What John Wooden got wrong about basketball.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 5 2010 9:50 AM

John Wooden

What the legendary coach got wrong about basketball.

Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden died on Friday night at the age of 99. Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 national championships in the 1960s and 1970s, is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. But in a 2006 essay, Tommy Craggs wondered if Wooden had helped the game flourish or held it back. The original article is reprinted below.

In December 1973, John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach and cornpone oracle, was coming off his seventh consecutive NCAA championship. He was by then very much a legend, a walking Father's Day card, and every word out of his mouth seemed destined to be cross-stitched onto a throw pillow. The press had genuflected at his feet many times over. That month, however, there appeared in the New York Times Magazine a most remarkable declaration. "John Wooden," hymned the writer, Arnold Hano, "comes as close to an embodiment of Jesus Christ as anyone on the current sporting scene."

It has always been Wooden's singular talent to induce otherwise sane people to say preposterous things about him. To TheNew Yorker, Wooden was "an island of James Whitcomb Riley in a sea of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern, and Jerry Rubin." To Hano, in the Times Magazine, he was "a moral island in a sea of savage rip-off tides." And Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly, all but taking up a chisel and making for the Black Hills, called Wooden, simply, "the best man I know." (The Wooden Story has fossilized to such an extent that a Houston Chronicle columnist, Mickey Herskowitz, was suspended in 2004 after writing a column about Wooden—"an almost biblical figure"—that borrowed liberally from an earlier column about Wooden. Written by Mickey Herskowitz. In 1990.)

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This week, which is bookended by two basketball invitationals named in Wooden's honor, will doubtless see more fattening of sports' most sacred cow. We will almost certainly hear the story of the great coach teaching his players how to put on their socks and shoes. Or the time he threatened to bounce Bill Walton out of the gym if he didn't shave his beard. Somewhere, someone will slaver over Wooden's tour de force of banality, the Pyramid of Success, a pile of exhortative nouns like Industriousness, Intentness, Enthusiasm, and Cooperation, whose mystifying popularity has occasioned the destruction of several screech-owl habitats.

Jesus Christ, indeed.

Wooden, now 96, was indisputably a great coach. His teams, always fit and energetic, won a fat load of games and championships. (Though it bears noting that UCLA benefited not only from the services of the best talent of the day, but also from the largesse of an especially oily booster named Sam Gilbert, a moneylender, as it were, whom Coach Christ forgot to cast out of the temple). But it's time we retire this notion of Wooden as basketball's wise old man and see his legacy for what it is: a triumph of rigidity, bureaucracy, paternalism, and anal retentiveness. The sorts of things, in other words, that James Naismith would hate about his game today.

Last month, Wooden was inducted, along with Naismith, into the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Joined forever in hoops iconography and at least superficially alike—both men of the cloth, both nonsmokers and noncussers—in reality the two couldn't make an odder pair. Wooden was a relentless taskmaster who counted discipline among the game's most important tenets. He had a hand in everything, from his players' grooming habits down to the wool content of their socks (50 percent). In one incredible passage in his coaching textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, Wooden details the Bruins' eating routine: "The meal usually consists of a ten-to-twelve-ounce steak broiled medium or an equivalent portion of lean roast beef, a small baked potato, a green vegetable, three pieces of celery, four small slices of melba toast, some honey, hot tea, and a dish of fruit cocktail. Occasionally, I let the player eat as he thinks best."

But Naismith, as art critic Dave Hickey has noted, was wonderfully Jeffersonian. He set down only five guiding principles—discipline not among them—to govern his game, which he was delighted to point out did not need a coach. The beauty of Naismith's invention is that it foresaw, even insisted upon, its own evolution—why else put the hoop in the air? And why else include, in those earthbound days, a goaltending rule? He once wrote: "Each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me."