Wooden, and our beatification of the man, has had its toxic effect on the game. It's certainly there in the NBA, which over the past year or so has hired a chief strategist of President Bush's re-election campaign to win back Middle America; instituted an absurd and paternalistic dress code (glossed nicely here); and stood idly by while Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles benched Ben Wallace, one of the hardest-working players in the game, for wearing a headband.
It is another Wooden contribution, however, that I fear will endure. He has given us the basketball moralist, someone for whom the fundamentals are themselves a kind of faith. Wooden provided a framework for linking on-court play with virtue. A bounce pass is not just fundamentally sound, but somehow morally exigent; a missed dunk is a straight path to damnation. Leave aside some of the more repellent conclusions this might lead one to—it is simply a boring and blinkered way of watching a basketball game. This, ultimately, is John Wooden's legacy: He taught us to take a profane bit of beautiful exercise and turn it into church.