John Wooden (1910-2010)

Athletes litter the field of pop culture as much as actors and singers or pop musicians. Their bursts of fame are generally much shorter than the others, however, because their playing careers are much shorter, owing to “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet would put it. Nevertheless, the sports themselves and occasionally players have entered American high-brow culture fairly regularly.

Of the popular professional American sports, baseball and boxing attract the most interest among literary types. Henry Kissinger, always one to ensure his comments are self-referential and self-aggrandizing, once said that he enjoyed baseball because it was “so cerebral.” The English Department of Middle Tennessee State University recently (March 26, 2010) held its 15th “Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference.” This year’s event boasted as its most famous guest Ferguson Jenkins, a Hall of Fame pitcher, who I saw on many occasions and continue to believe that playing for the Cubs prevented him from achieving the fame that he was due.

Aside from Ring Lardner (who began as a sports writer), numerous top flight writers wrote about baseball: Bernard Malamud’s The Natural follows the intersection of two all-American types: the athletic prodigy and the serial killer; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby reveals who was behind baseball’s darkest moment; Don DeLillo’s Underworld follows the post-game history of the ball “shot ’round the world,” and so forth. Ball Four by former pitcher Jim Bouton, otherwise unknown in literary culture, was included in the 1995-96 exhibit by the New York Public Library of the Books of the Century. (Granted it was in the category of “Popular Culture and Mass Entertainment.” But then so was Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Capote’s In Cold Blood and Stoker’s Dracula.) It did not hurt Bouton’s reception by New York institutions that he was once a New York Yankee and “enhanced” Mickey Mantle’s reputation, of course. But the book would deserve commendation for no other reason than eliciting the remark that it was “detrimental to baseball” from the execrable Bowie Kuhn, who himself was detrimental not only to baseball but to the legal profession, from which he finally fled to sink his fortune into a homestead in Florida to protect his wealth from his firm’s bankruptcy creditors, after the massive, phony billing scheme sent his partner Harvey Myerson to jail.

Boxing always attracted a darker literary sensibility. Less like the chirpy “boys of summer” spirit, boxing reflects the point of view of the great American creation the noir (which shows its serious artistic pretensions by its French name): the lone male, equipped only with his brains and fists, must wage a brutal battle (in fact battle after battle) against a force intending to destroy him, in a war that he will ultimately lose. It is no coincidence that Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, was himself a boxer. But so were the other über-males of American literature Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. (In one of the oddest stories of ex-patriot American literati in Paris, Hemingway tells in A Moveable Feast of trying to teach Ezra Pound to box.) In a different field, über-male Miles Davis, who also liked to box, recorded an improvised fusion-jazz set as a background to a film on legendary boxer Jack Johnson, which he later released as an album tribute to the boxer. (Norman Mailer, who liked to portray himself as an über-male, also liked to portray himself as a boxer.) In fact, Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity ….” Rod Stirling repeatedly used boxing as a metaphor for loss (but not loss of the “religion of masculinity”), not only in his Requiem for a Heavyweight but also in short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. And of course if anyone ever personified the liberal intellectual’s view of existential manhood in the 60s-70s, it was Muhammad Ali.

All of this is an unnecessary introduction to John Wooden, who died June 4, 2010, well into his 99th year. Basketball, at which he excelled as player in high school and college and as a coach, is not susceptible to literary treatment, at least not the way baseball or boxing is. It has none of the individual moments of personal glory of baseball or the existential maleness of boxing. Nor does it (or any other sport) participate in the kind of sickly nostalgia or forced feyness in which many of baseball’s custodians hold that sport. Basketball is a team sport too fast paced and interrupted to have a narrative feel to it. While celebrities arise from basketball, often they become pop figures because of the visual appeal of their craft (Michael Jordan, Julius Erving) or the bizarreness of their behavior (Dennis Rodman). Nevertheless, Wooden is something of an iconic figure, and if basketball is to have a culture icon, it probably should be Wooden.

