Commentary

Wooden's values learned in heartland

For decades, the legendary coach shared his Indiana wisdom with the world

Originally Published: June 4, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. -- The stately gym still stands, a massive red-brick edifice dating back more than 80 years -- to a time when The Wizard was merely a sorcerer's apprentice.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
Matt Bowden for ESPN.comThis is the building where it all began for John Wooden on the basketball court.

The Martinsville High School gymnasium opened in 1924, and it was built to Hoosier Hysteria scale. The original capacity was 5,200 -- in a town with a population of 4,800 at the time. They built the thing with 16 locker rooms, in hopes of attracting the Indiana state high school tournament.

Even then, just 33 years after James Naismith produced basketball's Big Bang in Springfield, Mass., the hoops universe was expanding rapidly in Indiana.

And it was in this gym, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, that the nascent hoops universe gave birth to one of its brightest stars.

This was the place where John Wooden's incomparable basketball life began taking real form. He would ultimately earn his prominent place in America's sports pantheon for work done far away, but the unrivaled 10 NCAA titles at UCLA were built on a moral, intellectual and athletic foundation established here in the heartland.

You could take him to the big city and make him a globally worshipped coaching icon, but you could never take the small-town Indiana out of John Wooden. And he was proud of that.

"He coached with the values and principles he learned in Indiana," said Wooden's closest living friend in Martinsville, Larry Maxwell.

In reciprocity, Martinsville still cherishes its identity as Wooden's hometown. In 1989 they named the current high school gym after him, and his signature is on the court. A street near the school bears his name. The trophy case contains pictures of a teenage Wooden in uniform. And a huge hightop sneaker in the school lobby is decorated on one side with the coach's famed Pyramid of Success.

"It's a big deal," being the hometown of John Wooden, said Martinsville athletic director Don Lipps, sitting in his office beneath a large framed print of The Wizard. "It means quite a bit."

Even into his dotage, Martinsville meant quite a bit to Wooden. Whenever he was in Indianapolis for the Wooden Tradition, an annual college doubleheader, the coach would make the rustic, 30-mile drive south for a day.

The one place he never failed to visit was the small cemetery in Centerton, seven miles from Martinsville, where the Woodens lived when John was a boy. His parents and two sisters are buried there.

You could usually count on a visit to the eponymous high school gym, too. More than once, Lipps said, they unlocked the gym on a Sunday so Wooden's great-grandchildren could scurry around the gym playing basketball. The eternal coach would sit in a chair watching them, critiquing shooting form and chiding anyone who dribbled behind their back.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
Matt Bowen for ESPN.comWooden led Martinsville to three straight state title games.

And no trip home could be complete without a visit to Poe's Restaurant. Wooden loved the persimmon pudding.

"I think he was very appreciative of his roots," Lipps said.

The roots run deep. Nearly to the beginning of basketball time.

Befitting the Hoosier archetype, Wooden first started shooting baskets at a hoop his father, Joshua, put up outside the barn on the family's hog farm in Centerton. When tainted hog cholera medication cost the Woodens their herd and ultimately their farm, hard times set in.

They moved to the seat of Morgan County and shuffled from residence to residence while Wooden went to Martinsville High and became one of the infant sport's earliest heroes.

In brittle black-and-white pictures that hang just inside the gym's doorway, he wears a sternly serious expression and a jersey that read "Artesia City" -- in reference to Martinsville's plethora of restorative mineral water springs. His socks are curled down over his canvas shoes.

Playing for Glenn Curtis -- a disciplinarian who would win four state titles and one day have the old gym named after him -- muscular and intense Johnny Wooden was something to see.

From 1926-28, he would lead Martinsville to three straight state championship games, losing as a sophomore and a senior and winning it as a junior. Later at Purdue, he would become the first consensus three-time All-American in the history of college basketball.

And then he merely became the greatest coach in the history of team sports.

His first stop was at a high school at Dayton, Ky., not far from Cincinnati. The Dayton Green Devils would go 6-11 that first year -- the one and only losing season Wooden ever experienced, as a player or coach.

After that it was nothing but success at South Bend Central High School, then Indiana State (where he succeeded his old high-school coach, Curtis), and finally UCLA. Los Angeles, of all places, and the 1960s and 70s, of all times, was the setting for Wooden to export his middle-American sensibilities and Hoosier hoops fundamentals to the world.

[+] EnlargeJohn R. Wooden Gymnasium
Matt Bowen for ESPN.comIn 1989 Martinsville named the current high school gym after Wooden, and his signature is on the court.

"When you think about what was going on in Southern California at that time, it's amazing that he could coach the way he did," Maxwell said. "He held to what he learned here.

"People say he couldn't win today, with today's players. I think you put him on the end of the bench, he'd find a way to win."

In an era that celebrated the free spirit, Wooden steadfastly championed team spirit. He was a square and a stickler at a time when authority was vilified. And yet it worked.

In October 1972, of the two best players he had, hippie-on-training-wheels Bill Walton, showed up for the Bruins team picture with a beard. Walton argued that he had the right to grow a beard and should not be ordered to shave it.

"Bill, I appreciate that," Wooden told him. "And we will miss you."

Walton shaved in time for the picture.

Wooden's word was law, but he still approached his profession as more of an educator than a dictator. He possessed an academic quality almost completely missing in today's coaching ranks.

How many other basketball coaches quoted Shakespeare or wrote poetry? Who else in coaching has come up with anything as enduring and popular as Wooden's Pyramid of Success? What other coach has ever sounded so wise when talking about everything but basketball?

All of that was a product of the upbringing Wooden got in his home state -- first in Hall, Ind., where he was born ("just a wide spot in the road," Maxwell said). Then Centerton, where the family farm house still stands, though the barn does not. Then Martinsville.

Early in his high school days, Wooden met a girl named Nellie Riley at a carnival. He spent the next few years visiting Nell's house at 90 South Wayne Street, but had to be careful doing it -- Glenn Curtis lived nearby, and he forbade his players from having girlfriends.

The girlfriend thing would only happen once for Wooden. Nell became his wife, and even after her death in 1985 he never dated another woman. He was a one-woman man his entire life, exporting Nell Wooden beyond Indiana as well.

One of the few things John Wooden didn't take with him from his hometown was its unfortunate racial history. There was a major Ku Klux Klan rally in the town square during Wooden's youth, and the overwhelmingly white town long carried a reputation as a forbidding place for minorities.

But it was Wooden who broke the color barrier in the NAIA national basketball tournament, playing reserve guard Clarence Walker while the coach at Indiana State in 1947. The previous year, Wooden had declined an NAIA tourney bid because it prohibited African-Americans from playing.

That was consistent with the nobility and wisdom so often ascribed to John R. Wooden. Those are characteristics he learned growing up in a small Indiana town -- characteristics he exported from Martinsville to the world.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.