John Wooden’s First Lesson

John Wooden was born in Martinsville, IN, one of four sons. He started playing basketball in elementary school. His coach was also his school principal, a man of stern but warm character. Each day before practice (their court was outside, beneath tall maple and oak trees) Wooden and the other players had to pick up sticks and rocks, to clear the court for play. The basketball they used was a large rubber bladder which barely fit inside a leather shell, such that after a few minutes of use the players had to take out the bladder, blow it back up with their own lungs, then squeeze it back inside the leather.

Ironically, this led to the team utilizing an uptempo practice, for the secret was to get the bladder in the ball and use it in as many repetitions as possible, before the ball would empty again. Whoever held it at the time had to blow it up–hence, the need to make quick passes to others.

When Wooden was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (he was the first person to be inducted into the HOF 2-X, first as player, then as coach), Wooden said his remarkable ballhandling skills were in part due to the fact he had a learn how to dribble an oblong-shaped ball that lost air on rocks, sticks and in the holes of his outside court in elementary school.

The first lesson Wooden learned in basketball happened at this same elementary school. He never forgot it; in fact, it became a cornerstone of his own coaching years later, at UCLA, when his teams won an astonishing 10 National Championships.

Wooden was the star of his elementary school basketball team. One day he forgot to bring his uniform to school when he left his farmhouse in the morning. Then, after school, he decided he would not walk home to get it. Instead, he would play dumb when it came time to play that evening’s basketball game. As the game neared, Wooden fessed to his coach that he did not have his uniform. Expecting that the coach would feel some sort of sympathy for him as the star, or at least have a strong desire to win that night’s game with him at the helm, Wooden was pleased when his coach asked the worst kid on the team, “Do you have your uniform for tonight’s game?” When that kid answered yes, Wooden expected his coach to tell him to let Wooden wear his unform that night. Instead, Wooden received the shock of his young life, when the coach said, instead: “Good, because you will play for Johnny tonight.”

Wooden’s face fell. He took off sprinting to his house, and back, arriving in uniform just seconds before the game started. But his teachable moment was not over. His coach said to him, “I am sure you are tired, so sit down.” Wooden sat there, watching his team lose the game, knowing it was his fault.

The 2 lessons he learned that day, are these: 1) The player is not above the team. 2) As a coach, the bench is your friend.

Terry Boesch is a teacher in Martinsville, IN (home of John Wooden), and also coaches girls basketball. Feel free to email him at terryboesch@gmail.com, or call/text at 317-643-6042

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