Last night, before Game Three of the NBA Finals, two of John Wooden's most gifted and talented basketball pupils approached half court. They were there to pay one last tribute to the man known as "The Wizard of Westwood."
As Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slowly approached the center circle, you could see both of them fighting off an unstoppable wave of emotion.
Walton is arguably the greatest collegiate basketball player of all time, and Jabbar one of the greatest professional players of all time. These two men are legends of the game, but they sit in the shadow of greatness that John Wooden cast over the basketball landscape.
Each man has a defining legacy of basketball immortality, but during that moment at half court, they were mere mortals compared to the man they were honoring. These seven-foot monsters of men who dominated their sport with a combination of athletic ability and grace stood in awe of a man they both loved dearly.
A legend had been lost, a teacher of both the game and life, had passed away. Over the course of his 99 years on this Earth, the number of lives John Wooden has touched must be countless.
From his days as a high school basketball coach in Indiana, to the 10 national championships he won while coach at UCLA, John Wooden left an indelible impression upon everyone he came in contact with.
The most accurate word to describe such an influential and monumental figure as Coach Wooden is transcendent. Wooden transcended the game of basketball, the nature of sport.
His influence on the game is not only legendary, but profound.
Very rarely can you apply the teachings of a basketball coach to the principles of life, but in Wooden's case you most certainly can. Every one of his infamous sayings from, "Be quick, but don't hurry," to "Failing to prepare, is to prepare failing," and "Flexibility is the key to stability," all belong in the game of life just as much as in the game of basketball.
In this day of college basketball, when so many programs are tarnished by recruiting violations, coaches breaking rules, the NCAA exposing athletes to make money, and the insane salaries that coaches are making, I think everyone should take a step back, and admire the work of John Wooden.
From all accounts, the man never cussed. The man never showed up one of his players. The man cared deeply for every player he ever coached.
He showed a certain amount of grace in winning, and a respect of the rules that should make dozens of current Division I coaches turn their heads away in embarrassment.
He understood he was teaching his players more than just the game of basketball. He was teaching them about life.
Unlike so many players of today who look at playing college ball as a way to ultimately reach the NBA and become millionaires, Wooden's players looked at playing for him as a four-year dedication to becoming a better person.
Wooden cared more about his players becoming contributing members of society than about them getting an NBA contract.
Coach Wooden, being one of kindest men ever to have lived in sports, would never have said this, but one has to wonder if he thought it.
If you compare the goals he had for his players (getting a degree, being morally successful, passing his wisdom and kindness to others) to what the current coaching landscape asks (make money, get to the NBA, make me look like I helped get you there) it's honestly just sad.
The game lost a giant this past weekend. Hopefully this will garner the attention of some individuals who are responsible for the partial desecration of Division I college sports.
Hopefully, some will see in Wooden the right way to coach, the right way to teach, and the right way to live life.
Wooden did all of these things and proved how powerful the right way can be.
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