifinal two months later, 101-69. That game remains the most awesome display of college basketball I’ve ever witnessed.

Yet, for all his coaching success, Wooden always considered himself a teacher, first and foremost. Basketball practice was his classroom. The games served as his exams. But the lessons never ended.

“Coach never talked about winning, ever,” Denny Crum told Eddie Timanus of USA Today. Crum, who played and coached under Wooden, later won two national titles at Louisville. “His theory was that you get the guys in shape, you teach them the fundamentals, and then you get them to play together.

And he did that better than anybody.

If you asked him what he did, he’d tell you he was a teacher.”

 “You hear from every guy who played for him, how he taught us about life as he taught us about basketball,” former player Andy Hill told Billy Witz of the New York Times. “But I don’t know that any of us had any idea that it was happening at the time.

“It’s like you read a Salinger story, then you took a class and learned about the hidden symbolism. There was a whole level of teaching going on that none of us could see.”

As an example, Hill noted that every practice started at 3 p.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m. “He wanted to go home and be with his family. He just had the perspective of what was really important, and he always reinforced what he said with what he did.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps Wooden’s greatest player, told the New York Times in 2000, “He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”

Even more important, according to Abdul-Jabbar, “Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he didn’t put winning above everything. He was more concerned that we became successful human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and parents.

“In essence, he was preparing us for life.”

A great teacher indeed.