Team gets own 'crash' course in surviving

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Any basketball player who ever trotted out to center court during a time of reckoning has a favorite story to tell – and re-tell – perhaps embellishing it along the way in hopes that it will gain even more stature in basketball lore.

The University of Michigan basketball squad wrote a particularly compelling tournament story, capturing the Big Ten tourney crown with an improbable four-game sweep of conference foes.

News of the championship run became front page news after the team’s plane skidded off the runway in an aborted takeoff en route to the Big Ten Tournament, narrowly averting a tragedy that could have imperiled the lives of the more than 100 on board the aircraft.

While the Wolverine squad did not advance to the Final Four, one thing seems certain: Michigan’s combination of teamwork and toughness would make a late and legendary Big Ten alum especially proud.

He gained fame as an All-American player at Purdue during the Great Depression, later becoming known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” a nametag he acquired while patrolling the sidelines in Pauley Pavilion on the beautiful Westwood campus of UCLA.

His teams mercilessly broke many a basketball heart, winning 10 national championships over a 12-year span. His title-winning team in 1965 stuck a dagger in local hearts when the Bruins destroyed a star-studded Michigan squad led by Wolverine legend Cazzie Russell. His final championship squad, in 1975, also spoiled a U-M tournament party, edging the Wolverines in overtime.

From 1967 to 1973, he guided UCLA to seven straight NCAA titles, a championship feat that such modern-day coaching marvels as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self, and Tom Izzo can only dream about. He was the architect of an 88-game winning streak that still boggles the basketball mind, while his squads enjoyed a 38-game victory string in NCAA tournament games.

While John Wooden will forever be known as the finest basketball coach of all time, he made his mark in retirement as an author and public speaker, treating readers and audiences to his secrets of success before passing away in 2010 at age 99.

His book, “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court,” is a quick read, 201 pages in length, that should be required reading for those who value teamwork as a means for self-improvement.

One of his favorite stories is about one of his greatest players, free-spirited center Bill Walton, a three-time All-American. Coach Wooden had a rule, archaic as it may sound nowadays, against facial hair for players on his team. One day Walton showed up for practice sporting a beard.

“Bill, have you forgotten something?” Coach Wooden asked his star center.

Walton replied, “Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.”

Coach Wooden asked, “Do you believe in that strongly?”

Walton answered, “Yes, I do, coach. Very much.”

Coach then looked at All-American player and said politely, “Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do. And the team is going to miss you.”

Of course, the Bruins only missed him while he made his way to the locker room to shave off his beard.

“There were no hard feelings,” Coach Wooden recalled. “I wasn’t angry and he wasn’t mad. He understood the choice was between his own desires and the good of the team, and Bill was a team player.”

The book ends where life should begin with the author’s “My Favorite Maxims” Among his choice sayings:

• Happiness begins where selfishness ends.

• Discipline yourself and others won’t need to.

• If I am through learning, I am through.

• The smallest good deed is better than the best intention.

• The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.

• Nothing can give you greater joy than doing something for another.

• Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.

• Make each day your masterpiece.

• Do not mistake activity for achievement.

• What is right is more important than who is right.

The 10 maxims, and their underlying meaning, may well define this year’s Michigan team, a squad that in just a few short weeks made an unexpected journey to the edge of greatness.