He was the “Wizard of Westwood,” the most successful college basketball coach of all time. A midwesterner through and through, John Wooden found unparalleled success teaching life and basketball on America’s Left Coast in the turbulent 1960’s, a sure testament to the universal application of a philosophy rooted in hard work and humility. UCLA started its parade of championships when crewcuts and rolled-up jeans were still in style; the parade ended when he walked away with his tenth championship in twelve years, his player sporting wild afros and wilder bell bottoms. In between he mentored young men from all over the country with hugely different viewpoints; his finished product was always composed of two parts. First was the well-oiled machine on the court, the sum somehow always greater than the addition of its parts. Second and even more impressively, the same athletes who awed with their athletic skill were thoughtful, humble imitations of the man they played for. In my list of people I admire most, John Wooden ranks pretty highly.
John Wooden died 6 years ago; he retired when Gerald Ford was president. Nothing I just wrote about the coach was new or newsworthy. But last night, as I watched the two people who will compete to become the next president take their victory laps, I did what I often do when worry about our society sets in–I prayed that the wisdom and soul of John Wooden would somehow inhabit our leaders. An idle prayer to be sure, but if answered we would all be forever grateful.
Lets start with Secretary Clinton as she gave the first speech. Being a traditional politician (no attack intended) she rolled out the best lines of her stump speech, aided by the fact that her backdrop was the Philadelphia where we were twice born, once with the Declaration of Independence and once with the Constitution. Coach Wooden likely would have nodded at the first stanza, reminding us of America’s better qualities and the second stanza, promoting teamwork as the keystone for maintaining that greatness. The chorus, however, would have deeply troubled him. The linchpin of Secretary Clinton’s campaign is a cavalcade of rights that must be fully realized for America to be great: women’s rights, lgbt rights, civil rights, voting rights, disabled rights…the volume rises and the list goes on, whipping into a frenzy a crowd apparently composed of every disenfranchised person in Pennsylvania.
For Secretary Clinton, Coach Wooden might reach for one of his favorite sayings:
“Things turn out best for for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
Our never-ending focus on fairness, on making sure my treatment is at least as good as the the treatment the Jones receive, robs us of the idea that America is where one captains his own ship. I absolutely detest the way the GOP is making it harder to vote in this country. But as great as that evil may be, it is no excuse for not voting. The economy makes it impossible for a new high school graduate to go to college or get a job where they can learn marketable skills? Gee, I was unaware they had closed down the military recruiting centers. At the root of both Coach Wooden’s quote and of his story is the simple idea that we own our lives. If we accept that fact, those lives will be much richer. That concept, sadly was missing last night in the city where the first patriots risked their lives for it.
God only knows what the good coach would have thought about Mr. Trump’s pronouncements, but I am going to hazard a few guesses. People may be voting for Mr. Trump for a variety of reasons, but he gives us only slight variations on one theme. “I am great.” Mr. Trump is the great man, the man with all the answers, never mind that those answers are either undisclosed or constantly changing. No worries, because Mr. Trump is smart enough to win at everything, including things he knows nothing about. A good chunk of his time was spent last night explaining how awesome his performance in the primaries has been, as if that is some sort of blueprint for governance.
In the locker room arena after that performance, Coach Wooden might call Mr. Trump into his office and point to a quote writ large on the blackboard:
“Its what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
One of John Wooden’s legacies is that when asked about their success, today’s great coaches unanimously talk about the process rather than the result. Small steps earned by hard work lead to the payoff, which is the wringing the most possible out of yourself and your team, regardless of how the scoreboard reads. It takes patience and humility to earn the reward. Mr. Trump’s promise of an easy greatness built on his own personal magic would be anathema to the coach.
The coach was famously closed-mouthed about his own politics, although we do know that Bill Walton could not get him to sign a petition calling for Nixon’s resignation over Vietnam issues. Judging by the players and values he used to build his teams, however, I am pretty sure Coach Wooden would not be enthusiastic over either major party candidate. That hurts because John Wooden represented what is best about America, equal parts teamwork, respect, hard work and initiative. Is it too much to ask to have leaders who reflect those same values?
But before I get too tied in knots about it all, Coach Wooden might favor me with one last saying. Knowing that the patriots who began us and the heroes who have sustained us faced far greater challenges and prospered, the coach was ever an optimist:
“Promise to be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to let trouble press on you.”
The promise of America is much bigger than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We only need to take advantage of our own opportunities, the joy available to all of us, to cancel the hysteria that feeds our national elections. Over the next 5 months, lets all try to remember that and then, on the first Tuesday of November, if you cannot bring yourself to vote for either, ask for a write-in ballot and legibly print “John Wooden.” That is my plan and it makes as much sense as anything else.