Commentary

Life lessons learned from Wooden

Coach was a better man than a basketball coach, and that's saying a lot

Updated: June 5, 2010, 3:12 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

To mourn the loss of John Wooden because we consider him an irreplaceable source of wisdom would be to miss the point of his 99 incredible years on this earth. Wooden's gift was to understand that greatness is all around; it's up to individuals to find it within themselves and realize it. It's not about a single source. There is knowledge to be gained from everyone. Even a pigeon.

Of all the stories Wooden shared with us, the one that stuck with me in the hours before and after his death Friday was a tale centered on pigeon poop. The story came from a ceremony for the inaugural members of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 in Kansas City, Mo., where Wooden was honored along with Dean Smith, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and (posthumously) James Naismith. At age 96, Wooden was back at the site of his first NCAA championship in 1964, prompting him to recall a message he had received "from above" right after the beginning of his 10-championship run at UCLA.

"We won on a Saturday night," Wooden said. "The next day was Easter Sunday, and I planned on going out to a church ... where the Rev. Bob Maneely was the minister. I had got acquainted with him. I used to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference in Estes Park, Colo.; he was there as a speaker. I planned on going out Easter Sunday, my wife and I. Sunday morning, we were outside the Muehlebach Hotel, waiting to get a cab to take us to the church. And a pigeon hit me right on top of the head. And I felt, 'Well, we just won the national championship, the team did, don't let it go to your head.' And I think the Good Lord was letting me know, 'Don't get carried away.' I'll always remember that."

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP Photo/Darron CummingsWhether he was on the court or off, John Wooden was a teacher.

Two things stand out about the story. There is the obvious lesson in humility. And then there's his amazing recollection of the details, such as the name of the hotel and the name of the minister (I apologize if I misspelled it), for an event that occurred 42 years earlier. I always marveled at how his mind could remain so sharp even after nine decades of use. It was like a tire that never lost its treads no matter how many miles it was driven. He could provide details of games played half a century ago. He could recite lengthy stanzas from poems at any given moment, never so much as pausing to think of what word came next.

His mind made him powerful. It's not a word we associate with men whose faces are sagging and handshakes are weak. But if you were ever in a room with him, you felt his power. He commanded your attention; you hung on his every word. He understood the mind was the most important thing, even for a gifted athlete.

"You have to have the physical ability to begin with," he said. "But if you don't have that mental ability, you're going to lose. You're not going to be able to take advantage of that physical ability that you have."

Not all of us can dunk a basketball or hit a curveball. However, by striving to reach your capacity, you can reach a comparable achievement. That was Wooden's message. That is the capability that is within each of us, if we apply ourselves and utilize our minds.

His mind kept him relevant long after he should have slid off into the margins of the athletic world. How many other wheelchair-bound senior citizens could be used to sell a sports energy drink?

What made Wooden's death so unique among famous people who die at an advanced age is that we were still thinking of him as he is, not as he was. Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson were, in the public eye, already gone long before they were deceased. Not Wooden. In recent years, we still saw him at Pauley Pavilion, at the basketball events that bear his name, at charity fundraising dinners and in his regular booth at Vip's Restaurant in Tarzana, Calif. And it's only this week that I realized what an unselfish act it all was.

If he cared about only what he wanted, he would have left us long ago so he could be with his wife, Nell, who died in 1985. He never got over her loss, never stopped writing her love letters and never failed to include her role when discussing his accomplishments. Yet for 25 years, he went on without her. He did it for us.

"That's one of the pleasures, that you feel like you've done any little thing that's meaningful to others; it makes you feel better," he said.

All of these Wooden quotes in this column come from that 2006 night in Kansas City and a day I spent with him and his former player John Vallely a couple of years later. I was digging around in an old work bag earlier in the week and found a digital recorder I had used for both of those occasions. That recorder was my trusty sidekick for years, but I retired it after I filled it with Wooden. No way I was going to erase those conversations just to capture the thoughts of some player after a regular-season NBA game.

I played the recorder Saturday morning, listening to that familiar voice repeat some oft-quoted words, and it gave me chills. Here it was, tangible evidence that I had crossed paths with one of the most influential people of the 20th century. It was as if I had the chance to sit in on a rehearsal with Louis Armstrong or watch Ernest Hemingway bang away at his typewriter.

At one point, Wooden snapped into an old verse, then explained how that became his objective, the basis for the Pyramid of Success, the building blocks of values and attributes it took him 14 years to fashion.

"At God's footstool to confess a poor soul knelt and bowed his head," Wooden said. "'I failed,' he cried. The Master said, 'Thou didst thy best. That is success.'

"I wholeheartedly agree. That verse ... I ran across it; that is responsible for my definition of success, which I coined in 1932: 'Peace of mind, attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable.' You can't do 100 percent, but you can try for 100 percent. One hundred percent is perfect, and we're not perfect; we're all imperfect."

And yet, we're all perfectly fine. Is there anything John Wooden did that you can't do, anything he stood for that you can't be about? Isn't it within your ability to be loyal, industrious, patient and faithful? All it takes is commitment and discipline to adhere to those attributes above all else.

The last time I saw him, sitting in the den of his modest condominium in Encino, Calif., Wooden handed me an autographed card that he used to give out when he spoke to youth groups. It contained his sportsmanship pledge, which he made me repeat after him as I held my hand over my heart.

I will be a good sport whether I win or I lose.
No whining, complaining, or making excuses.

I'll always keep trying, One hundred percent
To give my best effort in every event.

This sportsmanship pledge will bring out my best.
Coach Wooden has taught me to be a Success.

He taught all of us, really, as long as we were smart enough to listen to the legends and laymen alike -- and to pay attention to the occasional message from a bird.

J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN.com