Wooden’s character belongs to a pre-high definition TV era, and he certainly did not appreciate the bizarre. He had the dignified character of a Joe DiMaggio or Bill Bradley. Wooden was perhaps the most reserved of the three. He had all the trappings of a very socially conservative life-style. He was married for 53 years and remained devoted to the same woman after her death. Each month he would visit the grave and write a letter to her. Their first meeting at a carnival while still in high school and their much later “honeymoon” at a Mills Brothers concert in Indianapolis add to the charm of the relationship. He was a high school and college athlete, became a teacher and coach, and clawed his way up the field of college coaching. He served in the Navy during World War II and achieved the rank of lieutenant. After the war he took the coaching job at UCLA because he had “given his word,” even though he had hoped to become coach of Minnesota, which delayed making its offer (until after Wooden agreed with UCLA) only because of inclement weather. He was an avowed Christian but modest in his outward display. (“If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”) Christianity Today claimed that he read the Bible every day and that he held Abraham Lincoln as his role model. His life seemed the very epitome of a kind of Midwestern virtue that we only now are reminded of by the occasional Gary Cooper movie.

Wooden was born in the center of Indiana, Hall, grew up on a farm in Centerton (a dirt poor one judging by pictures of his family when he was small), but according to the timeline on his official website (sponsored by McDonald’s), in 1924 “hard-times force Wooden family off the farm and to nearby Martinsville, Indiana; pop. 4,800.” Wooden’s father would take a job at one of the sanitariums that Martinsville sported. Martinsville had a number of spas and sanitariums owing to the local mineral waters, which made it somewhat of a destination for the wealthy and sickly. At one of these sanitariums in 1890 Albert Merritt once worked as a porter. Merritt was the son of slaves who founded the Martinsville Boys Club and is now claimed to be “beloved” by the town. But by 1924 Martinsville no longer had a racial climate that allowed someone like Merritt to ply his good works. Racism, the virulent kind, blossomed like a noxious weed in the 1920s. David Curtis Stephenson, who had moved to Indiana from Oklahoma in 1920, having lost his bid for a Democratic nomination to run for Congress, channeled his political ambitions into the internal political workings of the Ku Klux Klan, backing Hiram Wesley Evans’s successful effort to unseat William J. Simmons as the Klan’s Imperial Wizard. For his efforts Stephenson was appointed Grand Dragon of the northern states. This appointment paid immediate benefits in Indiana. Klan membership dramatically increased. Martinsville became known as a “sunset town,” meaning that any blacks in town after dark were considered open targets. In October 1923 a Klan rally was held at the courthouse in Martinsville, drawing Klansmen from surrounding towns and as far away as Indianapolis. The crowd was described as “imposing,” and carried banners reading “White Supremacy,” “Protect Womanhood,” “Free public schools,” and “Pure Americanism.” Stephenson switched to the Republican party, and he assisted his favorite, Edward L. Jackson, to become Governor of Indiana. Jackson, although a corrupt buffoon, would further entrench the Klan into Indiana politics by, among other things, appointing reputed Klansman Arthur Robinson Senator over progressive scholar and former Senator Albert Beveridge (the biographer of John Marshall). Both Stephenson and Jackson suffered monumental falls by the end of the 1920s, Stephenson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1925 for the abduction, forced intoxication, rape and felony murder of a school teacher (whom Jackson introduced Stephenson to). Jackson, who was fearful of pardoning Stephenson, suffered the retribution of the Grand Dragon who expected no less. Stephenson knew where many of Jackson’s bodies were buried, and bribery charges against Jackson followed. Although he would escape conviction, Jackson left office a disgraced man in 1929. Martinsville continued the focus of racial hatred, spitefulness and crimes up to today. The town is still best known for the murder in 1968 of a black woman attacked with a screwdriver while she was selling encyclopedias door to door. In 1990 the town had no blacks counted in the census. Even the local black internist was too afraid to check the box for “African Americans.” By 2002 the local Chamber of Commerce had hired a “diversity consultant” purportedly to “undertake a county-wide initiative to address what I like to call making everyone feel welcome here” according to the Chamber’s president.

This was where Wooden spent his high school years and where he met his wife. While in high school he sent the Martinsville Artesians to the state championships in each of the three years between 1926-1928, winning the title in 1927. (Wooden was captain of the 1928 team that lost in the final game. Wooden said that losing as defending champions “still hurts.”) The team, of course, was all white.

