John Wooden vs LeBron James

Be true to yourself; help others; make each day your masterpiece; drink deeply from good books; make friendship a fine art; build a shelter against a rainy day; pray for guidance and be thankful.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach John Wooden

To read or listen to this essay in full:

My Inspirational Essay for October.

Today I saw a Tweet by LeBron James and I immediately thought of John Wooden. I will get into LeBron’s Tweet in a minute, but first let me remind everyone who John Wooden is.

John Robert Wooden (1910 – 2010), was an American basketball coach and player. Nicknamed the Wizard of Westwood, (a name he didn’t like) he won ten National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in a 12-year period as head coach for the UCLA Bruins, including a record seven in a row. No other team has won more than four. Within this period, his teams won an NCAA men’s basketball record 88 consecutive games. Among countless prestigious awards, Wooden won the Henry Iba Award as national coach of the year a record seven times and won the AP award five times.

Here’s some of the men who played on Wooden’s ‘Dream Team’: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Sideny Wicks, Henry Bibby, Gail Goodrich, Keith Wilks.

“He never made more than $35,000 a year salary, including 1975, the year he won his 10th national championship, and never asked for a raise”, wrote Rick Reilly of ESPN. According to his own writings, Wooden turned down an offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers that may have been ten times what UCLA was paying him.

I had the privilege of meeting Coach Wooden shortly before his death in June 2010. I was helping Henry Bibby to write his life story. The press hadn’t been kind to Bibby about his relationship with his ex-wife and his son, basketball player Mike Bibby, and he had wanted to set the record straight. Bibby hoped his musings would become a book, but as far as I know, that never happened. Sitting with him and hearing all his stories was fascinating, and I got paid for what I did. But the best part—the part that was priceless and that has stayed with me ever since as one of the most meaningful encounters of my life—was the chance it gave me to sit down and talk with Coach Wooden in his home.

One of only two people to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach, John Wooden sits in his den and office surrounded by a lifetime of memorabilia, books and correspondence.
Photo Nik Kleinberg/

You would expect the most successful coach of all time to live in a mansion, but he didn’t. He lived in a small, unassuming condo in Encino, just off of Ventura Blvd. It was filled with memorabilia that must have been worth a small fortune, but there wasn’t any security to speak of. The balcony was right next to a side street and over the course of the couple of hours I spent with him, numerous Fed Ex and UPS trucks went by, with packages being tossed over the rail and onto the balcony accompanied by cheery “hellos!” from the drivers as they had no doubt been doing for years.

Listening to Coach Wooden talk was like listening to my dad. They were made of the same solid character. They lived by the same higher purpose. And neither one had compromised their integrity for fame or fortune, despite having many opportunities to do so.

John Wooden’s life, everything that he sought to achieve, was built upon what he called the Seven Point Creed, written by his father on a piece of paper and given to him upon his graduation from elementary school. While I sat with him, he told me how he had kept that creed in his wallet all those years, admonishing him to “be true to yourself; help others; make each day your masterpiece; 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.

His son, Jim Wooden, has said that his father never really talked about winning or losing. In fact, he was most proud of the team that didn’t win, based on the fact that they did the best that they could.

This is an unheard-of concept today. When I try to tell people that the battle, we currently face is long and probably won’t be won in our lifetime or might not even be won at all in the way we think of winning, many get offended. That’s weakness, I’m told. We must win! But real winning isn’t something we can ever achieve in this fallen world. Those who realize this are the strongest, not the weakest. They will never be discouraged by human concepts of winning and losing. A spiritual warrior keeps going, no matter the physical setbacks. To do what is right, no matter the consequences, is what real winning is about.

Wooden wanted to help everyone who crossed his path to be a better person, not just a better basketball player. He believed if he could do that, then everything else would fall into place. He demonstrated this year after year at UCLA.

John Wooden coached during troubling times in America, when race riots tore across the land. As Abdul Kareem Jabbar remembers, Coach Wooden didn’t really know a lot about racism but he willingly learned from his players of color the reality that they faced.

Henry Bibby confirmed this in my conversations with him. He described how Wooden flew all the way to his home in Franklinton, North Carolina to meet his parents, wanting to make sure he got their blessing to bring their son to UCLA. Bibby’s trip to Los Angeles would be the first of many such plane rides. The world opened up for him. Coach Wooden chose his players based on their talents and considered it his duty to help mold good character within them. The color of their skin was irrelevant.

Now, of course, we are told it is all about skin color. Those who fought so hard and suffered so much to end discrimination would be appalled at how we are purposely being sent back into those darker days.

When I looked today at LeBron James’ Tweet and people’s responses, I thought of John Wooden, the coach who lived by a creed that LeBron would no doubt despise. I cannot think of two more opposite people. Not because one is black, and one is white. But because of the quality of their character.

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