An Afternoon with John Wooden

As most of you know, John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA, died a few years ago at the age of 99. He is widely considered the greatest coach in basketball history – some would argue, in the history of all sports. His team won 10 national championships in a 12-year span. A few years ago, I had the amazing privilege to spend an afternoon with the coach.

Here’s the context… once a year, Chick-fil-A hosts a Seminar for our organization, and I serve on the team responsible for the programming. We were delighted when we were able to secure Coach Wooden to speak at our event. As is our practice, we invest one-on-one time with our keynote speakers to help them understand our organization and the objective for the meeting.
On this day, Tim Tassapolous and I were invited to the coach’s home in west Los Angeles. We were joined there by the gentleman who arranged the visit. Coach Wooden was 96 at the time.
We met at a condo the coach and his wife, Nell, had purchased in the 1970’s. The place was decorated just as you would expect of a modest home in the 70’s. The décor had not been updated. However, there had been some additions over the years. The two-bedroom home was now full of books. Everywhere you looked – books. It was clear Wooden was still a learner!
The other thing you might notice in this unassuming place were the plaques and trophies. Not displayed as you might expect, but randomly placed here and there. Their lack of prominence was indicative of the priority Wooden placed on them. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was not in a frame hanging over the mantle, it was draped across an object on a random piece of furniture the way a 3rd grader would display a 4th place track & field ribbon. No pretense.
This lack of pretense continued as we began our conversation with the coach. He was focused, interested and inquisitive about our organization. We were there to brief him, and we did, but we got in a few questions along the way. One was about his relationship with his players. He told us about the number of players that had chosen to stay in touch. Some called him virtually every day! Forty years after he coached them – they still called.
What was it that created such loyalty, respect and love? Entire books have been written on Coach Wooden; many of them shed light on the answer to that question. But for me, I’m guessing, having spent only a few hours with the man, the answer is rooted in his selflessness.
Our conversation that afternoon could have easily been about the coach - selfishly, I wish it had been. But he insisted we stay on task. He wanted to learn about us. He wanted to serve us. He wanted to serve Chick-fil-A. I’m guessing he had the same focus on serving others his entire life.
As we were leaving, Tim and I had a deep sense we had been in the presence of greatness that afternoon. We didn’t have pages of notes, but we had seen servant leadership modeled for us in its purest form. I was reminded again that day, the great leaders always want to serve others.
As we drove away, I looked back and the coach was standing at the window, waving goodbye. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.[GLS_Shield]


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