Len Asimow, head of the Department of Mathematics at RMU, learned valuable life lessons from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who died June 4 at the age of 99. At an early age, Asimow was a devoted fan and admirer of the championship-winning Bruins; little did he know how much interaction he would have with his favorite coach.
Asimow attended UCLA from 1957 to 1961. During his sophomore year, he wanted to get involved in activities outside of the classroom, so he became the Bruins’ assistant manager. In this role, he was responsible for everyday duties that included sweeping the floors before and after practice, retrieving basketballs and dispensing towels. Asimow says, “I got to sit on the bench at all of the home games and be in the locker room when the coach addressed the team before games and at halftime.”
However, his most coveted task was bringing Wooden his daily glass of orange juice. “I was pleased on those occasions when he recognized me outside the context of the locker room and gave me a warm smile and friendly greeting,” says Asimow. “I knew he was a gentleman who was a stickler for details and getting the best from his team, including managers.”
Back in those days, the Bruins did not have a permanent home court. Games were played at a variety of venues, most of which had so many pillars that only a handful of seats had unimpeded views of the court. That is why being on the bench was such a benefit to Asimow.
Wooden maintained a very stern and intense demeanor during practices, and he expected the same from his players. His practices were highly structured, filled with precision-style drills. UCLA had one game plan – play your best; play the UCLA style, which was laboriously taught during the long practices. The players were taught not to worry about what the opponent may or may not do. Without question, Wooden wanted to win.
“I always had the highest respect for Coach Wooden and I am grateful for having the opportunity to observe him in action. I learned to appreciate his intense focus and precision,” Asimow says. “‘Coach’ was a person of immense integrity who possessed exact views of correct and incorrect behavior.” As an incredible coach on the court and an amazing person off, he taught Asimow several fundamental life lessons that he stresses to his students at Robert Morris University today.
* Treat everyone with dignity and respect. Wooden was a very tough, critical and demanding taskmaster. However, his actions never got personal; most of his former players revere him.
* Discipline pays dividends. This may seem old-fashioned today, but Wooden believed the value of hard work and practice extended beyond athletic endeavors to the classroom and life pursuits as well. Specifically, Wooden prohibited any form of pre-game celebration; no one talked and music was not played. He believed in a quiet, solemn locker room where the players could think about the game, without distraction.
* Use the “Pyramid of Success” for guidance. It consisted of simple maxims including duty, responsibility and integrity. It set ideals and models that everyone could aspire to and benefit from. Wooden did not have a specific game strategy per opponent; however, he wanted his players to play their best at all times. As a result, he created several “Woodenisms” that still hold true today: “Be quick, but do not hurry,” and “It is not how tall you are, it is how tall you play.”
Wooden was best known for bringing exciting, fast-break and defensive basketball to the West Coast, in direct contrast to the slow-paced and dull control-style norm. This was years before the invention of the shot clock, and slam dunks were illegal. Wooden’s teams were quick and aggressive, never walking the ball up the court; they ran at every opportunity. He emphasized quickness and a highly disciplined approach to out-pacing and out-conditioning the opposition. In essence, he created a revolutionary style of the game.
“I vividly remember him sitting on the bench during games, his jaw clenched, face in a frown, and program rolled up in his hand,” says Asimow. “This picture of Wooden was to become almost a cliché in later years, but it really personified him and his ‘game face.’” Wooden never roamed the sidelines, raging at the officials and yelling at his players. He stayed seated on the bench, occasionally making intense remarks to the referees.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wooden created a dynasty in college basketball history that remains unparalleled. His teams won 10 NCAA titles in his last 12 seasons. From 1967 to 1973, the “Wizard of Westwood” guided the Bruins to 88 consecutive victories and seven straight national championships; both records still exist. Furthermore, he is the first of only three men to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach; he also mentored countless NBA stars, including Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor).
Wooden is revered as much now for what he accomplished off the court as he is for what his teams achieved. He authored several books, including a children’s story called Inch and Miles, and his Pyramid of Success has become a model for coaches and teachers all over the world. In 2003, Wooden was invited to the White House, where President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon a United States civilian.
“He is remembered not only as an exceptional coach and builder of a dynasty, but also as a molder of men,” says Asimow. “Furthermore, he taught us how to focus on one primary objective: Be the best in whatever endeavor you undertake. Do not worry about the score, image or the opponent.”