On June 4, the legionary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden went to be with the Lord. Over the past few weeks, I have read any number of stories and tributes to this famed coach and marvelous gentleman. And I have a story of my own…
About 15 years ago, I was at Pauley Pavilion watching a game with my friend, Dennis Bock. As usual, during at half time Coach Wooden was sitting down behind the team’s bench signing autographs. I had a new ball cap on and remarked to Mr. Bock that I sure wished I could get Coach Wooden to sign my hat. But the ushers don’t let you move from level to level, and I was all the way up in the “nose bleed” section.
He started teasing me that if I wanted it badly enough I would figure out a way to make it happen. So, there I went. I snuck through one group and got by an usher and melted into another large family and got by another. In a few minutes I found myself on the court level standing in line to speak with the Coach.
As I was waiting, I started thinking about what I would like to say to him. That small statured, elderly man was a giant among sports icons. He was the most decorated basketball coach of all time. His teams had won ten National championships, seven in a row. In forty years of coaching High School and college, he only had one losing season. He had an overall record of 885 wins.
While he stressed teamwork and many of his teams lacked super stars, he nourished the skills of NBA greats like Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul -Jabbar, and Bill Walton. But it was the incredible impact that he had on the character of these young men that fascinated me. I knew about his pyramid of success that stressed qualities like initiative, self control, friendship and faith. I knew the stories of how he “tamed” the rebellious spirits of players in the 60s and 70s.
So as I got to the head of the line, I had my comments ready to share with him. I wanted to assure him that people like me who work with kids every day sure did appreciate his focus on behavior, character and personal responsibility. But as I stood there, I froze. I couldn’t get my mouth to work. I just stood there holding my hat. After an awkward “eternity” of maybe 10 seconds he asked me, “Would you like me to sign that?” I just silently nodded my head, watched him sign it and then slowly walked away. I never said a word!
But the story doesn’t end with that frozen moment. A few years later, one of the dads at our school happened to mention that he was a personal friend of Coach Wooden. And I relayed my silly story. He thought it was so funny (knowing that it was probably the one and only time in my life that I have been speechless!) that he shared it with Coach Wooden next time they were together. Apparently Coach laughed too and then remarked that someone who worked with kids like I did (and loved UCLA basketball) should have a few personalized gifts from him. And, He sent me some treasured autographed memorabilia.
The day I heard that Coach Wooden had died, I couldn’t help but think of the passage in Hebrews 12 that refers back to the spiritual heroes in the previous chapter that says, “Seeing we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” I know that the context directly refers to the faithful giants of the Old Testament, but clearly we can also be encouraged in our walk by the testimonies of modern Godly mentors like John Wooden.
So this week let’s all take to heart one of Coach Wooden’s maxims and “be more concerned about your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”