John Wooden: Understanding Race Equality and Character Through Sports

john woodenThe legend of Westwood, John Wooden passed away last week at the age of 99 years of age. His passing represents the passing of an era. He became known as the Wizard of Westwood, a term first used to describe the point guard of his first championship team, Walt Hazzard, but later applied his ability to use a mixture of talents to cook up a championship team where none was apparent.

Yes, he did have Lewis Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, two of the greatest college (and pro) players ever. But height doesn’t guarantee a championship. Wilt Chamberlain played at Kansas for two years and never won an NCAA championship. Wooden’s wizardry wasn’t being the most accomplished sports coach of the 20th Century (on poll stated that he was the greatest in sports history).

Winning 10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12-year period from 1964 to 1975, including seven years in a row (1967-1973), is something no one will ever accomplish again. Why? Because the world has changed, college sports has changed, coaching has changed, and players have changed. If it were just about “numbers,” John Wooden would have been just a great coach. His team’s four undefeated seasons and unparalleled 88-game winning streak are enough to substantiate the attribute “great.”

The wizardry of John Wooden was in being able to mode the minds of generations of athletes that their success was interdependent on a “pyramid” of attributes that amounted to success. John Wooden espoused that perfection comes in preparation and preparation requires repetition and repetition demands commitment and commitment requires character. His principles extended beyond the players who played for him, and extended beyond the game he loved—John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” changed American culture and became the mindset for teaching winners, on and off the basketball court. Wooden’s philosophies extended beyond sports, industry and yes, race.

John Wooden never talked much about race. He was just a decent man who understood what was right; he did right by people regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion; and he lived that creed. But race was the talk of America during the 1963-64 season that began the legend of John Wooden. In 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first unveiled his “I Have A Dream” speech at Cobo Arena in Detroit (and later that year in Washington, D.C.), John Wooden put together a rag-tag team of players from all over the country, including a starting line-up made up of two blacks, two whites and a Jew — no starter was taller than six foot, five inches — at a time where America’s race relations was deteriorating quickly, and crowds were very hostile to teams with black players on them.

john woodenCoach John Wooden made players of various races and belief systems play together and forget about race and religion for forty minutes a game. The politics of race was well-known and well documented in college sports. While not as much of an issue today, in 1963, not many NCAA Division I schools had black players on their teams. Those that had one, only had one (or two). If they had one, the black player, in most instances, had to be the best player on the team—and could play. They couldn’t take a spot up on the bench. Black players were admitted to college to play sports. Period.

The UCLA men’s basketball team had three black players–Walt Hazzard at point guard, Fred Slaughter at center, and “super-sub” Kenny Washington. UCLA had had black players since Don Barksdale played and was the first black player named All-American in 1947, so that wasn’t anything new. What was new was that these players were the dominant forces of the team’s chemistry and they complimented both their teammates attributes and the coaches’ tough intellectual rigor.

Wooden played these players based on the content of their character, not based on the color of their skin. John Wooden proved that black players could play strategic positions beyond being the dominant player that Bill Russell was at University of San Francisco in 1956 and 1957 or Oscar Robertson was at the University of Cincinnati in 1958-1960. The 1964 UCLA Men’s Basketball Team went 30-0, his first undefeated team–but not his last; there would be three more undefeated teams. His 1964 team was his first championship team, certainly not his last. There would be nine more.

John Wooden often said his 1964 Championship team was the one that taught him as much as he taught them (which was significant), and it was the one that reached closest to their full potential. It was a team that played and won based on the content of their character. The nine championship teams that followed were of the same makeup. John Wooden never promised a player that he would play (as coaches often have to today before a player will commit) but he did promise them that they would be get an education and that they would be better persons. And if they had the right stuff-the combination of talent, discipline and character, they did play, and they did win.

John Wooden was a master teacher who taught “life” lessons in the 35 years after his retirement from UCLA. He will be missed but his life lesson will live on forever.

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com.

About Anthony Asadullah Samad

Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is an author, scholar and the co-founder, Managing Director and host of the Urban Issues Forum. Dr. Samad's most recent book is entitled "Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom". His national column can be read in newspapers and cyber-sites nationwide. His weekly writings can be read at www.blackcommentator.com. For more information about Dr. Samad, go to www.AnthonySamad.com.

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