There’s really not much that can be said about John Wooden that hasn’t already been covered since his death June 4. What can be shared is my limited interaction with what might arguably be the greatest coach of all-time.
Like Wooden, I grew up in a small, rural town in Indiana. I actually resided less than 20 miles away from Wooden’s hometown of Martinsville, where he led his high school to three basketball state championship appearances and one title. In those tiny Indiana towns, virtually everyone has a basketball hoop in their driveway or on the side of their barn, and the legendary high school and college players from the state are treated with reverence.
We also shared the same alma mater, as he and I both graduated from Purdue University. Wooden was a tenacious guard on the basketball court that became the nation’s first three-time All-American. During my time as a journalism student at Purdue, I had an opportunity to briefly meet and speak with John Wooden.
At the time he was in his early 80s and had returned to Purdue for a basketball family reunion. He had committed to signing autographs for two hours at a local bookstore, and, being an admirer of Wooden, I was one of the first in line. Much like many others who first encountered Wooden, I was a bit intimidated when I approached him, but he had a way of making anyone feel at ease with his folksy, genuine charm. After we exchanged a few words I scurried back to my dorm room with my newly prized possession—a poster of Wooden during his playing days at Purdue, signed and personalized to me.
Since I arrived very early to get in line, I noticed that Wooden actually arrived earlier than his scheduled time for the signing. I learned later that despite his two-hour commitment, he stayed nearly an hour longer to sign autographs until the very last person in line passed by his table. It was just a small example of how even though Wooden was the legend, he always humbled himself and treated anyone he interacted with as though they were the hero.
Six years ago, shortly after I was hired as an editor at Fitness Information Technology, I was elated to learn that one of my first assignments would be to serve as the developmental editor for a book about John Wooden’s teaching philosophies—You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices, authored by one of Wooden’s former “pupils,” Swen Nater, and one of his fellow educators at UCLA, Ronald Gallimore.
Nater was the backup to All-American center Bill Walton, which meant he rarely received playing time. But as Nater’s accounts in the book describe, the lessons and motivation he received from Wooden allowed him to become a dominant rebounder during his NBA career and it played a large role in his ensuing success as an author, poet, teacher, coach, and business man.
Gallimore is a professor at UCLA, where in the 1970s he and a colleague attended Wooden’s practices during the course of one season in order to document the specific teaching methods Wooden used. The revelations from that research formed the foundation of the contents of You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned, with first-hand stories from Nater giving the book an even more intimate examination of Wooden’s teaching philosophies.
As someone who had admired Wooden ever since I could remember, it was a pleasure to work with one of his players and a fellow UCLA educator on the book. I learned a great deal more about Wooden than I had previously known, despite having read many of the books that Wooden had penned. The anecdotes Nater provided in the book were fascinating and gave me a deeper understanding of Wooden’s coaching and teaching abilities.
To my surprise, a few weeks after the book was published I received a copy in the mail that was signed to me by Gallimore, Nater, and Wooden. In Wooden’s inscription, he noted that he appreciated my work on the book and that anyone who his “boy” Swen thought highly of, he thought highly of, too.
One of the many things I learned while editing and reading the book was that Wooden did not like the “Wizard of Westwood” nickname given to him. “I’m no wizard, I’m a teacher,” Wooden would say. Being a teacher is how Wooden always wanted to be remembered.
So as I remember the life of John Wooden, I’ll remember him not primarily as an All-American basketball player or a legendary basketball coach. I’ll remember him as a legendary teacher.
Click here for a previous post from this blog specifically about how John Wooden’s teaching principles were formed and then adopted for basketball.