"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" - - - - 6-12-10

"Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow"
~~John Wooden

The numbers remain staggering: 88 straight wins, 10 NCAA titles (seven consecutive), over 600 victories at one school--UCLA. We lost the great John Wooden last week at the age of 99--yes, another another staggering number--but the man's magnificence will never be measured by throwing digits around. When I think of Mr. Wooden, I think of ONE word at this juncture: INTEGRITY; boy, did he possess a ton of it. When I first learned of his recent death, I immediately thought of the life lessons that this gentleman passed along to people he never even met OR coached; wow, what a gift to leave--for sure.

While risking oversimplification, I'll offer that John Wooden was a teacher--who just happened to be one of the greatest basketball coaches (college OR pro) in history. One of his prized pupils--Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar--relayed the following in a statement released by UCLA: "He taught in a very simple way. He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation. He set quite an example. He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian." And a quiet one at that as there were never any self-serving outbursts and/or outrageous sideline antics in order to get points across on the part of Coach Wooden. Rather, it seemed that preparation and hard work were his means to instilling discipline in his players; he once developed this 'novel' idea that his players could "out-condition" the opponent and win games with a fast-paced style. Positive results gave way to young men buying into his extremely successful system--to the point where players interested in playing at the Los Angeles school eagerly recruited HIM as their desired coach of choice. Slightly different than the skewed system of today, huh?

Coach Wooden's three team rules were as follows: no swearing, no tardiness, no criticizing fellow teammates. You see, to one John Wooden, "we" superseded "me"--and his part as a role-model to some impressionable college kids was one he embraced and never strayed from. Behind the bespectacled, pale-blue eyes was a fiercely competitive man who wanted his "students" (as opposed to "athletes") to win handily at the game of life; oh, by the way, this approach translated to wins on the court, also. Some may say that he "dressed the part", too--looking like a true professor on the sidelines during his coaching days with his rolled-up game program always in hand. However, one thing's for sure: the "part" he played was always that of HIMSELF--one of an incomparable, selfless molder of young men.

As Mr. Wooden's legacy unfolded, it seemed that his famed quotes/inspirational messages rivaled his vast number of wins on the basketball court. His legendary "Pyramid of Success" was closely examined and treasured by coaches in VARIOUS sports; it also became a guiding force for many "higher-ups" in the business world. Over the years, it has also become very clear that a majority of his popular sayings were direct offshoots from his Seven Point Creed--advice given to him by his father Joshua upon his graduation from grammar school. It bears repeating here and states the following:
*Be true to yourself.
*Make each day your masterpiece.
*Help others.
*Drink deeply from good books--especially the Bible.
*Make friendship a fine art.
*Build a shelter against a rainy day.
*Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Personally, I always admired Coach Wooden's gracious and pleasant demeanor--which would be hugely apparent during interviews he gave LONG after his coaching days had ended. Ah, no surprise as he always DID stress poise both on AND off the basketball court--defining it as "not being thrown off stride in how you behave or what you believe because of outside events." Balance, fundamentals, calmness in the face of adversity--all characteristics of any John Wooden-coached team; for some reason, especially in today's complex world, his approach seems timeless and relevant.

I never had the opportunity to meet or speak with John Wooden--probably one of my biggest regrets as a sports journalist. Why? Because the legendary status he achieved during his lifetime had NOTHING to do with dribbling or shooting a basketball; coach Mike Krzyzewski called him the "gold standard of PEOPLE"--and not just of COACHES. He taught life lessons CONSTANTLY; coaching was just simply one of the many "suitcases" he utilized in which to carry them. And does it shock anyone that former players Jamaal Wilkes and Bill Walton rushed to be by his side during the final week of his life? They'll ALWAYS remember, Mr. Wooden--and will forever be thankful.

John Wooden never liked the nickname "The Wizard of Westwood"--bestowed upon him many years ago; I can only surmise that it made him feel "singled out" while he spent a great part of his lifetime preaching against this and about teamwork. I'd like to think that he's now reunited with his beloved wife Nellie--who died in 1985--both content in knowing that his wisdom will continue to mold, shape, and guide people of all ages for generations to come.

I'll include one last Wooden quote--one of many that will continue to inspire/fuel the masses (including one admiring sports scribe) for at least the foreseeable future: "All of life is peaks and valleys. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low." May you rest in peace, Coach Wooden--and thanks for being the ultimate "life coach."