The Bell Curve: And we are all connected

A weekend of contrasts, if anyone was listening, or watching.

Just for starters, the humility of John Wooden opposite the arrogance of Mike Garrett -- with politicians gearing up for the next round of half-truths and slander from the sidelines.

The composed self-assurance of Abby Sunderland against the rage of the elements.

Russian science superimposed on major league baseball--with prayer as an interested observer.

The death of John Wooden, of course, dominated the news. Did you read -- or even scan -- the 26-page supplement the Los Angeles Times devoted to Wooden? I don't recall any heads of state earning an obituary this impressive. It can only tell us how hungry as a society we are for honesty, trust, decency, civility and wholesomeness in our public figures. And how badly so many of them are missing that mark. And how few recognize the overwhelming affirmative response it generates when they do hit it. Like the Detroit ball player who pitched a perfect game last week but was denied canonization by a terrible call from the umpire.

The same teams played each other the following day, and when the pitcher and umpire met, the umpire tearfully admitted his bad call and the pitcher patted him on the shoulder and they both went back to work. In case any politicians were paying attention, the moral here is the personal satisfaction that comes from acknowledging your mistakes on the one hand and forgiveness on then other. Such honesty might even help to win an election some time.

For Wooden, these qualities added up to the kind of strength that won basketball games at every level he both played and coached, from a rural Indiana high school team to the March Madness of the college game. His first year of five decades of coaching was his only losing season. But he also lived these qualities, too.

"What you are as a person," he said many times, "is far more important than what you are as a basketball player."

Examples abound. When his Indiana State team was invited to play in a national tournament early in his coaching career, he turned it down because black players were banned. The next year they were welcomed -- partly as a result of his action -- and Wooden won the tournament. A few years later, he turned down a coveted head coaching job at his Purdue alma mater because he had committed to one more year at UCLA.

Contrast this with the behavior of former USC coach Pete Carroll, who fled back to the pros after an off-year at USC and the knowledge, some would say, that the crash was coming. Or that of his boss, Athletic Director Mike Garrett, who is directly responsible -- along with USC President Steven B. Sample -- for the 3-foot stack of infractions just charged against the USC athletic program. Or with Garrett's response to a group of USC sports boosters that was not to address the sins but rather to brush them off.

"With the penalty we got today," he said, "I know we're bigger than life. I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. ... Now I have a purpose for really wanting to dominate for another 10 years."

To which Wooden might have offered one of his favorite aphorisms: "Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland might well have weighed both cautions more realistically before she took off in her 40-foot yacht to become the youngest human being to sail alone around the world. She was doing well until she reached the part of her journey in the Indian Ocean most distant from land. And there the elements were waiting to blindside her with 25-foot waves she euphemistically called a "wild sea."

A 60-knot wind knocked her over four times and finally snapped her mast. But she kept afloat in this state for two days before a spotter on a passing airliner miraculously picked her out against the backdrop of a more placid sea and directed a French fishing boat to her rescue. She's on her way home now, telling incredulous interviewers en route that "storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world."

She brought to mind the time I spent researching a book with the original seven Mercury astronauts, who regarded the exploration of space with the same elan as Abby dismisses storms. Such explorers live and work close to the fine line between remarkable bravery and reckless self-assurance that can be counter-balanced, at least partly, by long and careful preparation. We love to admire such people -- especially if they are 16 or 66 -- and we know that they will try again. And again.

Which brings finally to mind a Russian scientist named Vladimir Shpunt, who has three degrees in physics and did his exploring for several years with Vin Scully on a TV set. His employment by the Los Angeles Dodgers may be the last thing the team's owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, agreed on, before they filed for divorce.

Shpunt headed a group of impressive Russian scientists exploring the possibility of promoting healing in the human body by directing energy to ill cells even from grreat distances. So Spunt did his research on the Dodgers, wherever they were playing, from his home in Boston. And the Dodgers were "healed" sufficiently to win their first playoff spot in eight years under Shpunt.

A dose of Shpunt combined with the goodness of Wooden might have energized the marriage and the Dodgers both. Hopefully, it isn't too late for mankind.

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