Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden's lessons on basketball ring true today

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, June 6, 2010; D01

LOS ANGELES The NBA Finals, quite appropriately, became a sidebar to the mourning and celebration of a legend. The big boys watched film and plotted strategy Saturday afternoon with an eye on the game's biggest prize, just as Coach John Wooden would have wanted them to. It was the most appropriate tribute of all the ones paid to him here in the immediate wake of his passing. Even the oldest among them, the Lakers and Celtics in their mid-30s, are too young to have seen the UCLA Bruins of Alcindor and Walton, and mostly of Wooden, play championship basketball in the 1960s and '70s. But it is a standard they're still trying to reach.

Whatever they didn't know before about Wooden and UCLA, Wooden and his dear wife Nell, Wooden and his "Pyramid of Success," Wooden and his relationship with his players -- they know now. Southern California appears content to take its sweet time lavishing praise on perhaps the most important and most respected coach in American history.

While basketball may have deeper roots 3,000 miles northeast of here, where the game originated, nowhere in America is the game bigger than in Los Angeles. And while the Lakers are the current object of that obsession, Wooden helped make basketball here what it is. And while he never coached a game in the NBA, Wooden's players helped make the league what it became in the 1970s, since he and UCLA gave professional basketball, among others, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks and Marques Johnson.

Of course, the kids don't come into professional basketball prepared to that degree anymore, and it shows on both levels. Despite Wooden's 10 NCAA championships at UCLA and living by the motto "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," those who oversee the game somehow forgot the importance of serving an apprenticeship.

And Wooden was never, ever unprepared at any stage of his life. He didn't begin winning at UCLA, and the winning wasn't only the result of recruiting great players. As a senior in college, Wooden won the 1932 NCAA title, playing with Purdue. As a pro who played long before the NBA was created, Wooden once hit 138 straight free throws. When he coached at Central High School in South Bend, Ind., his record was 218-42. When he moved up to college to coach what is now Indiana State, Wooden's record was 47-14. One year after he got to UCLA, which had been a doormat, the Bruins won their first conference championship. The sun rose, John Wooden won.

I've had the great fortune in recent years to work with Walton, probably Wooden's second-greatest player behind Alcindor. And I could never get enough of Walton telling stories about Coach Wooden. They had more to do with living than playing basketball, and at the end of one story, I'd feel like saying, "Okay, Uncle Bill, pleeeeze tell us another one."

A great many of his inspirational quotes were posted on various Web sites Saturday, many of them recognizable.

My favorite, which Georgetown Coach John Thompson introduced to me when I was covering the Hoyas back in the early 1980s, was, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are."

The one that ought to be posted in every single locker room in America, particularly where AAU teams play, is "The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team." That and "Ability is a poor man's wealth."

There were so many, all of them timeless and motivational, such as: "Nothing will work unless you do" and "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do" which is the cousin of "The athlete who says that something cannot be done should never interrupt the one who is doing it."

Long after he was retired, when asked about his success as a coach, Wooden said something the players in this series might want to keep in mind as they take the court here Sunday before a crowd of people who worshiped Wooden and his philosophies, many of whom watched the Bruins in person when they won those championships. "As a teacher-coach," he said, "I was blessed with two of the greatest players who ever played, who were completely unselfish and team oriented: Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. 'Me' was never first in them. It was always 'we.' That's pretty wonderful."

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