A coach's tone of voice

Coach John Wooden: A remembrance

2 minute read
Wooden: One small gesture.
Wooden: One small gesture.
For some of us who played college basketball in the late 1950s and watched the game evolve in the '60s and '70s, John Wooden achieved a near mystical quality. This remarkable coach, we were reminded when he died recently at age 99, won 885 college games while losing only 203. His UCLA teams won ten national championships, one of them with a team whose tallest player was 6-foot-5. From 1971 through 1974 they won 88 consecutive games.

But in the course of reading all the well-deserved tributes from sportswriters, Wooden's former stars and fellow coaches, I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. Took me a while to figure it out.

Many years ago, I spoke with a former UCLA second-stringer whose playing time under Wooden was very limited. One thing he said stayed with me. And it wasn't anything like the Wizard of Westwood's famous "Pyramid of Success" teaching system of responsibility and cooperation. It was about how this lowly reserve felt acknowledged as a special person by Wooden's inquiry about how he was doing in an English course. (The player had been completely unaware that Wooden knew he was struggling.)

Perhaps one reason why this conversation stuck with me so long is an experience that I, as a similarly insignificant benchwarmer, had in the '50s with my Columbia coach, Lou Rossini.

I was vaguely aware that Rossini kept track of our grades. One day, waving a small piece of paper, he caught me in the locker room. "What's this about your getting a mid-semester C in chemistry?" he asked.

He seemed genuinely surprised. That tone of surprise is what I've always remembered.

As if to justify Rossini's faith in my ability, I did well on the final and raised my grade to a B- in the course. His respect for my academic ability empowered me, just as Coach Wooden's acknowledgment empowered my acquaintance. Long after the wins and losses are forgotten, the small kindnesses endure.♦

To read responses, click here and here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation