The first thing you noticed were the books. Big books, little books, picture books, children’s books, art books, religious books, coaching books, sports books, fiction books, science books. Before I walked through the door, they were there to greet me in tall, neat piles in the front hallway. The books were stacked on floors, lined up on tables, piled on desks, jammed into bookcases. The apartment was barely two thousand square feet, yet it seemed that most of it was covered by something that could be read.
John Wooden was careful not to trip over the books as he made his way to his favorite easy chair in the den. Another dozen or so stood on the floor beside the chair, lined up as if on a shelf. The coffee table that sat in front of the television was likewise covered, a source of irritation for a man with a compulsive need for order. “Organization was one of my strengths for a long time, but now just look at that table with all that stuff on it,” he said as he invited me to sit on the couch. I asked Wooden how many of the books in that room he had read. “Maybe half,” he replied. “But I’ve browsed them all.”
It was September 2006. Wooden was not quite ninety-six years old. Even at his advanced age, he was still a student of the world, eager to collect one more crumb of wisdom that he could dispense to the next friend, interviewer, former player, or stranger who came calling. Though his eyes were not as good as they used to be, and though he tired easily, this old widower still turned to books during those rare, quiet hours when he didn’t have a visitor or the phone wasn’t ringing. Besides keeping him company in the present, they also served as a tether to his past, a dog-eared monument to the person who influenced him more than any other: his father, Joshua Hugh Wooden.
Hugh, as he was known, loved reading, both to himself and to his children. Though he did not have any formal education past high school, he was so facile with the English language that when he did crossword puzzles, he invented ways to make them more challenging. “For instance, he’d do it in a spiral form until he’d end up putting the last letter right in the middle of it,” said Billy Wooden, John’s younger brother. After a hard day’s work, Hugh loved nothing more than to sit down, crack open the Bible or another book, and read poetry to his four sons by the light of an oil lamp.
“I can just see my dad as I see you, if I close my eyes,” Wooden said, doing just that. He channeled Hugh as he recited: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / by the shining Big-Sea-Water, / stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / daughter of the moon Nokomis.... Upon completing the verse by Longfellow, Wooden opened his eyes. “We had no electricity, no running water. He would read to us from the scriptures practically every night. For some reason, of all the poems he read, that’s the only one I can just picture him doing.”
When he laid down his books, however, Hugh did not have a lot to say. “He tried to get his ideas across, maybe not in so many words, but by action. He walked it,” John said. Hugh didn’t lecture his boys so much as he sprinkled seeds along their paths. When John graduated from the eighth grade, Hugh handed his son a small card upon which he had written his “Seven-Point Creed.” John later carried that piece of paper in his wallet until it wore out, whereupon he rewrote Hugh’s words on a fresh card. After he retired from coaching basketball at UCLA, John had the creed printed up on slick plastic cards and handed them out so others could plant Hugh’s seeds into their wallets as well.
The first of the seven points paraphrased a line from Hamlet: “Be true to yourself.” Number four read, “Drink deeply from good books.” So John drank. As a young boy growing up in Indiana, he dove into the Leatherstocking tales and Tom Swift series. His favorite teachers at Martinsville High School were his English teachers. When he attended Purdue University, he became close with Martha Miller, an elderly librarian. Once, when he was coaching basketball at UCLA, Wooden was so taken by the enthusiasm evinced by a guest lecturer that he wandered into Powell Library to read more on the topic. He devoured Zane Grey’s westerns and Leo Buscaglia’s motivationals. Though his all-time favorite book was The Robe by Lloyd Douglas, his interest was truly piqued by books about his favorite historical figures—Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa. He lost count of how many books on those last two he had received as gifts.
Then there were the poets. Dickens, Yeats, Tennyson, Poe, Byron, Shakespeare. Especially Shakespeare. In college, Wooden spent an entire semester studying Macbeth, followed by another semester just on Hamlet. His favorite sportswriter was Grantland Rice, who penned many of his columns in verse. Besides being the coauthor of nearly two dozen books, including four children’s books, Wooden was himself a prolific amateur poet. An idea would strike him on his morning walk, and he would come home and scrawl some doggerel. He watched John Glenn orbit the Earth and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and he wrote poems about how those events made him feel. He set a goal of writing one hundred poems and assembling them in a compendium for his family. He structured the book into five tidy parts that reflected his love of balance: twenty poems each on family, faith, patriotism, nature, and fun. Even when he was well into his nineties, Wooden could still recite scores of poems from memory.
