Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Great Scorer

How poetry shaped a legendary coach's career.

by John Wooden

At ucla, where I was head coach of men’s varsity basketball for twenty-seven years, poetry was one of my favorite teaching tools. I have loved poems since I was a child, perhaps because my father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, introduced me to literature at an early age—reading to his four sons at night under a coal oil lamp in our Indiana farmhouse: Tennyson, Whitman, Longfellow, Whittier, James Whitcomb Riley, Shakespeare, and more.

Later, at Martinsville High School, my basketball coach, Glenn “The ’Ol Fox” Curtis, was a master of motivation and utilized poetry to light a fire in his players. Grantland Rice was one of his primary “assistant coaches” in this area.

During a game against Muncie Central in which our team, the Artesians, were trailing at halftime and were thoroughly dejected, the ’Ol Fox jumped up on a bench as we headed back out to the court. Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher Coach Curtis exhorted us to remember the following:

For when the One Great Scorer
    comes to mark against your name,
He writes—not that you won or lost—
    but how you played the game.

We lost, but we did not quit. That poem, like many others, worked its magic, and I remembered it when I became a coach.

At ucla, I constantly incorporated bits of poetry, rhymes, and maxims to help focus attention, give direction, and create inspiration. This seldom occurred during games but was a constant element in the locker room, on bus rides to and from arenas, in hotel lobbies, and especially during practice, where the real work is done, the real improvement made.

Bill Walton, ucla’s center for two national championships and two undefeated seasons, tells people that I never stopped talking during practice—“an overriding chatter, never silence,” as he describes it. That so-called chatter included instructions on the mechanics of the game, obviously, but also dealt with attitude, which is as important as knowing how to shoot a jump shot properly. Poetry, in all its forms, was an efficient tool for this.

While I never stood on a bench and recited Grantland Rice, I did constantly inject ideas during practice that were “poetic.” If I sensed lagging energy in a player—Bill Walton, perhaps?—I might quickly take him aside and sternly tell him to step it up: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, Bill!”

On those occasions when I had to remind him to cut his hair or shave his beard before he could come into practice, he might offer the words of his own favorite poet: “Coach Wooden, ‘The times they are a-changin.’” Well, they weren’t a-changin’ for those who wanted to be members of the ucla varsity basketball team.

I began each season—the first day of practice—with the same demonstration and instruction: showing players precisely how I wanted them to put on their socks; after that, how to lace and double-tie their shoelaces. “Little things make big things happen,” I cautioned them.

After ucla won its first national championship in 1964, I quickly reminded players who might be inclined to a sudden swelling of the ego of the following:

Talent is God-given; be humble.
Fame is man-given; be thankful.
Conceit is self-given; be careful.

Is this poetry? Certainly, in my opinion. 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.

In 1962, ucla came within a whisker of winning a national championship. A phantom foul called on Walt Hazzard perhaps kept us from the championship game against Ohio State in which we would have been the favorite. Our team had given it everything they had. And been outscored. I reminded them of George Moriarty’s poem:

Who can ask more of a man
than giving all within his span?
Giving all, it seems to me,
is not so far from victory.

A teacher never knows what stays with those he or she is teaching. You do your best using the tools at your disposal. Poetry was one of my many tools. Thus, even though I understood that Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others on our teams may have raised their eyebrows at some of my maxims and poetry at the time, things changed as they matured. In fact, when Bill had children of his own, he began writing down some of my maxims on their brown paper lunch bags before they left for school.

He tells me their reaction was about the same as his while he played center at ucla. And says he hopes some of it sticks with them like it did with him.

Poetry works its magic in many different ways.

Originally Published: June 7, 2010

COMMENTS (14)

On June 7, 2010 at 6:20pm Jim Caufield wrote:
Thanks, Coach!

On June 7, 2010 at 8:59pm Bill Lang wrote:

John Wooden was a truly great human being, I am not surprised he liked poetry.

On June 8, 2010 at 11:33am george f campbell wrote:
He is truly great as coach, teacher, philosopher, man for all season.
He may have the final say in sportsmanship and living life ...gfc

On June 8, 2010 at 12:40pm Remy C. Orffeo wrote:
Unfortunately too many "modern" poets violate Wooden's maxim of "good words in good order is good enough for me."

Wooden understood that to be a successful coach (or poet) the lessons (poems) must be understandable.

On June 8, 2010 at 1:13pm Karyn wrote:
Inspirational; a strong reminder of how an expert teacher can spark an interest in learning and language in any context.

On June 8, 2010 at 1:22pm Will Brown wrote:
A good life in good order seemed good enough to me. (I'll write that on my lunch sack tomorrow)...thanks Coach & Bill.

On June 8, 2010 at 6:33pm Roselane wrote:
A teacher is only as effective as the pupils are receptive. Coach inspires me to be better at what I do--teach!

On June 8, 2010 at 9:04pm Sean David Soule wrote:
He would have been a good Latter-day saint, on and off the paint. I hope he doesn't continue living in sin.

On June 8, 2010 at 10:04pm Judy von Buchler wrote:
I did not know John Wooden but have always admired him, not only because of his remarkable coaching, but also because of the man he was. In the late 1960s I taught English at Martinsville High School. I wish I had known then about his love of poetry and how he used it to help bring forth effort, humility, and excellence in sport and life. I think we could have had some exciting conversations!

On June 8, 2010 at 10:51pm Dr. Barbara Mossberg wrote:
I knew John Wooden when I was an
undergraduate English/history major at
UCLA and sold hot dogs at Pauley
Pavillion to see the basketball games.
He was gracious to me, a naive
freshman, and we sat to watch the
practices. He had a special leadership
quality that invoked trust and respect.
My student--herself a scholar athlete--
in our Integrated Studies Program at
California State University Monterey
Bay chose him as her major program
Exemplar, a person whose achievement
is based on fusing multiple disciplines.
What Wooden did with poetry to inspire
leadership, character, discipline,
creativity, and zest on the court, and
make poetry's dynamics and lyric order
integral with the art of basketball, John
Muir did with poetry to inspire legal
activism on behalf of earth. I
appreciate John Wooden's inspiring
next generations to appreciate the
ancient role of poetry in leadership, and
I will be featuring him on my radio
show this week, The Poetry Slow Down,
at BarbaraMossberg.com, Radio
show/KRXA540AM.

On June 11, 2010 at 7:25pm wayne pitchko wrote:
words and Wooden go together just like POETRY

On June 15, 2010 at 2:35pm Barbara Jordan Bache-Wiig wrote:
Tears of cheers and affirmation for John Wooden's article plus the valuable comments. I'm a retired speech language pathologist, now 88, who segued into poetry in 1990. I want you all to know that poetry is live and well in Waukesha County. You can find many fine poets at this website: thepoetrypeople.com

Onward and thanks, Barbara Bache-Wiig

On July 7, 2010 at 5:50pm Rob King wrote:
im so thankful to be able to read and learn
from the wonderful life of John Wooden. He
inspires me and i have to admit that
although i have never met the man i wept
when i heard he passed. He will be missed
but his life and lessons live on.

On August 6, 2010 at 12:15pm Chuck Warn wrote:
God bless Coach Wooden. He and his beloved Nell have been reunited in eternal bliss.

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MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2010
 John  Wooden

Biography

John Wooden has been cited by ESPN as the greatest coach of the twentieth century. His UCLA basketball dynasty won ten national championships in twelve years, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime achievements. The Wisdom of Wooden: A Century of Family, Faith, and Friends (McGraw-Hill), co- authored with Steve Jamison, will be published in August.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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