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John Wooden
 
John Wooden
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John Wooden Interview

Basketball's Coaching Legend

February 27, 1996
Los Angeles, California

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  John Wooden

What was it like when you were growing up in Indiana in the 1920s?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: In looking back, you would say it was difficult, but you didn't think it was difficult at the time. I grew up on a farm. We lost the farm in the depression the year I was a freshman in high school. Then, we moved into this little town, Martinsville. But, while we were on the farm, we had no running water and no electricity and practically everything we ate, we grew. It must have been extremely difficult for my mother, with four sons and her husband, farmers, getting dirty all the time, my poor mother having to do all the laundry, hand washing everything and then cooking for all of those. But, we didn't think it was tough at the time. When you look back on it, it looks very difficult, but we loved it.

Are there things you learned growing up that stay with you in your life?

John Wooden: Undoubtedly. We read more.


There wasn't television. There wasn't radio, to speak of. We didn't have it. Dad would read to us in the evenings. He read the Bible every day and insisted that we did, and he'd read poetry to us. I can still remember him reading "Hiawatha."

By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis...

That encouraged my love for poetry. There were no athletic scholarships in those days, and mother and dad didn't have financial means to help, but all four sons got through college. They worked their way through, and either majored or minored in English, every one of them. Every one became an administrator, all but me. I never became a principal or administrator, but I have a lifetime principal and superintendent's license in the state of Indiana as well as a teacher's license of English.


Tell us about your father, how he influenced your life and career.


John Wooden: Like Mark Twain, when I was young, I probably didn't appreciate my father at all. But thinking back, some of the things he did became so meaningful. I didn't realize at the time. For example, he tried to get across to us never try to be better than someone else. Learn from others and never cease trying to be the best you can be at whatever you're doing. It doesn't make a difference what it is. Just try to be the best you can possibly be. Maybe that won't be better than someone else, but that's no problem. It will be better than somebody else, probably, but somebody else is going to be better than that. Don't worry about that. If you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it's going to adversely effect the things over which you have control. I can remember his trying to get that idea across, and I remember two sets of threes that he gave us. One was "Never lie, never cheat and never steal." I've heard that since in different ways. The first time I heard it was from my Dad. The other one I never heard from anyone else was "Don't whine, don't complain and don't alibi." He tried to get those ideas across, maybe not in so many words, but by action. He walked it, let me put it that way. He was a gentle man, but physically strong, I think, but was gentle. As Mr. Lincoln said, "There's nothing stronger than gentleness." I think perhaps my dad emanated that.



When I graduated from the small country grade school, in the eighth grade, he gave me this little card, and all he said was, "Son, try to live up to this." On one side was a verse that said,

"Four things a man must learn to do
If he would make his life more true:
To think without confusion clearly,
To love his fellow man sincerely,
To act from honest motives purely,
To trust in God and heaven securely."

And, on the other side, was a seven point creed that I say I've tried to live up to. I haven't, but I'm weak at times. One was "Be true to yourself, help others, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books, make each day your masterpiece, build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live, and give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day." I kept it with me until it had completely worn out. I still carry it around on a card, and always have it with me. Not the original that Dad gave me, because it just wore out, but one just like it. My father was a good person. I don't believe there's ever been a better person than my dad.


When did you start playing basketball?


John Wooden: In grade school. We had a little country grade school with an outdoor court, no indoor. We had to shovel snow off the court and play with no uniforms. We'd have a little thing we put over the bib of our overalls and maybe a different type of shoes, but not basketball shoes in the sense that we have now. But we had a grade school team and we played some other grade schools from around the area. Indiana's crazy over basketball, in some ways too crazy. Then I went to Martinsville, which had a fine reputation, and we had great teams while I was there. As a matter of fact, we went to the state championship game in all three of my years in the high school. We lost it twice and won it once. Everybody there is crazy over basketball. This little town at that time had 4,800 people, and yet they had built a gymnasium the year before I entered high school that seated 5,200 and it was always full. People don't believe me when I tell them about that here in California. Californians just don't believe that, but it's true.


You've coached and you've played a lot of sports. What is it about basketball that made it your game?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: Baseball was always my first love. That's my favorite sport. But, basketball, to me, is a greater spectator sport for a number of reasons. It's played with the largest object. The basketball is larger. The spectators are closer to the action. They can follow the ball. You can't always follow the baseball or the puck or the football, but you can follow the basketball. It's a fast game. It's a game of action. It has all the ingredients, I think, to make it a tremendous spectator sport. I think it is the best of all the spectator sports. It's a team game.

I'm concerned about the basketball today, somewhat. I think it's becoming too much showmanship and I don't like that. If I want showmanship, I'll go see the Globetrotters. In the pros today, the player that I'd rather see than anybody else is John Stockton from Utah, the all-time leader in assists. It's not just because he's the all-time leader in assists. It's his demeanor. He's a spirited player but never gets mad. He's quick., he's intelligent, he's unselfish and he can do all things well.


I've had many fans while I was coaching, say to me now, "Of course, I don't know anything about basketball, but..." And then, they'd start telling you what you're doing wrong, or why aren't you doing this, or why aren't you doing that. And, the fact that they're interested, that should never upset a coach. He should be pleased that they are interested. That shows that they are.


When did you realize that you had a talent for that game? What made you such an outstanding player, even as a youngster?

John Wooden: I don't know.


Just in playing with others, I seemed to do well. When I was in grade school, I seemed to do well. I would be one of the better ones, and in high school was one of the better ones, and in college one of the better ones. The Lord gave me some natural things. Perhaps in my coaching experience, I found out from my own personal playing experience that I didn't have as much size as many, but I was quicker than most all, and that was my strength. So, in my recruiting, in all the years when I became a college coach, I'm recruiting for quickness. Now, you want a certain amount of size, but more coaches will give up some quickness to get more size. I would not. I would give up some size to get more quickness.


I hoped my forwards would be quicker than opposing forwards. I hoped that my guards would be quicker than opposing guards. I hoped my postmen would be quicker than opposing postmen. And, that's what I'm looking for, and then I'm trying to incorporate that in making it into a team game.


It is such a team game. It's a beautiful game when it's played as a team. To me, it's not beautiful when it's individual one working one on one and going out and making a fancy dunk. That isn't pretty to me. That may be what most of the fans seem to love, but I don't.


Could you coach the same way now that you did when you were coaching?


John Wooden: I see no reason why not, if you show those under your supervision that you really care for them. And that you're interested in the group as a whole, but also in them individually. One of my favorite coaches, Amos Alonzo Stagg, once said he never had a player he did not love. He had many he didn't like and didn't respect, but he loved them just the same. I hope my players know that I love them all. There are times I didn't like them. There were times I didn't like my own children, but it never had anything to do with my love for them. If people want to be basketball players, if they know you care for them, if you're not a dictator and if you make them feel that they're working with you, not for you, I don't know why I couldn't today.


John Wooden Interview Photo

We've talked about the importance of your father. Who, beside your father, was an important influence in your life?

John Wooden Interview Photo
John Wooden: My wife, Nellie, my high school sweetheart. She helped me in so many ways. I suppose people today might say it's hard to believe, but I was an extremely shy person. Maybe being raised in the country had something to do with it. She got me to go to take public speaking classes, which I probably wouldn't have done. I know that was of great help to me. And then, in so many other ways. She was a year behind me in high school. I've got a picture of us when she was 15 and I was 16. I don't know why but, when we met, it was just love at first sight. She is the only girl I ever went with. I was a year ahead of her and I went away to college. Then, she graduated from high school and worked, and we didn't get to see each other that much because times were hard. Even though it's only 70 or 80 miles from Lafayette to Burnsville, the bus might have been 10 or 15 cents. I didn't have it and she didn't either. We didn't get together much but we knew as soon as I graduated and got a job, we would get married and we did. She was a tremendous influence in so many ways.

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