John Wooden's legend eclipses his competitive fire

John Wooden was known for being a gentleman, but he
John Wooden was known for being a gentleman, but he "had a hammer," said former Bruins star Gail Goodrich. (Associated Press)
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Somewhere under all the layers of folklore there was a living, active, imperfect man -- not the avuncular, grandfatherly John Wooden, but a Wooden with faults, inner fire, and a blind spot or two. In the many eulogies and tributes, we see just brief flares of the real personality. His formality of speech and refusal to curse were courtly, yes, but there was another side to him, something implacable, a touch of iron, and if we don't recognize that, we've lost his entire point.

Those cornerstones in the Pyramid of Success were noble platitudes, such as "loyalty" and "industriousness," but they ascended to what? Not to saintliness. To "Competitive Greatness," a potentially immoderate goal, as Wooden well knew and expressed if you really listened to him. A bespectacled old grandpappy doesn't win 10 championships in 12 years out of saintly mild-manneredness. Only a man dancing right on the edge of excess does that.

Of all of Wooden's sayings, none was perhaps more self-cautioning than this one: "Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be grateful. Conceit is self-given; be careful."

He left out a few blocks in that pyramid, such as obsession, a controlling nature, and punishing discipline.

"He had a hammer," says his first championship guard, Gail Goodrich.

This was a man who even paid attention to the thread count in his players' socks (50 percent wool). Who recommended their training table meals right down to how many stalks of celery (three), how many ounces of steak (10) and what temperature the meat should be cooked at (medium). Followed by fruit cocktail.

There has been a fair amount of myth-making around Wooden in the days since he died, which is understandable given that at the age of 99 he outlived most of the people who knew him well, and the remembrances of his players are so tinted by love, reverence and mistiness. The legend has overtaken the facts.

Perhaps the greatest myth about Wooden is that because he uttered maxims such as "Don't look at the scoreboard," he somehow was an abstractionist who didn't care about winning.

Goodrich remembers Wooden's speech in the locker room on the day that UCLA played Duke for the 1964 national championship. Goodrich expected some sort of inspirational address. Instead, Wooden stalked in and said, "How many of you remember who finished second last year?" No one raised a hand. "They don't remember who finished second," Wooden said. "Now go out there and play the way that got you here, and you'll be happy with the result." Later Wooden would confess, "I never wanted to win one more badly than that one."

In fact, he was a ferocious competitor whom Bill Walton characterized as a "caged tiger." Former UCLA women's coach Billie Moore knew Wooden well and would sit in the gym and watch Wooden drill squads that had won multiple national championships as if they were just learning the game. For the first 10 minutes they would practice without a ball, rehearsing proper footwork and timing. "It looked like improvised dance," she says. Players would pantomime two- and three-step combinations, jump stops, pump fakes, with Wooden insisting on correct follow-through. "Repetition, motor skills, the smallest steps," she remembers.

"What he knew was that when you have that kind of attention to detail, you don't have to worry about losing," Moore says.

So our image of him as the kindly schoolteacher is not entirely correct. Wooden doesn't seem to have treated his players like boys. He treated them like men: expected to follow rules, to discipline themselves, and to sublimate themselves to principles uncompromisingly. Which is not at all the same thing as indulgence. The relationship was purposeful and professional. It was Wooden's most crucial characteristic: He never indulged or infantilized athletes.

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