I believe that John Wooden has read the Book of Proverbs, for reading the Bible is part of the old coach’s daily walk through the world.
He certainly has been through the passage in the eighth chapter that reads: “For wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare to her.”
At 98, he lives alone in a cramped Encino, Calif., apartment. He has creaky knees, never made more money in a year coaching college basketball than a beginning teacher makes now, and still mourns a wife who died more than 20 years ago.
Obviously, that résumé hardly defines Wooden, but in the fast-paced universe of big-time college hoops, with its white-light glamour and inflated salaries, the old coach’s legacy appears to many to be antiquated and hopelessly bland.
On the other hand, I am far from the only person who believes that Wooden may be one of the wisest men alive, a mountaintop-like sage of common sense and good will dressed in a cardigan sweater and double-knit pants. Indiana State University recently and aptly named its home basketball floor after Wooden and his late wife, Nell, and with that story making our front page, a flood of good memories about him came back to me.
Few people are privileged to meet their heroes; I’ve met mine twice. I saw Wooden for the first time in April 1987. He had come to Terre Haute to speak at the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner at Hulman Center. When we heard that Wooden was coming to town, my buddy, Joe, and I, both coaching at the time, decided we’d be in the audience to hear him.
After his time at the podium was over, Wooden was ushered off a dais and into the subterranean hallways that constitute Hulman Center’s bowels. As others grabbed their coats or polished off the last of their dinner drinks, Joe and I walked away from the crowded floor and down one of those hallways hoping to meet the coach face-to-face. We did.
He was gracious as we handed him our programs to sign and kicked the toes of our shoes like school kids. I asked him who had written a poem he had recited during his presentation, and he simply said, “I did,” and grinned the same grin that I’d seen as championship nets had been hung around his neck. He asked for my address, because upon learning that I, too, taught English and coached basketball, he wanted to mail something to me.
I didn’t figure I would hear from Coach Wooden again, so I pushed his promise into the back of my mind to go in search of a frame for my autographed program. Months later, a bulging package arrived at my home. Among its contents was that poem, written out in Wooden’s neat hand on his own note paper. Along with it was a small autographed card that held his universally admired “Pyramid of Success.”
Wooden, of course, is a basketball legend. He won 10 NCAA men’s championships — seven in row from 1966 to 1973. He won more than 80 percent of the games he coached; his consecutive winning streak of 88 games is untouched. He led Bruins teams to four undefeated seasons and won 19 Pac 10 titles; he won 149 of the 151 games he coached on his home floor at Pauley Pavilion. The list goes on and on…
But Joe and I went to listen to Wooden that night, not because we hoped he’d share a drill or a play with us that would help our teams win, but because we already had come to know his wisdom through reading his autobiography, “They Call Me Coach.” We were Wooden converts, acolytes who were hardly the same two men who once hoped that the former Indiana State University basketball coach would start losing at UCLA because he was almost certainly beating Indiana or Purdue or Notre Dame like a toy drum.
The second time I met Wooden came at a basketball clinic in Indianapolis. He had to be helped to the stage, for his knees were in even worse shape in those days before his replacement surgeries. He spoke about the “little things” that made him a success, and I sat arrow-straight in my seat, pen and notebook in hand, and jotted down virtually every word he said. He shared tales about “Lewis” (Alcindor, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and “William” (Bill Walton), even about how to put socks on the UCLA way. He spoke of rules and discipline and team over self and humility, yet many of my neighboring coaches that day rudely whispered among themselves, apparently thinking that what Wooden spoke of was a waste of time.
It is an oft-repeated question as to whether Wooden could coach now, and if so, could he still win. We don’t question that there is still a place for integrity and wisdom and rules in college basketball; we just wonder if coaches can still win by advocating them.
Solomon also wrote in his first chapter of Proverbs, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning.”
That’s exactly what we should be doing when John Wooden speaks.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com, or through regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be signing his new book, “The Off Season, The Newspaper Stories of Mike Lunsford,” at the Arts Illiana Art Gallery on North Sixth Street from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, and at the Vigo County Public Library’s Author Accolades from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. He will be at the Rockville and Marshall, Ill., libraries Dec. 9 and 11, respectively, and at the Brazil Coffee Co. in Brazil on Dec. 13. Visit his Web site at www.mikelunsford.com.
I believe that John Wooden has read the Book of Proverbs, for reading the Bible is part of the old coach’s daily walk through the world.
- Mike Lunsford
Author visits birthplace of Calvin Coolidge
Editor’s Note: Today, in this seventh and final installment of Mike Lunsford’s “New England Journal,” the writer visits a small town in south central Vermont, birthplace of the nation’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge. Be sure to look for Mike’s regular column in Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Star.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The long goodbye to winter
I have no idea what the weather is to bring to us on the morning this story runs, but on the day I write most of it, the sun is shining, and we have just come off a weekend of pleasant warmth and cloudless skies.
Heaven on Earth: Writer gets lost — both figuratively and literally — at Acadia National Park
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day hiking the Atlantic shoreline and the trails of Maine’s Acadia National Park.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’
I’ve been thankful this winter for a full propane tank and ample cold cranking amps and school snow-delay days that have kept me off the roads until the sun is up on the most frigid of these mornings.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The night the snow fell
You would think that the cold winds and deep snows that we endured two weeks ago would be old news by now, but as I stood in the checkout line at a grocery store just a few days back, a gallon of milk in one hand and a quart of orange juice in the other, a customer just ahead of me appeared to be stocking up to make a run for the Donner Pass, and all she could talk about was the storm.
THE OFF SEASON: Seeing the miraculousness of the ordinary
It was just a few nights ago that I announced to my wife that I was headed outside to watch the International Space Station pass overhead.