During the final years of his life, Wooden received countless visitors in that modest, book-strewn den. In between tales of championships won and players coached, as he recounted the fascinating twists and turns of his long life, Wooden would invariably bring the conversation back to the man who raised him. When he closed his eyes and recited Longfellow to me, his mind was transported back to the farm. But if it felt like a full-circle moment, it really wasn’t. You can’t circle back to a place you never left.
That, in essence, is the story of John Wooden’s life, a quintessentially American tale that spans nearly a century. More than anyone else, he could appreciate how his story neatly divides into four balanced seasons. During the spring, our protagonist takes root on his family’s spare midwestern farm. He alights as a young adult in a glamorous town by the Pacific, reaches prodigious heights of fame and glory in middle age, and derives warmth from relationships old and new that sustain him during a long, peaceful winter. Like so many great narratives, the accepted version, the one Wooden himself told, often diverged from fact, as the myth overtook the man. But when all the glorification is stripped away, the person at the center of our tale remains very much the same boy who was planted in the Indiana soil at the turn of the twentieth century. All those friends, interviewers, players, and strangers who came to that den the way I did, we all wanted to know the same thing: How did you do it? He could never make the answer clear enough, perhaps because it was too simple for a complicated time. Everyone wanted the old man’s secrets, but he had no secrets, only seeds. For all the things that John Wooden accomplished—as a player, a coach, and most of all, a teacher—he never forgot his roots, or the man who planted them.
John Robert Wooden enjoyed unparalleled success as a college basketball coach, and after he retired he built a veritable industry around his own personal definition of success. Yet the most lasting impression his father made on John was the manner in which he responded to a failure.
It happened in the summer of 1925, when John was fourteen years old. John, his parents, and his three brothers were living in the tiny town of Centerton, Indiana, on a sixty-acre farm they had inherited from the parents of John Wooden’s mother, Roxie Anna. They grew wheat, corn, alfalfa, potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, and timothy grass, which was used to feed cattle and horses. The town had few amenities—a water tower, a general store, a grade school—and the Woodens’ life was not easy. But they never wanted for anything, so long as they were willing to work for it.
If they needed bread, Roxie baked it. If they wanted butter, Hugh churned it. If they needed water, they hand-pumped it from a well. When winter came and the kids got cold, their parents would heat up bricks on the stove and wrap them in warm towels. If they wanted to relieve themselves, they used the three-hole outhouse in the backyard. The family got eggs from their chickens and milk from their cows. They started off every morning with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. The house had just two bedrooms, so the brothers slept two to a bed. “We didn’t have much money,” Billy Wooden said. “Father worked for a dollar a day in the twenties, but ours was a happy family. We were always having company.”
The setback came shortly after Hugh purchased about thirty hogs from a local farmer. Hogs were expensive, so he had to borrow money from a bank and put up his house as collateral. Hugh needed to inoculate the animals against cholera, but the vaccination serum he purchased turned out to be defective. All the hogs died. That, coupled with an untimely drought that killed off most of their crops, prompted the bank to foreclose on the farm. Just like that, Hugh Wooden’s sole means for supporting his family was gone.
One of the handwritten lessons that Hugh passed to his four sons was what he called his “Two Sets of Threes”: Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Here was the chance to walk what he talked. “Through it all, Dad never winced. He laid no blame on the merchant who had sold him the bad serum, didn’t curse the weather, and had no hatred toward the banker,” John would write decades later. “As instructive as it was to hear him recite the two sets of threes, seeing him abide by them as he lost the farm had a most powerful effect on me. That’s where I came to see that what you do is more important than what you say you’ll do.”
