John Wooden, who coached UCLA to a surely unsurpassable record of 10 NCAA basketball championships, considered poetry one of his most effective coaching tools.
Poetry was not for game days, but for the locker room, bus rides, hotel lobbies and especially during practice, where Wooden believed “the real work is done, the real improvement made.” He wrote about how poetry shaped his legendary career in a prose piece for Poetry magazine and in his many books.
This 2012 Final Four weekend, it’s hard to imagine Wooden reciting poetry in the tattooed turnstile men’s college basketball has become, where the best players move onto the pros in a year or so. But there is not a player or coach in March Madness who is not in awe of Wooden’s 38-game tournament winning streak.
“I constantly incorporated bits of poetry, rhymes, and maxims to help focus attention, give direction, and create inspiration,” said Wooden who died in 2010, just shy of his 100th birthday.
Wooden also liked to recite poems, out loud or in his head, to fall asleep, including a couple of his own. Don’t Look Back was one of them.
Poetry was as valued as physical strength on the small farm in Indiana where Wooden grew up. Each night his father, Joshua Wooden, read to his four sons by coal lamp – Tennyson, Whitman, Shakespeare, Longfellow, and the “The Hoosier Poet,” James Whitcomb Riley.
“While he could lift heavy things men half his age couldn’t lift, he would also read poetry to us each night after a day working in the fields raising corn, hay, wheat, tomatoes, and watermelons,” Wooden wrote in 1997 in Wooden A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court.
“My own love of poetry came directly from my dad’s willingness to read to all his boys each night back on the farm,” Wooden said. “I developed a love for it before I even realized it. It has stayed with me – to my great benefit – all of my life.”
Basketball also started on the farm with a ball his mother made by stuffing a black sock with rags and a rim his father forged from the rings of a barrel. His high school basketball team played in the state championship three times and won once. Wooden was All-American for three years and won the NCAA championship at Purdue, where he graduated with a degree in English in 1932. He’s one of only three people inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Wooden received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor in 2003.
Wooden, who retired from UCLA in 1975 after 27 seasons, was proudest to be known as a good teacher. In a 2009 Gatorade commercial directed by Spike Lee, Wooden recites a poem about setting a good example by Rev. Claude Wisdom White, Sr.
Wooden broke my heart in 1968 when UCLA annihilated Dean Smith and my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA finals. (Dean Smith is right up there for me with Wooden in my basketball and integrity pantheon.) I watched the game on a snowy television about the size of an iPad, and remember the adults around speaking respectfully about Wooden’s words, even as we were rooting against his team.
"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."
"Flexibility is the key to stability."
"Be quick, but don't hurry."
What Wooden wrote well and recited often was aphorism; the kind of maxims that produce eye rolls in the young. Bill Walton, UCLA's center for two national championships and two undefeated seasons, had a similar reaction during the 1970s. Walton, who unsuccessfully lobbied his coach to ease up on dress codes and other rules, quoted Bob Dylan that “The times they are a-changin.” But as a father, Walton scrawled Wooden’s aphorisms on his children’s lunch bags with hope that the words would stick.
In Wooden’s system, attitude as crucial as the mechanics of a jump shot. “Poetry, in all its forms, was an efficient tool for this,” he said. “Poetry works its magic in many different ways.”
Though he acknowledged in the Poetry article that aphorism is not universally considered poetic: “Is this poetry? Certainly, in my opinion,” he said, noting that he also read contemporary poetry. “I have a book of poems on my bookshelf by Billy Collins. The rules of poetry are and should be flexible; good words in good order is good enough for me.”
Convince me that Wooden’s wrong and I’ll buy you eggs (airfare not included) at Vip’s on Ventura Boulevard, the Los Angeles coffee shop where he had breakfast for decades. I’ve seen the John Wooden shrine behind the cash register, with pictures of the coach and NBA superstars. Wooden clutches a walker in some of the most recent pictures.
In 2006, Wooden took Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis back after breakfast to his apartment to recite poetry. Wooden, who wrote nearly a dozen prose books, showed Davis a poetry project. He was working on a book of 100 poems, 70 already written, not to publish, but to leave for his family – 20 poems each on family, faith, patriotism, nature and fun.
Many of his former players quote their coach in this ESPN tribute at Wooden’s death. “He could say so much in so few words,” one said.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pickup basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.