John Wooden would despise this column.
He would’ve told me -- make that politely asked me -- to focus on the game, players and coaches, to celebrate and promote the teamwork, togetherness and collective triumph of the last teams standing.
The 99-year-old would not have wanted to distract from Game 1 of the National Basketball Association Finals between the Boston Celtics and Lakers of Los Angeles, where there exists no more revered sporting figure than the former UCLA basketball coach. And that includes Magic Johnson, whose statue stands outside Staples Center.
“His coaching has been an inspiration,” were the words offered by Lakers coach Phil Jackson when told of a KCAL-TV report that Wooden was gravely ill and in the hospital. Marc Dellins, a sports information director at UCLA, at the family’s request declined to comment on Wooden’s condition, saying only that reports of his death were incorrect.
Take note that Jackson, who has 10 championships as a coach, made a point of saying that the inspirational part of Wooden’s repertoire was his teaching, not his winning, even though there sure was an abundance of that.
Wooden compiled a 620-147 record with the Bruins, winning 10 national championships, including a mind- boggling seven straight from 1967-73. UCLA won 88 consecutive games from 1971-74 and 38 straight National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament games from 1964- 74.
Method Before Results
Ask any of Wooden’s disciples, and those who wore the opposing uniform, and the method, not the results, is what gets them talking reverently.
Take Lakers guard Jordan Farmar, who chose UCLA, in part, because of the legacy left by the coach who still shows up for home games whenever possible.
You see Farmar didn’t just love to play basketball as a kid, he lived and learned it. He watched videos and read books, which is how he came across Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, which I’ve written about before.
At the base of the pyramid are concepts like friendship, loyalty and cooperation. The bedrock has nothing to do with passing, shooting or dribbling. Wooden aimed to build better men, who as a byproduct became better basketball players and teammates.
There’s a reason so many of Wooden’s former players still call to chat. They send holiday cards. Still.
Coach became family.
“Never overlook the correlation between human values, personal characteristics, hard work and success,” one of Wooden’s former players, Bill Walton, told me. “That is why Coach Wooden never talked about basketball. He always spoke about life, and how to become better at it. The transferability of coach’s lessons on life to any situation is surreal.”
Over in the visiting locker room sat Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine, who spent his college days at Southern California, where a Trojan would be considered treasonous for showing an affinity for anything UCLA. Except, as Scalabrine said, Wooden, who once took the time to help a gangly redhead nobody knew with some pointers on how to become a better rebounder by keeping his hands up. Always up.
“No hatred at all,” Scalabrine said, recalling that his coach at USC, Henry Bibby, who played for Wooden, had the Pyramid of Success prominently displayed in his office. Phoenix Suns All-Star Amare Stoudemire has a copy of the pyramid inside his locker.
Celtics guard Nate Robinson, a product of the University of Washington, which shares the Pacific-10 Conference with, among others, UCLA and USC, grinned when asked about Wooden.
“I never won there,” he said. “He’s the reason why. He’s legendary. Just say that name and you think winning.”
Wooden always said his tenets apply not just to basketball, but business, too. He lamented that chief executive officers put profit ahead of people. Can’t be successful that way, he’d say.
Unlike Jackson and Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who preaches to his players the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, which stresses success of the group over any individual, I’d be willing to wager that BP Plc CEO Tony Hayward has never seen the Pyramid of Success.
As for last night’s game, the Lakers, last season’s champions, beat the Celtics, the previous year’s champions, 102-89 in a game that no one would label aesthetically pleasing.
Afterward, the talk in both locker rooms centered on things such as self-control, initiative, poise, confidence and competitive greatness.
It sounded like, as Lakers forward Luke Walton, Bill’s son, pointed out, a refresher course on the Pyramid of Success.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)