‘Afternoon on a Hill’: The formal poet who led an informal life — Edna St. Vincent Millay
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of an afternoon exploring the rural gardens and home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay near Austerlitz, N.Y. Join Lunsford in February for the sixth installment of this series as he wanders along the wooded shorelines of Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Lying by the warm radioside
I am writing this piece well before Christmas Eve, although you wouldn’t think that it can be far away by the look of things out my windows tonight.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘The mind is a dark forest’
If you hadn’t noticed by reading this newspaper or hearing me crow about it myself, I have another collection of stories out in print.
Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Inching on toward a cold winter?
I’m not ready for snow and ice and the daggers of a north wind, but I have finally accepted the fact that winter is nearly here.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘I’m going simply because I’ve got to … ’
Late in the year 1944, the great Hoosier war correspondent Ernie Pyle, mentally and physically exhausted from his months reporting from the battlefields of Europe, came home for the last time. He was scrawny and gray.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Pumpkins: Good for the fork and the (carving) knife
My wife and I are fairly frugal; we are budgeters and planners. In the fall, we set aside what we’ll need to heat the house and pay the doctor and buy sensible shoes for school. I think we’re going to have to open an account for pumpkins, too.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Déjà vu, courtesy of violinist prodigy
It’s been said that the longer married couples stay together, the more they begin to think alike. I can’t refute that, although, for my wife’s sake, I hope a similar theory — that they begin to look alike, too — is far from true.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The beauty, spirit of a ‘lonely’ bridge
It was the best kind of day a few Saturdays ago: not quite 70 degrees, a slight breeze from the northwest barely pushed flat-bottomed white clouds around in an otherwise blue sky.
Mike Lunsford: The golden rods of September
The sunflowers that are framed in my cabin’s eastside window are soon to become things of the past, for no matter how much I water and weed, the time has come for them to go.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It isn’t the end but it is the beginning of the end …
I had every intention of writing about Labor Day today; it has become a tradition of sorts for me because it seems as though my column and the holiday have an annual convergence. But as I thumbed through a number of other stories I’d written on the subject, I felt I had nothing new to say.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A long day’s journey into night
We arrived at the sprawling hulk of a motel well after dark, the parking lot pitch black except for a few spots illuminated by flickering blue lights that hummed a monotonous tune.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Searching for Beulah Jane
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s Mike Lunsford column is the second in a two-part story on his search to solve a family mystery. Part 1 was published in Monday’s Tribune-Star. Both are available at www.tribstar.com.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The girl who wasn’t my grandmother
EDITOR’S NOTE: We travel this week with Mike Lunsford on a journey across miles and memories, as he seeks answers to a long-ago family mystery. Today’s column is the first of a two-part story. Part II will run Tuesday.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Once more to the lake…’
We are heading home today after spending a few days on Lake Michigan, and I am a bit sad for the leaving. We have made it a habit to come here every year, dragging weary bones and beach towels and enough breakfast food to last us a week. And, as expected, when I turn my back on the cool blueness of the lake for the last time this afternoon, I’ll know that another year has gone by, and there’s no getting it back.
Poets at heart, writer, wife walk paths that Frost walked
A few summers ago, my family traveled to New England to see what we could see. Along the way, we dipped our toes into Walden Pond, holy waters to those who have read Henry David Thoreau. My wife and I returned to the region last month to seek shrines that poets at heart revere: the Vermont homes where Robert Frost wrote magical words.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Mice really do play when the cat’s away
I am rarely away from my place much in the summer. I like the quiet here and don’t yearn to be gone for very long at a time. To me, a vacation often means that I don’t have to start my car for days on end, or put on socks, for that matter. But this year has been different; my wife and I took a two-week driving trip through New England, the longest vacation we’ve ever had without our kids along for the ride. We had a great time, but when we got back, we were surprised to learn that all kinds of things had been going on in our absence.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A New England journal begins …
BAR HARBOR, MAINE — I am beginning this story before I can possibly know how it ends. The view from my window isthat of a green Maine countryside on a Thursday morning, so I felt compelled to get started, knowing a deadline looms. It is difficult work, not because I have so few ideas from which to draw, but because I have so many. …
MIKE LUNSFORD: We’ve created a honey of a problem
The Dutch clover is making its appearance in my yard this week. A cooler-than-usual spring has slowed its arrival by a few days, but it is here for now, bringing the honeybees and bumblebees with it.
A walk in the woods
I went for a walk in the woods one day last week after work. It was a warm and green afternoon, and a fresh blue breeze blew in from the west like a new spring friend.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Dowsers’ provide hope more than science
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
MIKE LUNSFORD: As of today, it’s unofficially spring
Despite the calendar telling us not to rush things, I think it is all right to go ahead and say spring is here. The Ides of March has passed, Easter is coming soon, and I have already been out in my yard with a rake, getting my boots muddy. It looks like spring to me.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Twain’s Sawyer helps us yearn for ‘wilderness of childhood’
My cousin, Roger, stopped in one day last summer for a glass of tea and a little conversation. Rog has lived an hour’s drive away for years and now, and besides summer reunions, I don’t see him nearly often enough. He’s a good man who has raised a good family, and he owns a healthy sense of appreciation for not only the life he has now, but also the lives we had years ago as kids.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Cheerful green of wheat fights winter blahs
There is a light drizzle of freezing rain tapping at the door of my cabin today. It is little more than a week before the words I am writing are due to appear on your breakfast table or work desk with your morning coffee and scrambled eggs. But I write when I can, and today, despite a full schedule of televised football games, and the stacks of ungraded papers in my briefcase, and a good book lying open on my nightstand, I am clacking away on a keyboard to the whir of a heater and the steady drip of my gutters.
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