By David Ray
Born on an Indiana farm that had no electricity or indoor plumbing, John Wooden shot his first basketball through a hoop nailed to a barn hayloft. But he went on to lead his high school team to an Indiana state championship. Playing for Purdue, he was named All-American three times and his Boilermakers won the national championship during his senior year.
Wooden’s greatest fame, though, came through a much-heralded coaching career. While leading the UCLA Bruins, he built one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time. Over 27 years, Wooden’s teams won 10 NCAA basketball championships, including an unmatched streak of seven in a row between 1967 and 1973.
Despite all his successes, though, John Wooden remained a humble man. And, in an arena where character is not always a hallmark, he lived a life of amazing integrity. Those who know his whole story understand why. His life was marked by strong faith as much as by strong coaching skills.
In his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, Wooden wrote about Frank Davidson, minister at his church back in South Bend, Indiana. In 1943, just before Wooden went into the Navy, Davidson gave him a small cross that he carried the rest of his life. “Every time I reach in my pocket,” Wooden said, “my fingers touch the cross he gave me. It’s been worn down quite a bit now from my clenching it in my left hand during games.” A reporter asked Wooden whether it was a religious ritual for him. Wooden said no, but holding the cross reminded him of his priorities, that there were things more important than the game of basketball.
The cross is always a good reminder about what matters most—whether it’s well-worn and carried in a legendary basketball coach’s pocket, or vividly remembered every Sunday when gathering around a Communion table.
In June 2010, John Wooden slipped into eternity. Asked a year earlier about the secret to his long life, Wooden said, “Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself.” Asked what he would like God to say when he arrived at the pearly gates, Wooden replied, “Well done.”
John Wooden is the only person ever to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and a coach. But, in the end, he knew it wasn’t a hall of fame, but a hall of faith that mattered most. He understood the gates of Heaven were more important than the basketball courts of Westwood. Do we? One way to remember is to do what Wooden did throughout his life—embrace the cross.
David Ray is serving as interim president of Cincinnati Christian University, which he also serves as dean of the graduate seminary and professor of practical ministries.