Your star player lies down in rush-hour traffic to protest the Vietnam War. (Stand up for what you believe. Bill Walton's coach always said, but be willing to accept the consequences.)
Four of your players ask to use your office after practice to conduct meditation sessions. (You let them.) One asks your permission to smoke marijuana, saying he'd heard it would relieve the pain in his knees. (I am not a doctor, you tell Walton. All I know is it's against the law.)
College players still take drugs, but none today go in to discuss it with the coach beforehand. What was it about Wooden that caused Walton to broach this subject? "Decisions are more apt to be accepted when you've listened to suggestions first." says Wooden. "I wanted them to see the reason behind what I asked of them, not to do things just because I said so."
Yet Wooden threw down the clipboard when he had to. Former UCLA center Steve Patterson remembers the day, in the fall of 1970, that he and forward Sidney Wicks asked to be excused from practice to show solidarity with a nationwide rally protesting the Vietnam War. "He asked us if this reflected our convictions, and we told him it did," says Patterson. "He told us he had his convictions, too, and if we missed practice it would be the end of our careers at UCLA.
"We blinked. I don't think he was necessarily unsympathetic to the statement we wanted to make. He may even have agreed with us. But I see the connection. I didn't at the time, but I do now. He continually challenged you about your attitude toward the team as a whole. He set the standards. He didn't let us set the standards, even though we wanted to."
Wooden's practice gym was a sort of one-room schoolhouse, transported from the Indiana plains. For two hours in the afternoon his pupils listened to material that seemed to have emerged from a time warp. They listened because they knew they would win if they learned their lessons. The fundamentals came complete with hoary precepts: Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Be quick, but don't be in a hurry. Don't mistake activity for achievement. The purpose of discipline isn't to punish but to correct. Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
One sentiment is so dear to Wooden that he has mined the anthologies for two renderings of it. "The journey is better than the end" comes from Cervantes. And Robert Louis Stevenson said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." Says Wooden, "I appreciated that notion more later, after we started to win championships. The saying that it's tougher to stay on top than to get there—I don't believe it. It's very tough to get there. And along the way you learn, as Lincoln would say, not just what to do, but what not to do.
"People say we could never win those championships again, what with parity. But I'm not so sure it couldn't happen today. Winning breeds winning. If we had had freshman eligibility during the 1960s, we would have won another one [with Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in 1965-66]. When everyone has good players, teaching will be a telling difference."
Wooden taught basketball according to the simplest pedagogical principles. He used what he calls the whole-part method. Show the whole and then break it down, "just like parsing a sentence," he says, "or solving a math problem." He followed his four laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, correction and repetition. For 16 years there was talk of a new gym, and when UCLA finally opened Pauley Pavilion in 1965, Wooden made sure he didn't get just an arena, but a classroom with bleachers that roll back.
Wooden taught English at South Bend Central High before heading to Indiana State for two seasons and then to Westwood for the rest of his coaching life. He always preferred the practices to the games. The games were just exams, when the teacher's work was done. "There again," he says, "the journey's better than the end."