Basketball Culture 101: John Wooden And The Culture Of Ought

[Editor’s Note: Timothy Varner is the Managing Editor and a writer at 48 Minutes of Hell, a San Antonio Spurs blog that is required reading regardless of one’s interest in the Spurs. What Tim does is expertly and accurately tell the story of the game, and that should be more than enough for even the casual fan to enjoy--even if you hate Tim Duncan. Here, Varner elegantly discards notions of sport as mere exercise and entertainment through the autobiography of John Wooden, titled They Call Me Coach. –Beckley]


Ought is a funny word. We don’t hear it much anymore.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported the Chinese government is considering the legal enforcement of one’s children visiting their elderly parents. Under the new legislation one may sue their children for failure to visit.

This is a great example of an ought becoming a must. Is it possible for bureaucrats to legislate love? From where does care for others spring?

When one reads anything about John Wooden, there is an immediate recognition that he didn’t lack for visitors as he grew older. Wooden’s offspring, loosely understood, stayed true to the end. He was constantly surrounded by children, biological and otherwise. He was basketball’s wise old sage.

Bill Walton’s foreword to John Wooden’s They Call Me Coach begins with the assertion that Wooden taught life at UCLA.  The first word of Wooden’s preface is “life.” And from there life just flows downhill. Wooden is the bucolic lakeside retreat atop the mountain. And Wooden is the cool stream that descends into the plains below.

Everything along the banks of that life-affirming descent is green.

Here’s what They Call Me Coach is not about: John Wooden coached basketball for 29 years. During that span he won 10 National Championships. He was a good coach, perhaps the best collegiate basketball coach ever. None of this is important.

Wooden’s book is an autobiography, and it includes plenty of details of his upbringing. There are also plenty of stories of his time on the sideline. All good. Helpful. Rich. But you won’t find the pulse of the book in any of those things.

Each chapter begins with, and is typically punctuated throughout, with hokey aphorisms. Wooden lived by these things. Some of it is poetry, often written by Wooden himself. He was a lousy poet, but watch him as he goes, reasoning all the way with rhyme.  The cheese factor is high. But it hits, and the man connects. And while his words sometimes have a Hallmarkish quality, they always rise above the vapid platitudes of greeting cards. John Wooden was an endearing poet of ought.

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

“When we are out of sympathy with the young, then our work in this world is over.”

And so on. If you’re reading HoopSpeak, you’ve heard these and countless other Woodenisms before. When Wooden died last year, these were the cute quotes people used to curate his life and career. I didn’t grow up with Wooden. At the time of his death, it all seemed a little too sentimental to me. After reading, They Call Me Coach, I’m learning to re-assess.

Wooden was a devout Christian. He once quipped, “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” And so I hope Wooden wouldn’t mind my drawing a parallel between himself and King Solomon.

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition—you’ll find some species of this within all systems and cultures—there is something called Wisdom literature, which is mostly attributed to King Solomon. Wisdom literature is distinct from other kinds of religious teaching in that it does not traffic so much in “shall nots” as much as “shoulds”. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:13). Like Wooden, Solomon was a poet of ought.

If the demands of the Torah can be construed as rigid adherence, wisdom literature is something more akin to encouragement toward better living. Wisdom does not intend to rule society, it wants to enrich the lives of its citizens.

John Wooden is basketball’s most fascinating talking point for basketball as more than basketball.

Here’s what They Call Me Coach is about: the possibility of living better.

In that light, John Wooden is actually fairly profound, bad poetry and all.

They Call Me Coach is a launching pad for a bigger discussion: What is the purpose of coaching? What is the value of sports? What Wooden wants to say—based on how he conducted himself—is that the contest is merely a laboratory for life.

Better people make better players; Better communities make better teams.

Better players make better people; Better teams make better communities.

Sports as mere escapism (the fan) or practiced dominance (the athlete) is short-sighted at best. It’s a cheap form of self-identification, a kind of chest-thumping, absurd tribalism. Sport, in these senses, still possesses some inherent value, but not as much as we’d like to think.  One might argue there is some natural selection at play, but that is, I’d argue, misguided. Considered in a vacuum, sports are positive in that they provide exercise, beauty and self-expression. Not much more.

But the meaningfulness and value of sports grows if it’s used as a platform to pursue self-improvement and the development of community. Sports are a vitally important component of any culture if viewed in the laboratory for life sense.  It’s not so much about one’s free throw percentage as it is the discipline it takes to perfect one’s stroke. That kind of stuff carries through life.

It’s not surprising that as They Call Me Coach concludes, Wooden spends a few chapters dealing with his observations about changes within the world of basketball since his retirement in 1975. And again, it’s basketball on the surface and life beneath.

One thing that has helped me during the years without Nellie [Wooden's wife who died of cancer in 1985] is the number of bright, interesting young people who come to my camps at California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks…

What an interesting activity; each group is different and has an appealing makeup. I feel the greatest value of young people coming to my camp is not how much basketball they learn but the association they have with all the others in the camp…We insist on all being courteous and polite to each other and on all taking advantage of the opportunity to make new friends.

We stress conduct, attitude, and attention in every session of the week-long camps. Our subject is not just basketball. We try to develop the full personality, just like I insisted on at every place I taught basketball. We believe the youngsters should be neat in their dress, keep their rooms in order, bus their dishes after each meal, and maintain proper decorum in their rooms, and we insist they listen attentively to instructors.

All these things, in my opinion, are more valuable to them as people than the basketball instruction they receive.

I want to stop short of describing They Call Me Coach in terms of kumbaya, and maybe I’ve already gone too far in that direction. If so, I’m sorry. But the culture of basketball is not wholly distinct from the broader culture in which it inhibits. More accurately understood, it is that culture. This is our takeaway.

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás.

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  2. Basketball Culture 101: The Ghost That Lingers


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