It’s been nearly a decade since basketball legend John Wooden passed away at age 99 in June 2010.
While doing some spring cleaning this week, I came across a letter faxed to me just about 10 days after the UCLA coaching great died. It’s a thoughtful look at what made John Wooden a certifiable genius as a leader, on and off the court.
“MISSING COACH WOODEN” was the title of the one-page typed fax. It remains a treasure in my collection of basketball-related memorabilia and literature.
Here’s what it said:
I will miss John Wooden. I was coaching junior varsity basketball in the middle 1970 in the U.S. and he was already hailed as the best college coach ever. There were rumors of Wooden’s retirement. He had won 10 national titles in 12 years. Most of the games were not even close. My basketball career as a junior varsity coach was also about to end. No one ever got us two confused as coaches. The head basketball coach approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a basketball coaching clinic. I said no. He said there would be some great coaches there. I said no thanks again. Then he remembered — “Yes, John Wooden is retiring and said he would show up. This will be his first speaking engagement since he retired.”
I did not even hesitate and emphatically stated I would indeed go even if I had to hitchhike. I wanted to make sure I would be one of the first to learn the Wooden secret of success — the magic formulas he used in practice, his vaunted press, how he handles his players, his conditioning secrets, and his overall philosophy on coaching. Maybe I could resurrect my coaching career after all.
I was all psyched to hear Wooden. I had five or six pencils, all sharpened in case I dropped one and not risk missing something in the talk. Tablets of basketball diagrams were ready for use Wooden was finally introduced and ambled to the podium. He looked around, smiled and asked for a chair to be put near the podium. Then he said he would be talking about the success at UCLA. Then he stated, “The most important thing we teach an incoming UCLA player is how to tie his shoes.” Then he explained that a player who did not lace his shoes up correctly would risk a foot problem. That problem would affect him and the team. I groaned. Was this a joke? Then he explained that putting on your basketball shorts was also important. That was about it. No X’s and O’s. By then I had settled down, relaxed my hold on the pencils, and was looking at the other baffled coaches. Out of respect and curiosity, I stayed for the entire talk but silently cursed my decision to come for such a meaningless lecture.
For many years I never understood the meaning of Wooden’s explanation. His message was completely lost on me. But that was before I came to Japan. After all these years, I have finally gotten the message. In my office I have about 200 books on Japan — its customs, literature, and language. If I had to pick out “the one book” — the one that would explicate the unique Japanese mentality — it would be the one on the concept of “kata,” the way of doing things, “shikata,” — how to eat, “tabekata,” and how to write, “kakikata,” etc. There is no right way, alternate or wrong way, only the one way.
I think John Wooden had the formula down — attention to detail, discipline, simplicity, and a belief in his system. I am afraid John Wooden would not be as successful in our “everyone doing his own thing” culture. Since we don’t wear shoes inside Japanese homes and some restaurants, I have to do a lot of shoe tying. Often I think of Coach Wooden. I think it will be more often now.