Despite all of this (or maybe because all of this) Wooden referred to himself as a “liberal Democrat.” It is true that at one time, as Edmund Wilson pointed out, everyone was a liberal. That time seems far away just now; yet, it wasn’t more than a lifetime ago. But given that Wooden captions one of the photos in the “Scrapbook” of his official website with the statement “I’ve got the Bruins in my blood, but I’m a Hoosier at heart,” his affiliation with the Democrats seems unexpected at best. Going back to the days of William McKinley, Indiana rarely voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee (voting against FDR twice and Wilson for re-election). And when they voted for a Democratic, it was usually one of the unreconstructed Neanderthal type, such as Senator Samuel Ralston, anti-Catholic Klan favorite who died in office in 1925. Wooden’s un-Hoosier broadmindedness was of an entirely different cast and showed itself in the same way that his Christianity did—modestly, without fanfare but resolutely nonetheless. Perhaps it was from his father that he maintained a sense of social justice in the midst of the muck. He said that when he “graduated” elementary school in Centerton, his father gave him a paper with the following 7 instructions on it:

1. Be true to yourself.
2. Help others.
3. Make each day your masterpiece.
4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
5. Make friendship a fine art.
6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

He claimed that he kept the paper his whole life. He certainly developed an instinct for aphorisms. And as far as we can tell from his decisions, he seems to have followed them. And at least once it had some visible effects.

After World War II Wooden took a job as teacher and coach at Indiana Teacher’s College (now Indiana State University, where Larry Bird would play 30 years later). In 1947, his first year, he coached the Sycamores to an invitation to the NAIB (now the NAIA) tournament to be held in Kansas City. Wooden refused the invitation because of the tournament’s whites-only rule —Indiana Teachers College had one black backup player, Clarence Walker. Walker played only limited minutes, but as his son later told the story, for Wooden it was a question of team. Walker was a member of the team, and either the team played or it didn’t. “They wouldn’t permit a colored boy to play in the tournament and I had one on my team—Clarence Walker out of East Chicago,” Wooden said later. “While he wasn’t one that got to play very much at all, he still was a member of my team and I wouldn’t take the team without him.”

The next year the Sycamores were again invited to the NAIB tournament but this year the tournament committee changed the rules to permit black players. They informed Wooden that Walker would still be prohibited from staying at the segregated hotels or eating at the white-only eating places in Kansas City, but he would be allowed in the tournament. Wooden again refused. Something about these decisions suggests an intentional stand by Wooden to make a point, because in the regular season Walker had to suffer the indignities and worse of segregated Indiana. There were places he could not play, yet the team continued to play in Kentucky and Virginia. On campus he had to live in the back dorm, and when he went to away games he often had to use a separate locker room. Whatever the reason for the refusal, under pressure from the college president and persuasion from the NAACP, Wooden eventually relented. Walker stayed at the home of an African American minister in Kansas City. Indiana Teachers College made the finals but lost to Louisville. The game was historic in a couple of senses. It was the first collegiate championship game (outside New York at least) in which a black played. It was Wooden’s only loss as a coach in a championship game, and it was his last game in the NAIB. Although he coached for only 2 years in the league, he entered the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2009, largely due to his stand in favor of Clarence Walker. The tournament itself was not a dramatic moment in the history of the civil rights movement. Kansas City’s black newspaper The Call said that “no expressions of disapproval were heard” from the fans. Walker was not a star by any means; he scored only 8 points the entire week of games.

Clarence Walker would become a high school teacher and coach, put his three kids through college and even become the President of the Board of Commissioners of Lake County, Indiana. His children tell of how Walker spoke of Wooden and his teammates who supported the decisions. He also impressed on them how Wooden had enough pull to be able to find a black preacher in Kansas City who would take Walker in. Wooden himself said that when a couple of years later an “all colored team” won the tournament, he received hate letters blaming him for the result.

Wooden would go on to coach Lew Alcindor, Jamaal (then Jackson) Wilkes, among others. And in all cases he seems to have cemented feelings of great warmth and respect. Wooden has written a handful of books over the past decade, all in the inspirational/admonitory style that would become a genre of “sports leadership” books. The genre would make considerable money for coaches such as Pat Riley and Bill Parcells, who were able to fill some of the demand by the sports-hero-worshiping management world willing to spend for the maxims of “strong” leaders. Wooden himself has left a legacy of aphorisms about the concept of team, the power of self-respect, and the value of principle. Perhaps these sayings are no more useful than the hollow words of numerous others from high school coaches fantasizing about the big time to professionals whose main interest is maximizing income from sponsors and the lecture circuit. But if an editor were interested in trying to rekindle interest in the collection of aphorisms as an artform, he’d be well-advised to consider Wooden, whose own sayings seem to have been percolating in some deep recesses of the soul and not merely the best received on a corporate leadership circuit.

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  1. September 14th, 2010

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