John Wooden hated being called the "Wizard of Westwood," and no wonder. It would offend most men of dignity to be reduced to a cliche.
And what dignity he had. Wooden was an exemplar of not just sports greatness but of a type and era in the history of California -- the sturdy Midwesterner, modest and industrious, come to Southern California to pioneer and flourish but without forfeiting old-fashioned values. That was an ethos that helped to found Los Angeles, and defined it through the mid-20th century, when this city came of age. No person exemplified it better than Wooden.
He was a master of the court, of course, and it defies imagination to think of any future coach winning 10 NCAA titles or going 88 games without a loss, even as players graduate and teams have to be remade. But remembering Wooden as merely a coach is like recalling Abraham Lincoln as just a president. Some men transcend their office. So it was with Wooden.
It was not his win-loss record that caused hopeful dads to put place mats with Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" before their sons and daughters every morning. It was the sense that Wooden understood something essential about character, not just basketball. He refused flash and instead championed old verities: Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation and Enthusiasm formed the foundation of his pyramid. Success, naturally, was its peak. There is no "bling," no trash talk or intimidation or boastfulness on Wooden's pyramid.
Wooden lived long enough to reflect on his career and the game he so commanded in his day. He once observed that individual players today were often better than those when he coached but that team play had declined. That, too, seems captured by his grasp of character. There, on the pyramid, in the third row is his definition of Team Spirit: "An eagerness to sacrifice personal interest for the welfare of all."
It is for such wisdom that we remember John Wooden.
This editorial was originally published on latimes.com on June 5, 2010.
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Weighing in on Wooden
'He was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn't let us do that.'
-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, UCLA player, 1966-69
'He is such a positive influence on everyone. He has taught me everything I know. Not so much about basketball, but about life.'
-- Bill Walton, UCLA player, 1971-74
'It wasn't until years later, 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.'
-- Jamaal Wilkes, UCLA player, 1971-74
'He was a person who not only affected how you played the game but how you lived life. What he taught us will be part of me all my days.'
-- Rafer Johnson, decathlon champion, UCLA player, 1958-60
'What he did was produce leaders.... His "Pyramid of Success" hangs in my office to remind me every day of what it takes to be an effective leader.'
-- Gene Block, UCLA chancellor