WHEN A GREAT MAN DIES, great words get written about him. Earlier this month, at the age of 99, a truly great man, John Wooden, died. The legendary coach of University of California, Los Angeles, men's basketball team had many fine words written about him, including a wonderful elegy in the New York Times, that, sadly, also redacted his life.
Many people like to read the biographies of men and women so they can learn their creeds, so they can live like them. Wooden carried his creed in his pocket.
This is how the New York Times obituary put it: "Wooden was a dignified, scholarly man who spoke with the precise language of the English teacher he once was. He always carried a piece of paper with a message from his father that read: 'Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.' Wooden said he lived by that creed. . . ."
That's a wonderful creed. There is only one problem: this is not what John Wooden lived by, it is an edited piece of its "precise language."
More than a week later, after lots of Internet grief, only then did the Times did correct their "five-and-a-half-point" creed to its original seven points. "All the news that fit to print"? How about "All the ideology that's edited to fit our worldview"?
Here is Coach Wooden's actual creed from his official website (www.coachjohnwooden.com): "Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day."
What the New York Times left out was not incidental; it was what was most important to John Wooden, that which was most central to his life: "especially the Bible" and "praying for guidance and giving thanks every day," that is, his Christian faith.
If we want to emulate John Wooden, we will start, like Wooden, by reading a little bit of the Bible every day.
Wooden noted once that some Christians criticized him for not being more vocal about his faith, according to Kelly Boggs. "I served as a basketball coach at a public institution; therefore I never felt it was appropriate. I always had a Bible on my desk and I intentionally led by example based on Christ's teaching," said Wooden.
"Some evangelical Christians thought of me as liberal,” Wooden continued, “because they disagree with my decision to let my life speak for my faith. At the same time, liberals consider me to be way too conservative." Wooden added, "I know you can't please everyone, so on this issue I haven't tried. I have only wanted to please God."
Here is one example of how Wooden lived his Christian principles. "In 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke into the Major Leagues, Wooden declined an invitation to the NAIA tournament – then the equivalent of today’s super-hyped NCAA Tournament – because tourney organizers told Wooden an African-American player had to stay [home]. Wooden refused," reported Peter Elliott.
David Burchett tells us that Coach Wooden said this about what really matters. "Material possessions, winning scores, and great reputations are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord, because He knows what we really are and that is all that matters," Wooden said.
Fascinating to learn is this clear fact: the man who was perhaps the winningest coach of any team sport ever, never talked about winning, ever -- and to top that off, downplayed the significance of the game he loved so much and taught so well.
"Basketball is not the ultimate," Terry Mattingly cites Wooden as saying. "It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere," said Wooden.
This is the legendary John Wooden, as he really was.
Gary D. Gaddy would like to emulate the unedited life of John Wooden.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday June 25, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy