Little Things: Treating Imposters the Same

Stephen Dunn


To my great regret, circumstances have diminished the time that I have to spend on Bruins Nation these days, as poster, as commenter, and even as reader. Over and above my missing out on much of the daily joy and medicine that BN provides, I miss my BN friends. So, as self-therapy, and perhaps as penance, I'm looking to participate more by doing something that I can do offline, namely writing. I've been thinking about a particular topic for some time, and, finally, I used chrissorr's wonderfully informative and entertaining Did You Know pieces (part 1 and part 2) on John Wooden as incentive to get off the dime.

This post is dedicated to Coach John R. Wooden. The thematic title, "Little Things," stems from my appreciation of an aspect of Coach Wooden's remarkable life that often goes under-recognized. I speak of Coach's attention to the little things in life. With luck, similarly themed posts will follow in the future.

In particular, the little thing that this post celebrates is the inspirationaly even manner in which Coach dealt with both victory and defeat. I will be talking about "victory" and "defeat" in context of sports, but of course, the broad concepts are much greater than that. Successes and failures are unavoidable facts of life. How we deal with each at the time goes a long way to defining the content of our character, and who we are, as human beings. I know that all of us here on Bruins Nation are grateful to John Wooden for doing his best to guide us toward the positive side of the ledger.

Little Things: Treating Imposters the Same

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!"

--From the poem "If—" by British Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, written in the form of paternal advice to the poet's son.

Treat victory and defeat as imposters, as neither are, nor should be, fundamental concerns in our lives. Treat them both the same. Keep an even keel. Keep one's sails full. Efficient and precise beats flashy and erratic. It sounds right, and it's easy to say, isn't it?

In practice, though, it is a much tougher ideal to attain. Naturally, it's easy to be gracious after a victory. You can readily offer sincere congratulations to those whom you just vanquished. Feeling good about things is easy after you emerge victorious.

It is not nearly so easy to be gracious after a defeat, especially after a soul-crushing defeat. Going in, it's win and you reap bounteous reward; lose and, over and above your immediate agony, you realize that you have years of painful remembrances ahead of you. The opportunity was lost. It's done; it's over. Your body and mind are drenched in disappointment. The weight is oppressive. You can hardly breathe. Congratulations are the very last thing on your mind when you see the other side celebrating. That should be us, you say to yourself.

In a manner that would embarrass a four-year old, Jim Boeheim went ballistic this past basketball season. To most people, it was an understandable, if not becoming, explosion. Tantrums have not been a habit with him. According to Boeheim, the only other time an outburst got him thrown out of a game was years ago, in an exhibition game.

His at-the-time undefeated, number-one Syracuse Orangemen had traveled down to Durham, NC to take on the Duke Blue Devils in a late-season contest. The outcome of the game weighed heavy with consequence, as the season was drawing to a close, and both teams were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

The score was 60-58 in favor of Duke with about 14 seconds left in the second half. Syracuse's C. J. Fair drove to the basket along the baseline, left of the basket. Duke's Rodney Hood was at the edge of the paint, near the baseline. As Fair approached the rim, Hood shifted slightly to his right, so as to be more in line with Fair's path, raised his arms, and planted his feet, more or less.

The groin of an airborne Fair collided with Hood's chest as he laid it in, and everyone waited for the call. Boeheim, obviously, expected a blocking call. Tie game, plus a free throw. Except that the call was a charge. No basket. That's when Boeheim lost it.

Boeheim's outburst, which lead to two technical fouls called against him, effectively ended the game. With two technicals, free throws, and the accompanying ejection, that was that, as far as the game was concerned.

Moreover, Boeheim's conniption was not confined to a heat-of-the-moment flare-up. Residual frustration over the matter was present well after he had had a chance to cool off. Along the way, he berated a friendly security guard, offered a still-simmering, sarcastic press conference, and said that he would have no regrets about his blowup, "not today, tomorrow or next week."

Boeheim's tantrum and ejection video went viral, and inspired mocking and excoriation. Gregg Doyel of CBS sports asked a poignant question:

"What if Boeheim had kept his cool as valiantly as C.J. Fair, but C.J. Fair had stormed around the court cursing at officials until he was ejected, allowing Duke to turn a two-point game into a six-point victory?

Would Boeheim be OK with that?"

There is no escape: people notice how you behave. Your behavior certainly influences people's impressions of you. And, as in the case of a high-profile basketball coach, your behavior can have influence far beyond your team, and for many years beyond the current season.

Now, I don't mean to pick on Coach Boeheim. Love him or hate him, he is a well-respected and successful college basketball coach. Obviously, he is not given to loose-cannon hysterics often, and I don't mean to paint an entire picture of Coach Boeheim over this one incident. Rather, I choose this incident to illustrate one characteristic, one little thing, about Coach Wooden that made him so very special.

Keep an even keel. Coach Wooden was a practitioner of this tenet, on and off the court. Even Coach's famous admonition to "Be quick, but don't hurry" is a variation of the tortoise and hare lesson. Utilize, don't squander, your quickness.

"All of life is peaks and valleys. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low."

"I think coaches should stay on the bench as long as the ball is in play."

"I seldom was ever off my seat on the bench during the game."

--John Wooden

Coach's reticence to get neither too high nor too low was not an artificial governor. It was a natural consequence of his core beliefs, and his rock-steady fulfillment of them.

"It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen."
"I am just a common man who is true to his beliefs."

"If there's anything you could point out where I was a little different, it was the fact that I never mentioned winning."

--John Wooden

People notice how you behave.

"I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession."

"I'm glad I was a teacher."

"You can do more good by being good than any other way."

--John Wooden

Coach didn't just mouth those principles. He lived them. Why is it important to do the little things right? Because, however you conduct your life, you are being an example. Especially when it comes to behaving around youngsters, you are being a teacher, whether you want to be or not.

"But, but...," you say. "Coach never had to deal with adversity. He won all the time. Everything always went his way."

You would be wrong about that. From Clarence Walker to Edgar Lacey to Sidney Wicks to Bill Walton, John Wooden had many obstacles thrown in his way. When major league curve balls, such as these, are thrown their way, I think most people would use flexible versions of principles to adapt to the situations. But, not Coach. By his own admission, he did not always handle problems in the best way. But, one thing he did do with great consistency is to demonstrate unflinching adherence to his core beliefs.

But, let's leave bigger issues out of the picture, and let's limit our discussion to losses in basketball games. We all know how excruciating big games can be. And, we all know how agonizing big losses can be. We're human. We're disappointed. We react. We can't hide it. Coach did have some losses. To those of us who do not have Coach Wooden's inner strength and peace, including myself, these losses still haunt us to this very day.

u$c Slow-Down Game. In the late 1960s, what was probably the second-best basketball team in the country was located just twenty miles from UCLA. In those days, only one team in the then-Pac-8 Conference advanced to postseason play. Such was the trogans' misfortune, geographically. But, that's not to say that the Bruins dominated them in every way. There were several close games. In fact, on March 7, 1969, the trogans executed a slowdown strategy to end all slowdown strategies at the Sports Arena, and nearly pulled off an upset. The Bruins prevailed 61-55 in double overtime.

The next night, the $coundrels would take on the Bruins at the three-and-a-half year-old Pauley Pavilion, where, to date, UCLA had been unbeatable. Having come close the night before, the mi$creants would double down on their slowdown strategy for this game.

With no shot clock compelling them to run, or even walk, an offense, $currilous trogan players stood mockingly just across the mid-court line, holding the ball on one hip, letting minutes tick away.

Mack Calvin says he never felt so silly on a basketball court.

The game as he had always known it was a hodgepodge of ceaseless motion, neither the players nor the ball stopping in one place for long. But there he stood near midcourt, the ball cradled in his arms and his feet virtually cemented to the floor.

Forty years ago next month (written Feb 2009), Calvin and his USC teammates played a gripping game of keep-away against top-ranked UCLA and its All-American center, Lew Alcindor.

Not even the great UCLA team could make up for lost time. The wretched $cumbags transformed the beautiful game of basketball into a game of keep-away, and won the game, 46-44. This was the Bruins' first-ever loss at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA fans were disconsolate. That this game would play a key role in leading to the eventual implementation of a shot clock was of no comfort.

