John Wooden came to my work just over four years ago, back when I lived in that corporate world. The company’s training and development group (yes, these things exist) had set up seminars with Andy Hill, one of his former players, and then brought Wooden in and hundreds of executives crowded the lot theater to listen to Wooden talk.
At 95 he was still sharp as a tack. His only visible concession to age was the wheelchair that transported him longer distances. But he’d pull a quote or a poem out of his memory at the drop of a hat, and his insight was cutting.
My favorite story about that day, though, is second-hand. One of our chairmen was famous for his impatience, and he often implied, when he wasn’t saying it outright, that he could do everyone’s job better than they could. He had also been a college athlete, and was apparently gobsmacked when Wooden said that he had never, over the years, yelled at his players to motivate them.
“Never?” asked our chairman.
“Well,” replied Wooden, “I never had you playing for me.”
John Wooden will live on – there are his countless aphorisms and his Pyramid of Success, plus his incredible run as UCLA basketball coach, and I imagine I will, every so often, have to dig out his warning to not confuse activity for achievement – a distinction sadly lost on our national media these days – but Wooden, in that moment, provided the story I will always tell about him.
He will be missed.
To give you a sense of Wooden’s priorities, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about arguing with him on the team bus about “…when to use a colon and when a semicolon. We’d argue the difference between ‘like’ and ‘as if.'”
And then there’s Bill Walton. “When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time,” said Walton, “the quality of my life went down. That’s how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA.”
[Video above is John Wooden accepting his induction into the Los Angeles Coliseum’s Court of Honor.]