Tuesday, October 18, 2005

National Treasure

The entire White House staff from the Vice President down is apparently facing indictment. All our worst fears have been confirmed about George Bush's lack of competence. The right wing noise machine has made truth relative. The New York Times cares more about a sleazy, pimping journalist than its obligation to its readers and the role the founding fathers envisioned for what they naively called the "free press".

Republican or Democrat it is hard to see this process and not feel that we have lost our way as a nation and as individuals. The drumbeat of bad news, of disaster, of failure and of criminal misconduct at the highest levels leaves one depressed and disenchanted.

Fortunately, there are still real heroes out there. ESPN has a great article about one of our national treasures, John Wooden.

"The greatest coach in the history of college basketball has a tiny place. John Wooden's Encino, Calif., condominium couldn't be more than 700 square feet, and almost every inch of it is occupied. Piles of books -- volumes of poetry, biographies of Abraham Lincoln, several bibles -- line the hallways. The dining room table is cluttered with Pyramids of Success waiting to be signed and sent to fans. And dozens of photographs and plaques, commemorating 43 years of coaching and 95 years of life, hang on the walls of every room."

If John Wooden were merely the "greatest coach" his life and story would be of interest, but hardly remarkable. It is has capacity as a moral leader, as an example that has left him more in demand and more visible to a broad spectrum of the public than he was 30 years ago when he coached his last UCLA basketball game.

"Fidelity. The man is simply, steadily faithful, to his God, to his principles, to his family and his friends, to the creed in his pocket, the poem in his den and the shrine on his bed. He knows himself. It's a simple thing but a rare one, against the social grain. "There's a line I like from Socrates," he says. "When he was unjustly imprisoned and facing imminent death, the jailers asked, 'Why aren't you preparing for death?' And Socrates said, 'I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've lead.'"

For many of us, it takes much of our lives to realize that the values we are taught in our youth are the most important values. For many of Coach Wooden's players the realization that what Coach was teaching them was far beyond basketball took much of their adult lives to sink in.

"It's not that they agree with everything he thinks or believes. It's not that the points on his creed must be their own. It's that he was there, doggedly holding on to his principles at a time when Walton, Johnson and Wilkes needed something to believe in. It's that, if nothing else, they believed in his believing. It's that he and one of his favorite lines from Mother Teresa -- "Forgiveness sets you free..." "They speak of him in hushed tones, with wide smiles on their faces. They gush. Do they risk deifying him? They don't care. They know what they know. Wilkes tells you how moved he was, how much he learned, by Coach's absolute devotion to Nellie. Washington speaks of Wooden's unflinching support of Kareem at a time when the center was marginalized by race, size, politics. Shackelford marvels still at his steady habits of study and preparation. Hill raves about his memory, of names, faces and lines of poetry he loves. Walton, who unabashedly calls Wooden "an enduring flame of hope," says it's all these and more: "It's the totality with Coach. It's the example he sets by the way he does all the little things and all the big things in his life."
We still need heroes. We still need examples of the power of what one good person can do. John Wooden is one of those examples. Faith and the courage to do what is right change lives.

"In his pocket, to this day, he keeps a small steel cross, given to him by his minister when he enlisted in 1942. It has an alpha and an omega embossed on one side, and a heart and a monad (a symbol of unity) stamped on the other. Beginnings and endings, love and order. This cross has been with him for 63 years, through triumph and loss, through joy and sadness. You see how it's been worn smooth by his busy fingers, and you imagine how it's grounded him, provided him some measure of comfort and counsel, reminded him of who he is and what matters to him."

As Bill Walton says, "an enduring flame of hope."