The Game of the Century, 1968. I've written previously about what a huge impact Coach's exemplary behavior following this trying defeat at the Astrodome had on me, personally. In about two minutes following that game, Coach taught me more about how to be gracious in defeat than anyone or anything that I've ever experienced.

Notre Dame Ends UCLA Win Streak, 1974. On January 19, 1974, number-one UCLA had come into South Bend, Indiana, to face second-ranked Notre Dame. It had been nearly three full years since the Bruins had lost a game, ironically on the same floor, to the Fighting Irish. The Bruins had entered 86 of those 88 games as the number-one-ranked team, and eighteen of the 88 wins had been over top-20 teams.

UCLA lead 70-59 with 3:32 left, but the Irish went on a remarkable 12-0 run to win 71-70. The ND fans went nuts, and stormed the court. Critics chided Coach Wooden for not calling a time out to stem the bleeding. "Wooden never liked to call timeout, because he thought you were giving in to your opponent and showing a lack of confidence in your own team," said Digger Phelps. UCLA fans were dejected beyond non-profane words.

North Carolina State Ends UCLA Championship Streak. In 1974, North Carolina State came from seven points down in the second overtime to beat the Bruins 80-77 in an NCAA semi-final game, and ended the Bruins streak of seven straight national championships. I still remember yelling "No-o-o-o!" at my TV as Tommy Curtis, flush with confidence, took a low-odds jump shot, which missed, when the Bruins still had the lead. The change of possession would be pivotal. Once again, Bruin fans were crestfallen.

In all of these games, and in a few more during Coach's tenure, opponents' fans were ecstatic, and UCLA fans were despondent. There had been so many pivotal plays, so many fluke plays, so many questionable calls, so many if-onlys, so many regrets. And yet, in every one of these games, Coach Wooden was unfailingly polite, charitable, gracious, and complimentary to the other teams.

Even when he was victimized by legal, but hardly sportsmanlike, tactics, such as in the horrific keep-away game, Coach did not dwell on the past. He talked about the beauty of up-tempo basketball, and called for a shot clock in the future.

Coach's graciousness was natural, not calculated. He didn't force nice, correct words through disappointment-clinched teeth to the questioner. He didn't stomp out onto the court in protest or throw things in anger. He didn't blast officials. He didn't bemoan bad calls or errant passes or damn luck or missed opportunities. He didn't go Bobby Knight, or even Jim Boeheim, not even once.

Referee: You were a basketball coach for 40 years and only had two technical fouls. How did you manage that?
Wooden: Because I never called officials names and you never heard me use a word of profanity. I never got personal. I’d say the worst thing I ever said to an official, and I wouldn’t like somebody to say it to me if I were officiating, was, "Call them the same on both ends." Or I might say, "Don’t be a homer." To be quite honest with you, although two were called on me, one really wasn’t called on me. The official thought that I said something that somebody behind me said. But I kept it. I didn’t have any confrontation with him at all in any way.

--From an interview with a referee around 1998 or so.

Following games, whether defeats or victories, Coach knew that he had done his best at preparing his team to do their best. Such was his measure of success, not the scoreboard. This peace of mind was the stage on which Coach treated, in the most natural way possible, the imposters of victory and defeat the same.

To young college students, and for that matter, to anyone of any age, this kind of even-tempered-ness is inspirational. Youngsters learn mostly by example, less so by words. "You can do more good by being good than any other way."

Coach taught us, in the very best way he knew how, to keep a steady hand. Coach Wooden solved the problem that most of us have, about having to remember to switch on good behavior when we don't really feel like it, by never switching it off. We were watching, Coach. We noticed. Thank you.

The big things that Coach Wooden accomplished in his career are legendary. Titles, streaks, dominance unlike anything before or since. The little things that Coach did, and his extraordinary consistency in displaying ordinary goodness really set him apart. Morality, compassion, kindness, unwavering adherence to principles, love.

The big things made Coach great. The little things made Coach beautiful. Thank you, Coach, for the little things that you taught us.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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