Hugh’s response was emblematic of the world in which John Wooden was raised. This was Depression-era Indiana, a time and place that valued masculine self-sufficiency. Feelings were demonstrated, not articulated. If Hugh ever embraced his sons or told them “I love you,” John rarely spoke or wrote of it. Likewise, Wooden’s parents were not physically affectionate with each other in front of their children. Johnny knew they were in love by the way they treated each other. They had married young—Hugh was twenty, Roxie was sixteen. John was their third child, born October 14, 1910, in Martinsville. (For most of his life, John claimed the town of Hall, Indiana, as his birthplace, but shortly before he died, a group of local researchers discovered he had been mistaken all those years.) When Johnny was born, Hugh was working as a buttermaker at a creamery in Martinsville. Three years later, the family moved to Hall, thirteen miles away, where Hugh worked on a small farm owned by a man named Cassius Ludlow. From there they moved to Monrovia, where he took a position as a rural mail carrier. Some of Johnny’s favorite childhood memories involved riding with his dad on his horse-drawn carriage and helping him wash the buggy in a stream until it sparkled. When Johnny was six years old, his maternal grandfather passed away, leaving to his daughter the farm in Centerton. After the family lost that farm, nine years later they moved back to Martinsville, where Hugh and Roxie stayed for good.
By that time, the family had endured hardship far more painful than losing the farm. Johnny’s older sister, Cordelia, died of diphtheria on January 5, 1913, at the age of three years and nine months. “Little Cordelia, as she was familiarly known, was a loving, bright and obedient child,” read her obituary in the Martinsville Democrat. “She was greatly loved by all who knew her. Her last sickness was of short duration. She was confined to her bed with diphtheria which developed into pneumonia and paralysis of the heart. Her suffering was great, although she bore it with the patience of a lamb, always ready to take her medicine and do as she was told. She leaves a loving father, mother, two dear little brothers, four grandparents, and a host of relatives and friends to mourn their loss.”
Three and a half months later, Roxie gave birth to another baby girl, who died during delivery. One can only imagine the wrenching anguish Roxie must have felt as she returned to the unremarkable cemetery in Centerton to bury her second daughter in four months. The plot would be marked with a gravestone that read, “INFANT.”
The death of his sisters insured that John would grow up in a male-dominated household. In his later life, he wrote and spoke often about his father, but he seldom mentioned his mother. When he did, it was often in passing. “I think the person probably who had the most influence on me throughout were my mother and father, particularly my father,” he said in one of his typical locutions. If Hugh was omnipresent in John’s life story, Roxie was the quiet, sad shadow in the background. She was the skilled seamstress who stitched socks to create makeshift basketballs for her sons. The diligent maid who handwashed their clothes, mopped their floors, cooked their meals. The poor gal who walked on feet that were deformed from all those years of wearing shoes that didn’t fit. “She was probably depressed,” said Andy Hill, who played for Wooden at UCLA from 1970 to 1972 and became extremely close to him during the final decade of his life. “But in those days they didn’t call it that. You just sucked it up.” Wooden’s daughter, Nan, added, “Daddy said her heart was broken.”
Though the family didn’t have much money, Hugh would sometimes take Roxie into Martinsville and splurge for dinner at Riley’s Café. John often cited Hugh as an exemplar of the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh’s credo that “the best thing a man can do for his children is love their mother.” But without any sisters around, Roxie was the only feminine presence in Johnny’s life, and she was not a strong one. That caused him to be intensely shy around girls. “John did not have an active social life as a kid,” his younger brother, Danny, said. “He was concentrating on his school work and working and being with his family.”
Hugh also embodied another of John’s favorite credos: “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” Exhibit A was Hugh’s interactions with animals. The Woodens had two mules on their farm, Jack and Kate, but Hugh, who, John said, was strong enough to bend a thick iron bar with his bare hands, refused to whip them. John loved to tell the story of the day he and his father came upon a man who was trying to retrieve two horses from a gravel pit. “The man was whipping them,” John said. “My dad said, ‘Let me take them.’ The horses were frothing at the mouth. My dad just said to them, ‘Get on your feet; let’s go.’ He gave one of the horses a light tap and then pulled them together. Somehow I never forgot that.” John said his father had the same effect on other animals. “Dogs that would scare me, he’d pet ’em and they would wag their tails.”
