by Steve Laube
Last night the great basketball coach John Wooden passed away at the age of ninety-nine. As you can see from the photo above I had the privilege of attending one of his basketball camps during the Summer of 1974.
It was a John Wooden and Bill Sharman (then coach of the LA Lakers) camp in Honolulu. We lived and breathed basketball 24/7 during that week. We drilled during the day, sat in classes, and scrimmaged in the afternoons and evenings. It was heaven for an aspiring athlete. (For the rest of the world that week was notable because President Nixon resigned that Thursday August 8, 1974.)
During one drill Coach Wooden pointed at me and said, “Come here young man and show me how you rebound the ball.” I sheepishly came out in front the other players and for a couple minutes Coach Wooden schooled me on how to box out. No matter what I did, spinning, pushing, hip-checking, and jumping, he always snagged the rebound. I couldn’t believe this gray haired “old man” who was at least five inches shorter than me could do that. (Coach Wooden would have been 63 years old at the time.) It was only later that I found out that he was in the Hall of Fame…as a player (inducted in 1960)! No wonder he taught this skinny kid a lesson!
When that exercise was over he patted me on the back and said, “Good work, son.” He didn’t shame me, he didn’t show me up. He taught me and everyone else on the court the power of good footwork, dogged determination, and that you didn’t have to jump high to get every rebound. The memory of that is so strong I can still feel his elbows, hips, and other bones grinding into my thighs and ribs as I tried to get around him.
Later that week they had us practice free throws until we were sick of them. Little did I know that at one time in his playing days, Coach Wooden made 134 consecutive free throws in a 46 game period. And the other instructor was Bill Sharman who led the NBA in free throw percentage seven times! (Bill Sharman still holds the record for consecutive free throws in the playoffs with 56.) Now that I look back I’m amazed at the privilege I had to receive instruction from these great coaches.
But even greater is the legacy of character and faith that he instilled in everyone. I’ve read his books and interviews, and heard numerous comments about him from former players. A couple simple sentences illustrate some of his wisdom. In last night’s Associated Press article they wrote: “Asked in a 2008 interview the secret to his long life, Wooden replied: ‘Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.’
Asked what he would like God to say when he arrived at the pearly gates, Wooden replied, ‘Well done.'”
I suspect that is exactly what he heard last night.