There’s been so much said and written this week about the former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who died late last week, that I didn’t think there was anything for me to add.
I was never a big college basketball guy. And Wooden retired in 1975, right around the time I started following sports.
I knew, of course, that he was held in high esteem. I knew that he had won like a million straight games at UCLA and that he was regarded as a great teacher, a great man.
But for me, Wooden was just one of those public figures who had been around since the beginning of time.
I haven’t seen much mention of Wooden’s faith in the few tributes I read about him.
But today, I came across an interesting essay on ReligionDispatches.org by a fellow named Amir Hussain, a Canadian Muslim who teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit university in Los Angeles.
Hussain came to admire Wooden because of his influence on Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, a rare Muslim role model during the 1970s. Hussain later moved to California and had contact with Wooden on several occasions.
He never imposed his Christian faith on anyone, only insisting that his players “have a religion and believe in it.” Coach was a pluralist long before many of us had heard of the term. Of his own faith, one of his favorite maxims was “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” Many of us have grown tired of the hypocrisy of self-described “Christian athletes” who can glibly quote Bible verses but can’t manage to live by them. Coach, as always, was different. We both agreed that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American, but he said that the greatest person of his generation was Mother Teresa. Like her, he lived out his Christianity in service to others.
Poking around for additional reflection about Wooden’s faith, I found a column by religion scribe Terry Mattingly about Wooden’s strong, but quiet Protestant faith.
He notes that Wooden rarely missed the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four.
When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life’s great lessons — which led to his famous “Pyramid of Success” image, built on common virtues such as “skill,” “enthusiasm,” “industriousness,” “patience” and “faith.” Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as “Be quick, but don’t hurry” and “It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts.”
But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: “Basketball is not the ultimate. 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.”
Mattingly also writes on the GetReligion blog (which critiques media coverage of religion) that too much coverage of Wooden’s death neglected to mention his faith.
He writes that an obit in the NYT “did find a way to address — in secular terms that would not offend the newspaper’s audience — the kind of moral influence that Wooden had on his players.”
I now kind of wish I did pay more attention to Wooden when he would make those TV appearances now then. Maybe I’ll get one of his books.
AP file photo