The “Indiana Rubber Band Man” died, aged 99, no longer bounding up from his relentless defending of Hoosier hardwood floors. But this was back in June. He still bounces furiously into my hoop crazy mind, though all recent images and tributes to him call him venerable, gentle, wise, even saintly. I think he was. But I also think he was a burning man with the wit and the training not to blow himself up, to take that rage for perfection and goodness and actually do good with it.
I have been a basketball coach, and I have meant to write about him for months. Then, last night, Johnny Wooden came into my dreams for the first time I can remember, though his example and his words are in heavy rotation in my mental play-by-playlist. If you get anywhere near sports, you probably heard: Legendary Coach Dies; He Was the Best Coach Ever, and a Better Man; We Shall Not See His Like Again. And so on. I accept all those things, and lots more. He was my greatest living hero. But I have a little trouble with the hymns to his quiet goodness and the photos of the feeble but “still sharp” and stubbornly independent old fellow he was at the end. In my favourite photo, a young Wooden, holding an antique basketball and wearing a Purdue Boilermakers jersey, glares at the camera, as if daring the world to try to steal that ball from him. His eyes glitter with intensity and even a bit of menace. No doubt those whose language was saltier than his muttered about him, no doubt with more than a tinge of admiration. That sonuvabitch. Hard-headed bugger. Doesn’t that bastard ever quit?
His body, finally, did quit. There are many tributes from his former players, especially those from his famed and unmatchable championship run with the University of California at Los Angeles 1, which testify, in the wake of his passing, to his technical brilliance, his moral influence and matchless example. Back then, though, they must have often found him unbearably relentless, quaintly preachy, and surely at times – though he famously never went farther than “goodness gracious sakes alive!” – searingly critical. As someone who withered many a high school ball-bouncer with expectations he was sure he couldn’t meet that day (or, too often, simply by anger and a radiant impatience that he didn’t deserve), I imagine that a young Wooden, though profoundly trained in reserve and dignity by his father and his Christian faith, was a fireball. Wooden spent eleven years as an Indiana high school English teacher and multi-sport coach before answering the call of a local college and then the one from UCLA. The Bruins, in the 50s, represented something of a basketball backwater compared to the frenzy of the Hoosier state.
And yes, I was also that high school English teacher, pretty wingy for my small-town charges but also pretty good. And I was a coach, inspired not just by Wooden’s left-coast winning, but also by his morality, humility, love for poetry, and by The Pyramid. (If you’ve never heard of or seen the famous Pyramid of Success, it’s worth a look.) They Call Me Coach became my whistle-blowing bible. 2 I tried to be a southern Ontario John Wooden, but I was missing many ingredients. It was not a basketball hotbed, and I was not as much of a hotshot as beating the Cayuga Warriors made me want to think.
When he came into my sleep as an elderly figure, I had been grinding my way through the frustration dream. This time, though, instead of not being able to find my classroom on the first day of school, or stumbling down ever-narrower basement halls that bury my hopes of going who-knows-where, I find all my old basketball coaching materials. I’m meeting referees, former players, the girl that kept score for all those house-league games, but mostly I keep stumbling upon racks of jerseys and t-shirts, and stacks of silk-screen logos, newspaper clippings, coaching clinic notes, practice plans, posters, photos, files, schedules, announcements. Through many half-waking attempts to get away from all this stuff, and from my endless devotion to it, trying to remember that the bulk of it is long gone and far away, I only find more and more of the impedimenta of an athletic obsession. Familiar gyms and former homes and places I’ve never been are, in this new version of an old nightmare, overflowing with it.
And then John Wooden was there. He was old, old, but bright-eyed and carefree, even a bit silly. He looked at more uniforms that I’d found, for some men’s league team I’ve never heard of. I said, You never played in anything so fine and light, did you, John? (I called him John. Had I met him in my waking life, it wouldn’t have been anything other than “Coach” or “sir”.) He fairly danced about, showing others this splendid jersey. And then I slid unwillingly out of the dream, forlorn, regretful. Why so sad, I wondered. It had been such a novel and sweet ending to a frustration dream.
And then I realized that I wanted his blessing, his Oh, my, you put so much into the game, well done! I hoped, in hindsight, for a pat on the back, for the Great Coach’s Attaboy!, for a father to approve the eager efforts of this son. It’s another signal, one of many in this ever-foreign land where I can play basketball but no longer coach it, that I’m still a restless wanderer in sub-basements of basketball halls of fame and longing. I want to believe that I was pretty good at it. And I want to know that I did some good.
Johnny, I wish you’d stayed a little longer.
1 His UCLA Bruins won 11 national championships; no other collegiate men’s basketball coach has won more than four. Geno Auriemma, women’s coach at Connecticut, has now won seven times in the only hoops career that comes close (and some would place a gender asterix next to that record, the women’s competitive era being so young).
2 Actually, the Bible is still one of my bibles, though the Kitab-i-Iqan is my book of certitude and Gleanings my greatest guide.