The wisdom of John Wooden fills books, adorns walls and rests on desks.
The famed basketball coach acquired that knowledge over time — 99 years, to be exact.
Barb Morrow researched Wooden’s lessons, especially those learned in Indiana, before Wooden traveled West and became the “Wizard of Westwood” with 10 national championships, superstar players and legions of admirers of his classy sideline demeanor.
Her new book, “Hardwood Glory: A Life of John Wooden” (published by the Indiana Historical Society Press), shows his early shaping from influential mentors, sports heroics, World War II experiences, family and mistakes (yes, he made them).
In this biography, Wooden seems real as a gravel road through the Hoosier countryside, yet as extraordinarily visionary as Gandhi.
Wooden’s most well-known legacy surrounds his years in California, when this polite, homespun guy from the Midwest built a college athletics dynasty in the shadow of Hollywood on the UCLA campus.
Even after he retired in 1975 after winning a mind-boggling 10th NCAA championship in 12 years, adoration of Wooden grew as he gracefully aged — based in his modest southern California home, brokenhearted after the passing of his beloved wife, Nell, yet accommodating to average folks seeking his autograph or a handshake, writing poetry and dispensing advice.
“That’s all great,” Morrow said, “but — based on the research I’ve done here in Indiana — I wanted Indiana to say, ‘He was born here, raised here, schooled here, coached here, started a family here. By the time he left Indiana, he was who he was.”
The biblical phrase in Proverbs, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” fits Indiana’s effect on Wooden. A moment in 1937, which would surprise people who only know the California side of Wooden, serves a good example. It came in his first season as an Indiana high school coach, at South Bend Central, and in his last season, ever, with a losing record (8-14).
Moments after Wooden’s Bears beat archnemesis Mishawaka 36-32 in the losing team’s packed gymnasium that January, Wooden met the opposing coach at midcourt for a handshake. Instead, Mishawaka coach Shelby Shake, according to the South Bend Tribune, accused Wooden of paying the refs, called him a name and cursed.
Wooden snapped. He charged after Shake and a melee ensued. Order was restored, the two coaches shook hands, the Mishawaka principal apologized, and Shake expressed regrets for his actions in “the heat of the battle.”
It wasn’t over, though. An investigation by the IHSAA led to Shake being banned from ever coaching again at an Indiana high school, Morrow’s book explains. In fact, Shake became a professor of industrial education at Southern Illinois University and died in 1962 without ever having coached another high school game. The IHSAA drew criticism from the Mishawaka Fair Dealer for not similarly penalizing Wooden.
The book poses the question, raised decades later by historians, what “if the IHSAA had reprimanded or even fired Wooden for trying to punch Shake?” Asked by history writer Peter DeKever about the incident in 2000, Wooden gave a typically classy response. “Mr. Shake has passed away, and it would not help anyone to say anything that would tarnish his name.” Morrow senses that brush with career disaster educated Wooden.
“That story is kind of indicative,” she said from Auburn, a small town in Indiana’s northeast corner. “Those things could have been stepping stones — learning stones — along the way, where Wooden learned, ‘There is a point I can’t go beyond.’ We’re all learning through life, and he was a lifelong learner.”
Transformative experiences followed in his first college coaching job at Indiana State Teachers College, later known as Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Like many of his players, Wooden came to Indiana State in 1946 after serving in the military during World War II. Its roster also included a freshman guard from East Chicago, Clarence Walker, an African-American — a rarity in 1940s college basketball outside of traditionally black colleges.
In 1947, Wooden notably refused an invitation by the National Associate of Intercollegiate Basketball for his Sycamores to play in its national tournament for small colleges because its whites-only format would’ve excluded Walker, a reserve player. The following season — when his Sycamores won 27 games, still the second-most in school history to the 1979 Larry Bird team’s 33 — the NAIB invited Indiana State again.
This time, Wooden, as Morrow’s book explains, curiously accepted the invite, despite the racial ban, and the coach submitted a 12-man roster that didn’t include Walker, much to the player’s disappointment. Between the Feb. 25 acceptance of that invitation and the March 6 tipoff of the NAIB Tournament in Kansas City, Mo., the NAIB decided to drop its all-whites policy. Wooden consulted with Walker about playing in the tournament and spoke with Walker’s family and the NAACP. All agreed Walker should participate.
Over the years, legend depicted the image that Wooden refused to put his Sycamores in the NAIB until the organization lifted its ban. A 2014 book by Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, told a different story, with Wooden accepting the 1948 bid and then the NAIB changing its policy for other reasons.
Three East Coast colleges declined NAIB invitations because of the racial ban, and the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to exclude the NAIB championship team from competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials, as it traditionally had done. Davis’ book, “A Coach’s Life,” quoted Walker’s diary from that season, describing how Wooden had let down the young player.
In her book, Morrow pointed out that Indiana State administrators may have pushed Wooden to accept the bid quickly (for preparation purposes), knowing other outside pressures could soon force the NAIB to lift its discriminatory rule. After all, just one year earlier, Wooden said no to the tournament and had a track record of steadfastly standing up to racism directed at his South Bend Central High School players.
Walker endured indignities of the Jim Crow era in the Sycamores’ NAIB journey.
A restaurant owner refused to serve Walker, prompting Wooden to bolt out of the eatery along with his players. A Missouri hotel forced Walker to sleep on a cot in the building’s smelly basement. “It was miserable for the guy,” Morrow said.
He made history, though. Wooden put Walker — a lightly used backup guard — into the Sycamores’ first game at Kansas City.
“The very first game,” Morrow emphasized. “I just think Wooden deserves credit for that. And from there, the floodgates opened.”
Walker scored eight points for the Sycamores that week, breaking college basketball postseason color barrier two years before the larger NCAA and NIT tournaments integrated.
Fittingly, Morrow concludes that chapter of her book with the last entry in Walker’s diary from that momentous 1947-48 season. Wooden had just accepted an offer by UCLA to move to Los Angeles and coach the fledgling campus’ Bruins.
“A week ago, it was announced that John R. Wooden … will not return next year. A truly wonderful man is leaving,” Walker wrote.
And that’s what Indiana gave California and the world.
Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to [email protected].