CARE: John Wooden

A lot can be said about timing. This week’s post, because of the NCAA Tournament and the fact that CARE is this month’s “C” word, has been scheduled to focus on John Wooden and the following sections from previously published story. Last week’s post, which wasn’t planned until Lipscomb University earned its first trip to the NCAA Tournament, featured legendary college basketball coach, Don Meyer. When I was working on my first book, which included a chapter on Meyer, he put me in touch with Wooden, who was, perhaps, the most legendary college basketball coach of all. Then there’s this: on Thursday night, Kansas State beat Kentucky in their “Sweet 16” game. One more win for K-State and the Wildcats will be in the Final Four for the first time since 1964. “How did they do in that Final Four?” you might wonder. Well, they lost to UCLA in the semifinals at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The Bruins went on to win the national championship, their first in a stretch of 10 titles in 12 years. UCLA’s coach was, of course, John Wooden. Timing. By the way, in the “C” You In The Major Leagues’ definition, CARE includes: puts others first; evaluates everyone honestly; understands everyone’s impact. As with all of our “C” words, that’s a perfect description of John Wooden.

To many, John Wooden was a marvel. His numbers at UCLA during a 27-year coaching career are staggering. At the top are 10 national championships during a 12-year stretch, including seven in a row from 1966-73. His teams won 38-consecutive NCAA tournament games.

Back-to-back UCLA teams, 1971-72 and 1972-73, went undefeated at 30-0. Oh, yeah, and those 60 straight wins were part of an 88-game winning streak.

Chances are, not one of those records or streaks will be broken or even matched.

One reason his teams won is because of his care for each player.

He made sure they were challenged on the court and in the classroom, by not allowing them to take only the easy courses. He wanted them to be as successful — if not more so — in the “real” world as in their years of playing for him. And he shot straight with them from the beginning.

He would tell them at the start of the season: “I don’t like you all the same. You won’t like me all the same. You won’t like each other all the same. But I love you all the same.”

John Wooden, front and center, started his coaching career at Dayton High School in 1932. During his first season, the team went 6-11. It was his only losing record as a basketball player or coach.

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It’s often overlooked that Wooden coached at Indiana State Teachers College before going to UCLA. Indiana State played in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), which has a proud basketball championship history going back to its days as the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB). In 1940, the NAIB gave small colleges a chance to compete for a national basketball championship. But, as with most national organizations at the time, the NAIB/NAIA was segregated. The NAIA is far less than proud of that fact today. Even the home for its tournament, Kansas City, as a whole was anything but desegregated at the time.

However, in 1948, eight years after the NAIB’s first small-college national championship, according to the NAIA’s Web site, “the NAIB became the first national organization to offer post-season opportunities to black student-athletes.”

It didn’t come easily by any stretch of the imagination.

In 1947, Indiana State, led by its first-year head coach named John Wooden, had one African-American player, Clarence Walker, a reserve.

In his rookie season as Indiana State’s head coach, Wooden led the Sycamores to a record of 18-7. That was good enough to receive an invitation to play in the NAIA’s national tournament in Kansas City. Since the NAIA was segregated, Wooden was told that the only way his team could play was if they left Walker behind.

Wooden refused to attend the tournament if Walker couldn’t be with the team.

By avoiding the tournament, Wooden wasn’t necessarily making a stand or forcing the NAIA’s hand. It was a matter of the team being together, making each player feel as if he were important to the big picture.

One great story displaying that attitude came from a time when the Sycamores were scheduled to fly to New York to play at Madison Square Garden. According to a story in Wooden’s book, Wooden on Leadership, one of his players, Jim Powers, had been shot down in a B-24 during World War II. Because of that experience, Powers refused to fly.

“There’s no way I’m getting on a plane,” he told Wooden. “You can go without me, but I’m not flying.”

Wooden decided the Sycamores weren’t going to fly if one player couldn’t or wouldn’t. So, they gathered some station wagons and drove from Indiana to New York.

“It was family; nobody got left behind,” Powers said years later. “His concern for us went way beyond basketball. We were part of a family.”

That included Clarence Walker.

A year after Wooden turned his back on the NAIA, when Indiana State finished the 1948 season with a 27-7 mark, the Sycamores received another invitation to play in the national tournament. As the story goes, the NAIA decided to allow Walker to come to Kansas City. But, not wanting to make too big of a scene with the still-segregated Kansas City, Walker was only part of the team on the court. He couldn’t be seen in public with his teammates. And he couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his team. Wooden, standing true to his principles even for a reserve player such as Walker, again turned down the NAIA’s invitation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, however, didn’t see the NAIA’s invitation with limitations as a complete slap in the face. Instead, the NAACP saw it as a chance for a black player to break a national tournament’s color barrier. Wooden finally acquiesced and allowed his team to travel to Kansas City for the tournament.

And, on March 8, 1948, Clarence Walker stepped onto the court at Municipal Auditorium, thus giving the NAIA the distinction of being the first integrated national tournament, and Wooden the coach to make it happen.

Incidentally, the Sycamores made a good showing at the tournament in 1948. They reached the championship game, where they lost to Louisville, 82-70. Every member of Indiana State’s team saw action during the tournament. Including Clarence Walker.

From his first season as a head coach at Indiana State until his death in 2010, Wooden genuinely cared about his players.

And that never waned.

“Coach Wooden [was] a pretty clever man,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was Lew Alcindor during his days at UCLA, told me one time. “He figured out how to take the two things that he valued most — family and basketball — to do his life’s work and the Lord’s work. That’s not always easy but he pulled it off. There aren’t a whole lot of people who can say that.”

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