April 20, 2009

Coach John Wooden

Now that the NCAA's March Madness college basketball games are behind us, diehard sports fans are keeping themselves entertained with the NBA 2009 Playoffs which started this past weekend. In between all of the press, hoopla and water cooler talk, it's a good time to be reminded that life lessons can be learned even from what seems to be just a simple game. Following are Lynn Shackleford's recollections of John Wooden, the coach of 10 NCAA National Championship teams with the UCLA Bruins (from Wooden on Leadership, McGraw-Hill 2005). Coach Wooden "is the first person to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach," and in 1999 was named by ESPN as the greatest coach of the 20th Century.  


The very first team meeting I ever attended at UCLA was a shock. Sitting next to me was another freshman - the guy who had been the most coveted high school player in America, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lewis Alcindor, Jr.).

Scattered around us were our freshmen teammates - some of the best in the country - as well as the returning members of UCLA's varsity team that had won the NCAA national championship several months earlier - Edgar Lacey, Kenny Washington, Doug McIntosh, Fred Goss, Mike Lynn, and others.

There was a lot of energy and talent in that room waiting for the arrival of Coach Wooden and his words of wisdom. Pretty soon he walked in and went directly to the front of the classroom in which we had gathered. Finally, the big moment had arrived, my first experience as a member of a UCLA team - reigning national champions! - coached by the famous John Wooden.

He looked at us for a moment and began his remarks. And that's what was shocking: "Gentlemen," he said, "Welcome. Let's get down to business. I want to remind each one of you of a few important rules we have here at UCLA. Number one: Keep your fingernails trimmed. Number two: Keep your hair short. Number three: Keep your jersey tucked into your trunks at all times." He looked around the room for a moment and then added solemnly: "Am I clear?"

I wondered, "Is he making a joke?" But there was no laughter, not even smiles, from any of the varsity players. They knew better. Nevertheless, I couldn't understand why he was wasting his time on stuff like that.

As the months - eventually years (and three more national championships) - went by, I came to recognize that "stuff like that" was part of the genius in his leadership. There was logic to every move. Details of fingernails, hair, and jerseys led to details for running plays, handling the ball, and everything else - hundreds of small things done right.

Everything was related to everything else; nothing was left to chance; it all had to be done well. Sloppiness was not allowed in anything; not in passing, shooting, or trimming your fingernails and tucking in a jersey.

Coach Wooden taught that great things can only be accomplished by doing the little things right. Doing things right became a habit with us.

He kept it simple. What's more simple than short hair? What's more simple than squaring up for a shot? All these simple little things added up - one at a time - to an enormous amount of information that he presented in a plain and direct way, bit by bit. Ultimately, he and the team put it all together in practice and then in games.

To accomplish this, he thought out his lesson plan for each day's practice with great precision. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and how to do it. Part of his effectiveness may have come from the fact that he has a master's degree in English. He could say in one short sentence what it took others a long time to get out. He could communicate so much so fast - no wasted words, no beating around the bush.

Lew Alcindor, 1963 by Richard Avedon

Coach Wooden's practices were very businesslike and his presence very strong. There were times when he got to a level of sternness mixed with some anger that was nothing to fool with. There was never any screaming or yelling, but his intensity was something else. Especially when he thought we weren't giving it our best effort - watch out then.

During a game against Cal (University of California, Berkeley), we went to the locker room at halftime with a lead, but he was very unhappy. The score didn't matter. He felt we weren't playing with intensity. And he gave us a tongue lashing that I still remember well. And he did so without screaming or shouting.

The fact that we were ahead was incidental. What mattered to him was that we weren't playing to our potential. And, it worked the other way too. If the score was going against us, but we were giving it our best effort, he wouldn't get upset. Instead, Coach would very calmly instruct us on changes that should be made.

In 1968, number-one ranked UCLA played number-two ranked Houston in the Astrodome. It was called the Game of the Century. The Cougars were undefeated on the year and UCLA had a 47-game winning streak going.

It was the first regular-season game ever seen on national television, the first ever played in the Astrodome, and the first to have attendance of over 50,000. It was a big deal. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before in college basketball.

UCLA lost in the final seconds, 71-69, and our 47-game winning streak came to an end. After the game, in the locker room, all of the Bruins were very interested to see Coach Wooden's reaction. As UCLA players we had never seen him lose a single game. Suddenly, he had lost, and it was a big game. How would he react?

When Coach walked into the locker room after losing the Game of the Century, he was very even keeled. There was even a slight smile on his face. He told us, "It's not the end of the world. We'll do better next time." He was pleased with our effort. The score was secondary; having our winning streak snapped was not his concern. Our effort on the court had been total. That made him happy.

In 1967, UCLA played in the finals of the NCAA tournament in Louisville. We hadn't lost a game all season. Just before we went on the court to play Dayton for the national championship, the whole team sat in the locker room for Coach Wooden's pregame talk. Four of the starters were first year varsity players who were about to face their first national championship game in a few minutes - Kareem, Lucius Allen, Kenny Heitz, and me.

Coach Wooden walked up to the chalkboard and began to diagram something, maybe a new play or defensive tactic. But it wasn't. Coach was diagramming where we should stand during the national anthem! He then spoke about our conduct following the game. The day before, players on another team had gotten rowdy, and he cautioned us about behaving badly. He never mentioned anything about the opponent we were going to play for the national championship; no plays, no specifics of the game. None of that.

What this was about, of course was his belief that by game time his teaching was complete; if he hadn't taught us what we needed to know by then, it was too late.

Of course, he had taught us what we needed to know. And it started on the very first day when he walked to the front of the class and said to the freshmen and returning varsity players, "Gentlemen, let's get right down to business." And then he told us about fingernails, short hair, and tucking in jerseys.

It's still a little shocking when I think about it.

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