There was, however, one incident where Hugh was not so gentle. Johnny and his older brother, Maurice had been fooling around in a barn when Maurice grabbed a pitchfork and flipped a pile of manure at Johnny’s face. Johnny lunged at Maurice in anger and cursed at him. Hugh had been standing nearby, but instead of reproaching Maurice for instigating the fight, he came down on Johnny for his foul language. Profanity was forbidden in the Wooden household—Hugh was a devout Christian, and John always claimed he never once heard him swear—and Hugh wanted to make sure Johnny understood the severity of his transgression. He whipped his boy with a switch.
It is odd that a man would refuse to beat an animal yet be willing to use a switch on his own son, but John didn’t see the inconsistency. “It was the only time I remember him using it,” he said of the switch. At any rate, Johnny learned his lesson. From then on, he, too, stayed away from profanity.
Above all else, Hugh imbued his sons with a core philosophy that would guide Johnny throughout his childhood, his marriage, and especially his playing and coaching careers. It was a gospel that would come to define John more than any other. “Dad tried to get across to us never try to be better than someone else. Learn from others and never cease trying to be the best you can be at whatever you’re doing,” he said. “Maybe that won’t be better than someone else, but that’s no problem. It will be better than somebody else, probably, but somebody else is going to be better than that. Don’t worry about that. If you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it’s going to adversely affect the things over which you have control.”
“I think I had it pretty good, learning from Dad,” John added. “He told me to try to avoid peaks and valleys.”
Later in life, when John wasn’t quoting his father or telling parables about him, he was serving up Hugh’s teachings in bite-sized portions. His own children began their mornings with a hearty bowl of oatmeal. If one of Wooden’s basketball players uttered a profanity during practice, he was through for the day. Then there was the time after he retired when one of his former players at UCLA, Swen Nater, showed Wooden his new dog. “Do you hit him?” Wooden asked.
Yes, Nater confessed, sometimes he did.
“Don’t,” Wooden replied. “It never works.”
Hugh’s decision to move the family back to Martinsville after losing the farm turned out to be a smart one. The town was prospering due to bountiful artesian wells that had been dug there in the late nineteenth century. The water, which was full of minerals, had been accidentally discovered by prospectors who were searching for natural gas and oil. The liquid was said to have curative powers, even though it smelled rancid. Nearly a dozen sanitariums were built in and around Martinsville. These facilities were part spas, part hospitals, and they attracted people from all over the Midwest. The largest and most opulent of these resorts was the Home Lawn Sanitarium, which featured a dining room appointed with lush carpet and crystal chandeliers. Hugh found a job as a masseur at the Home Lawn. “I think that’s why Daddy always has been such a generous tipper,” Nan Wooden said. “A big part of Grandaddy’s income was based on tips.”
The move to Martinsville also exposed Hugh’s sons to a growing local passion. It was a brand-new game called “basket ball,” and though all the Wooden boys were quite good at it, Johnny was the best of them all.
Their first goal was an old tomato basket that hung on a hayloft inside their barn in Centerton. Hugh had popped the bottom out and tacked it up so that Johnny and his brothers could blow off steam. “He said there’s always time for play. That’s after the chores and the studies are done, of course,” John said. Eventually, Hugh took a forge and replaced the basket with a real hoop made out of iron. Roxie made a ball by stuffing an old sock with rags and sewing it closed. Maurice was a good athlete—he later played football, baseball, and basketball for Franklin College—but even though his nickname was “Cat,” Maurice was no match for Johnny’s quickness and toughness.
At that time, the entire town of Centerton contained barely a hundred people, yet every Saturday and Sunday, the basketball court next to the grade school was teeming with kids. The court was not even paved; rather, it was made of sand and clay, a mixture chosen so it would dry quickly after it rained. The locals often referred to it as a “basketball diamond.” In the wintertime, the kids often had to shovel snow off the court if they wanted to play. The school was just a few hundred yards up the road from the Woodens’ house, and Hugh delighted in watching his boys play those weekend games. Hugh liked basketball, but his best sport was baseball, where he excelled as a pitcher. He even carved a diamond, Field of Dreams–like, amid the wheat and alfalfa on the family farm.
Centerton’s school had three rooms for eight grades. The principal, who taught in the room for seventh- and eighth-graders, was a strapping young man named Earl Warriner. When Johnny was eleven years old, his dad allowed him to play basketball under Warriner’s supervision. “Johnny says what helped him the most was the desire to play,” Warriner said. “He wasn’t a bully and neither was he a sissy. He had the grit to stay in there and fight.” Wooden needed that grit to make up for his lack of size, but what really made him effective was his speed. “My trouble was trying to keep others up with him,” Warriner said. “John was so much faster than everybody else, and he had his heart and soul in what he did.”
