John Wooden’s teachings resonate from UCLA all the way to Uganda
Ayeet Timothy Odeke, basketball coach at Nkumba University in Kampala, gets the look — the same one Bill Walton might have given John Wooden years ago — when he instructs his players on the proper way to put on their socks and lace up their shoes at the start of each season.
“If you didn’t get the words, the face would talk to you,” Odeke explained. “Are you mad? Are you crazy?”
It was 10 years ago, at a basketball clinic in Uganda, when Odeke was exposed to certain Wooden life lessons for the first time:
Don’t mistake activity with achievement.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Make each day your masterpiece.
“I was wondering,” Odeke said, “who is this John Wooden?”
This week, Odeke, 33, stood in a lecture hall on the UCLA campus, where Wooden coached from 1948 to 1975 and won 10 national championships.
Wooden did not live long enough for Odeke to shake his hand in person. What’s more, hallowed Pauley Pavilion is currently off limits as it undergoes massive renovation. (Imagine going to Paris to find the Louvre closed.) But none of this could dent the perpetual smile on Odeke’s face.
“This is surreal to me,” he said of his surroundings.
This wasn’t a trip, he said. “It’s more like a pilgrimage . . . it kind of feels like that.”
Odeke and three other Ugandan basketball coaches were part of a delegation visiting UCLA on the back end of a cultural exchange tour of the United States that included a stop at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
The U.S. State Department helped fund the project, which was conceived by Texas Tech sports science professor Jens Omli, the trip’s promoter and the founder of International Sport Connection.
One of the cornerstones to breaking down international barriers, and repairing war-torn psyches, has been the motivational teachings of John R. Wooden.
Omli was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota when he first visited Uganda and met soccer coach Kyambadde Stone, who runs a program for inner-city youth in Kampala.
The two collaborated with the idea that sports would be an effective mechanism to help assimilate thousands of men traumatized from a brutal civil conflict in Northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006. An estimated 1.8 million people were displaced.
Omli said the U.S. government, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, had an interest in restarting sports diplomacy programs in developing nations.
International Sport Connection, in the last two years, has trained 382 Ugandan coaches with techniques to help the country’s sporting youth.
“Some of the population was traumatized by observing the violence,” Omli said. “Some of the trauma was caused by being abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers and forced to kill community members or family members as part of the initiation process. Kids weren’t able to communicate with adults or with each other.”
The best way to integrate communities was rolling out a soccer ball.
Soccer remains the No. 1 sport, but basketball has become increasingly popular in Uganda since a few U.S. Marines introduced the sport in the 1970s.
“The game is new and we’re building foundations,” Omli said. “And hopefully Wooden’s legacy will be part of the foundation.”
Omli has used Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” in his mentoring and training of coaches.
“I would speak to the kids and often focus on one of the blocks,” Omli said.
The pyramid’s cornerstones are “Industriousness” and “Enthusiasm.”
The bottom blocks between are “Friendship,” “Loyalty” and “Cooperation.”
The Ugandan basketball coaches visiting UCLA wanted to physically feel and absorb all that they had learned about Wooden.
At UCLA’s Hall of Fame, they saw an exhibit of Wooden’s living room that was painstakingly transported and reassembled from his Encino condominium.
“It made us feel like we actually entered his house,” Odeke said. “It kind of puts you in his presence.”
Another highlight of the Ugandans’ visit was watching a big-screen replay of Wooden speaking to UCLA professor Tara Scanlan’s class: “Psychology 137F.”
Scanlan said it took her years to work up the courage to ask Wooden to speak. She said she finally “cold-called” Wooden, then 85, and he immediately agreed.
“He absolutely knocked the socks off the whole class,” Scanlon said.
Wooden made regular visits up to his death, in June 2010, at age 99.
Wooden was 95 when Scanlan taped the 2006 visit the Ugandans saw. Poised with pencils and notebooks, the coaches settled into their theater seats and saw Wooden projected, larger than life, on the big screen.
The coaches scribbled constantly as Wooden regaled Scanlan’s class with memorized passages of poetry, Grantland Rice and quotes from Abraham Lincoln.
The Ugandans sat spellbound as Wooden explained how he disagreed with “Mr. Webster’s definition” of success and toiled years before coming up with his pyramid.
Caroline Nyafwono, a Ugandan women’s coach, took particular note when Wooden intoned, “Don’t be afraid to fail, gracious sakes!”
The pencil of men’s coach Nicholas Twesigye’s came alive as Wooden said “never criticize a teammate” and retold how he insisted players keep their shirt tails tucked in and their socks pulled up.
Women’s coach “Chocho” Nalwadda was moved by Wooden’s words on family and keeping everything in balance.
Wooden said parenting is “the most important profession in the world.”
“I wrote that down,” Nalwadda said.
Many of the people in her village of Bukoto, she said, are drug addicts. She is teaching her players about basketball, but also, “We teach them there is life after sport.”
The coaches hope they can convince Uganda’s government to provide more funding for their cause.
“I like the way you people handle athletes,” Nalwadda said. “You respect them. You give them the priority, which doesn’t really happen in my country.”
“Patience” and “Faith” are the tenets flanking Wooden’s pyramid.
Wooden also said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
Odeke walked away from UCLA feeling as one might after a trip to the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rushmore.
“I still have to pinch myself,” he said.
Seeing Wooden on the large screen, on his campus, gave him a truer sense of the man.
“He is funny,” Odeke said, “in a very intellectual way.”
Odeke explained that it’s not so unusual, really, that the arc of Wooden’s philosophy could extend from Westwood to Africa.
“The problems you have are universal,” he said. “It transcends religion, it transcends race, it transcends barriers. That’s why he’s had so much impact across the globe.”
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