Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | June 10, 2010


John Wooden. I guess my first awareness of him dates back to the first time I watched basketball on TV as a kid. About all I can remember is that it wasn’t football. And as a someone who’s spent most of his life as the shortest guy in the room… I knew it wasn’t a game that would have much to do with me… and it didn’t. Even in off-season pick-up games with some of the varsity guys in my class… it was just too many elbows at my head level to cost less than a series of knee injuries I didn’t need.

But John Wooden came to me again when I was studying the Classical guitar. For those  unfamiliar with its history, the Classical guitar owes much of its development to the monks in Spain who not only worked out the construction, sound and technique, but also had much to do with the scoring of its music. And in the Spanish style… especially the Flamenco… it retains its origin as a percussion instrument.

Yet its spirit is still that of the dry, almost desert-like climate of Spain, and its sound very much a prayer. What it lacks in the volume and sustain of the violin, it supplements through its bell-like sound. I came back to it for solace when my best friend died at thirty-two and made the commitment to actually learn the thing. Playing something worthy of his hearing seemed a way of turning heartache into something constructive. And it took sometime, but there was a heart in it that kept me going… even to the point of those dreaded recitals which surprisingly turned out better than imagined. Mistakes are part of any game, and it’s not there occurence that defines so much as the response and attention we give them. And don’t I find myself having to relearn these lessons over and over? Sure thing.

There is a literature for any instrument on the lives of the great players, the artists and the like. But this little book on the Art of Practice was littered with quotes from John Wooden, and remains a classic.

And then Wooden died. And having read many of his obituaries, I think the thing that moved me the most about the humanity of this man was the way he spent the latter part of his life after the death of his wife of 62 years. Every night he laid out her gown and robe. And every year, he wrote her a love letter on their annivesary. In an era where love and commitment are too often little more than words, his faithfulness and devotion to her long afterwards speak volumes about the sort of commitment he expected and won from all who knew him – on the court and off.

It’s the small parts of our lives that we see in others sometimes, and then endeavor to share… even to just read aloud. And find ourselves instead overwhelmed, and unable to finish as we start. And so we hand it on. So here is one guy who never had much to do with basketball and whose appreciation of the man is not just from afar… maybe even about as far off as you can get… but nevertheless, I’ll give thanks for his life, and the impact he managed to have on so many for their good… and especially for the example of his faithful love.

John Wooden… anything but wooden.


  1. A nice eulogy. I heard quite a bit of talk sports radio about him (I didn’t know much past his basketball and “nice guy” reputation). He sounds like he’s closer to sainthood than many “saints”. Thanks.

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