Centerton’s basketball team played a haphazard schedule of five or six games a year (weather permitting) against other schools in the area, including the junior high school team from Martinsville. The boys didn’t have much by way of uniforms, just a bib to be worn on top of their overalls. “They were lucky if they had shoes,” Warriner said. They played with a lopsided leather ball that often had to be unlaced and reinflated. Wooden later credited that ball, along with the lumpy court, with forcing him to develop into an expert dribbler.
However, it was baseball, not basketball, that was fast becoming Johnny’s favorite sport. Though his diminutive stature prevented him from having much pop as a hitter, his quickness and agility made him an effective shortstop. “That little rat John,” as Warriner called him, was still a teenager when he played for the town team alongside men who were in their twenties. “All he could do was get the ball over the infield, but he got more hits than anybody,” Warriner said.
Young Johnny also fancied himself a bit of a practical joker. One day in winter, Warriner was feeling chilly while sitting in his office, so he went to the school’s basement and asked a janitor named Hiram to turn up the heat. Hiram did as he was told, but the room was still freezing. They went back and forth several more times until Warriner checked the basement, where he discovered that the flue to his office had been shut.
Several months later, Warriner was walking around the school grounds and noticed that someone had written on the wall of an outdoor bathroom, “I turned off the furnace. Guess who?” Soon after, he was invited to dinner at the Woodens’ house, where he revealed to the rascal that he knew his little secret. When Johnny asked Warriner how he found out, the principal replied, “John Bob, if you graded as many papers as I do, you’d know everybody’s writing, too.”
On the few occasions when Wooden was foolish enough to test Warriner, he paid a heavy price. Johnny was around nine years old when he and three of his classmates decided that they did not want to sing the national anthem at the morning assembly. So they pretended to sing it. The next day, Warriner called them out of the assembly, brought them into his office, and told them that if they didn’t sing, they would get the business end of a paddle. They refused again, so Warriner brought them out and stung their behinds while all the other kids watched. One of the boys had worn two pairs of pants in anticipation of the punishment, but Warriner made him pull down the outer pair so he could properly feel his penance.
When Warriner’s discipline combined one day with Johnny’s love for basketball, the result was the ultimate life lesson. It happened when Wooden was in the eighth grade. Centerton was supposed to play a game against Hazelwood, but the game had been in doubt because of rain. The schools had called each other several times during the day to figure out whether they should play. They finally agreed to play when the skies cleared, but Wooden had not brought his game uniform to school. When Warriner asked him to go home and retrieve it during recess, Johnny refused, even though his house was right up the road. “I guess John wanted me to beg him to play,” Warriner said.
Warriner told another player, named Freddy Gooch, that he would substitute for Wooden. Johnny was shocked. As soon as school was over, he raced home, got his uniform, and ran back to the school. He was there in plenty of time to warm up with his teammates, but when the game began, Warriner left him on the sideline. He stayed there during the entire contest, which Centerton lost. After the game was over, Warriner put his arm around Wooden’s shoulder and said, “Johnny, we could have won with you in there, but winning just isn’t that important.”
It was a day the boy would never forget. “Johnny Wooden learned early in life he was not a necessary article,” Wooden said during one of his frequent retellings of the incident. “It didn’t make any difference how good I was in sports, business, or anything else. If I don’t put out, I’m not worth a dime.” He also learned that day that the bench was all the motivation a coach ever needed.
When Wooden graduated from the eighth grade, he faced the choice of going to Martinsville or Monrovia for high school. The Woodens were still a year away from losing the farm, and each town was the same distance from their home in Centerton. Martinsville, however, was a real hotbed for basketball. The school routinely drew huge crowds for games and had just won a state championship. The idea of making a living playing or teaching the sport wasn’t remotely in Johnny’s mind, but he did know that he loved playing and was very good at it. So he chose Martinsville. This was Indiana, after all. It was only natural that he would want to follow that bouncing ball.
Copyright © 2014 by Seth Davis