Moses’ Heroism and John Wooden’s Legacy

We are blessed to have stories that inspire and teachers who leave legacies that make us better people.

John Wooden, 1960
Coach Wooden in 1960

Sometimes our decisions create unintended consequences.  For example, I didn’t realize when I decided to attend UCLA for undergraduate school that the legacy of John Wooden would touch me so deeply. Coach Wooden began coaching basketball at UCLA in 1948, and after 15 years there, UCLA won the first of 10 national championships that took place during his tenure.

I arrived at UCLA several years after Coach Wooden retired, but what came with being a UCLA student – due to the coach’s lasting influence – was wisdom about life that transcended winning and losing. In fact, Coach Wooden never asked his players to win a game. Instead, he asked his players to realize their potential, to be good people, to live well. All his life, Coach Wooden carried in his wallet a set of principles drawn up by his father: “Be true to yourself, help others, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books, make each day your masterpiece, build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”

The power of a man like John Wooden is that he teaches you to live well. That’s the power of religion as well, when religion is taught correctly. Through engaging with our sacred story, we take our heroes and their lessons to heart and are able to emerge as different and better people. Each year, as we wind through the Torah again and again, I find myself pulled to Moses and the challenges he leaves me as I struggle to live life with holiness, purpose and meaning. This morning, I would like to look at some of Moses’ lessons in this week’s Torah portion and weave in the legacy of Coach John Wooden. Moses and Coach Wooden make me want to be more humble. There is a chilling scene in this morning’s portion where Moses is unfairly accused of things he would never do – Korach accuses him of having delusions of grandeur. “Moses and Aaron,” he says, “you have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” The accusation is terrible! Moses is the man who risked his life to confront Pharaoh and save these people. Moses is the man who led them thanklessly through the wilderness, providing food, water and care with no thought of reward – and Korach accuses him of having delusions of grandeur. What would you do?  Moses falls on his face and prays to God for help. One of the Sages says he prays in order to make sure that there is not a piece of truth in this accusation, and then he leaves it to God to decide whether he or Korach is in the right. He tries to reason with Korach, explaining that he already has honor and asking that they come up so that they can resolve this matter. But they say, “We will not come up! Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey in order to have us die in the wilderness, that you should also lord it over us?” Can you imagine what it must have felt like? What does he do? He maintains his self-control. He leaves it to God. He sees the big picture.

Moses makes me want to be humble. Coach Wooden makes me want to be more humble. He abhorred stardom and showmanship. He was against jerseys being retired at UCLA. He refused to call attention to himself. He wrote back to anyone who wrote him a letter. One of the most meaningful tributes written about Coach Wooden these past few days was one written by Jon Carroll in the Chronicle. Carroll writes,

A lot has been written about his modesty. That was certainly true; what was remarkable to me was the nature of the modesty. He knew who he was and what he had accomplished; he understood that, whether or not he thought of himself as remarkable, his deeds were remarkable, and he was proud of them, proud of his players, proud of the things that made him unusual. He didn’t dwell on it; he didn’t even mention it. That was the interesting part. Looking for a little color, I asked him during an interview if it was true that he said things on the bench to the refs that he wouldn’t want his own daughter to hear. He smiled that mirthless, thin-lipped way that indicates displeasure. ‘Sometimes I disappoint myself,’ he said.

John Wooden and Moses understood that it’s not all about them – and their example makes us more humble.

Moses and Coach Wooden make me want to be more principled and courageous. Moses stood up to the demagogues. He tried everything to get them to change. And like Moses, Coach Wooden’s courage and principles stand out. On the board in the Bruin’s locker room was the pyramid of success that he devised. Each row of the pyramid consisted of a number of boxes inside which were various traits necessary for success in life. On the bottom row were industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. At the top of the pyramid was competitive greatness.  He knew that true success in life came from values.

Moses and Coach Wooden make me want to love more deeply. There is an important detail to the story of Moses’ response to the Korach rebellion that is often lost because we focus on the accusations of the rebellion, the earth opening up to swallow the rebels, and the fire consuming the guilty. That detail is Moses defying God in order to save the people. God says, “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them.” The instruction is clear! But Moses defies God and tells Aaron, “Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For the wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!” Moses’ love for the people is so great that he will defy the Divine to save them – even when those people have bitterly disappointed him.

Coach Wooden teaches similarly profound lessons about love. He made plenty of mistakes, but the love of his life was his wife Nell. He was married to her for 53 years when she died of cancer in 1985. He kept her robe on her side of the bed, and each month on the anniversary of her death wrote her a love letter, which he placed on her pillow. On her pillow were hundreds of little letters in envelopes tied up in bundles with yellow ribbons. He wrote her every month telling her how much he loved her and what all the kids were doing. He did it right up until the last few months of his life, when his eyes stopped working.  Rick Reilly wrote that once Coach Wooden took him into his bedroom, and the clocks were all wrong. He stopped them at the time of Nellie’s death.

Once, when he was missing Nell terribly, one of his great-granddaughters – she was 5 at the time – saw how sad he was, tugged on his pant leg and said, “Papa, I know you miss Mama. So I’m going to rent you an airplane so you can fly up in the clouds and see her.” Coach Wooden saw his death as a chance to reunite with his beloved Nell. He and Moses make me want to love more deeply.

We are blessed to have stories that inspire and teachers who leave legacies that make us better people. May we take Moses and Coach Wooden into our hearts as we deepen our ability to respond to life with humility, courage and love. Shabbat Shalom.