John Wooden – A review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger

There are two disclosures that must be made at the beginning of this piece. First, I obtained my copy of this book with the promise that I would review the book and post it on my blog. There were no restrictions placed on me as to what my review would be, except that I presume the publisher (Bloomsbury) is expecting a good review.

The second reason, and perhaps the reason that I agreed to do the review is that I have always been fascinated by John Wooden and what he has done in basketball and life and the profound impact that faith has had on his life.

One of the first books that I ever purchased was Practical Modern Basketball. This was Coach Wooden’s book on how to coach basketball and I may have thought back in 1968 that I would one day coach basketball. At that time, the streak of championships that marked his success at UCLA was just beginning (having only won back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965 and then in 1967 and 1968) and who John Wooden was and what he was as a person, a teacher, and a coach was not quite clear to this country.

The success of John Wooden is not measured in the basketball championships that his teams at UCLA won or his own individual success as a player and a coach (he is, I believe, the only person in the Basketball Hall of Fame because of his success as a player at Purdue and his success as a coach at Indiana State and UCLA) but because of his success as a teacher and as a mentor to his players. It is what his players did after they graduated and what he did to prepare them for that day that will be what he is best remembered for. It is what we as individuals should also hold up as the measure of success, not how much money, fame, or power that we accumulate in life, though that seems to be what society does today.

And that is what this book is really about, who helped John Wooden become the person that he is and who has been helped by John Wooden.

Now let me first start off by saying that this book should come with a warning. This is not a “how-to” book nor does it come with guidelines for being a successful mentor. Rather, it provides examples of what a mentor does and what it means to be a mentor. As Andy Hill wrote in his chapter, “You often don’t recognize your mentors at the time they’re deeply involved in your life; and mentoring often occurs even when you don’t want it to.

Mentoring is about teaching and, if nothing else, John Wooden was and is a teacher first. What he provides in this book are example of those who taught him and from whom he learned life’s lessons and those who have learned from him.

Coach Wooden choose eight individuals who were his mentors. You would expect to find four of those in the book (his father, Joshua Wooden; his elementary school principle and first coach, Earl Warriner; his high school coach, Glenn Curtis; and his college coach, Ward “Piggy” Lambert). You might be surprised but only if you did not know his life that he picked his wife, Nellie, as a mentor.

But in keeping with the idea that a mentor is someone who influenced your life, John Wooden picked two individuals whom he had never met as mentors in his life, Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln.

Each of these individuals contributed something to John Wooden’s life and their influence can be seen in the “Pyramid of Success” that he built over the course of his life. As anyone who has played for him will tell you, the first time they hear the words in the blocks that build this pyramid, they think they are silly phrases but later in life those silly words echo in all that they say and do (just ask Bill Walton’s four sons).

The choice of those who would say that John Wooden mentored them is also a rather surprising mix. It is not surprising that Kareem Abdul-Jabber and Bill Walton are on this list. They represent what everyone thinks of UCLA basketball and its success. But that is part of the reason why those who see this book as a path to success will be disappointed.

Success, to John Wooden, is more than the number of wins one accumulates. For John Wooden “success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming”. Among those who say that John Wooden mentored them was Andy Hill. And Andy Hill is not one of those with whom success in basketball is often associated. It is true that he has three championship rings but he will tell you quite honestly that his life as a Bruin was anything but successful. And for many years following graduation, he chose to put that portion of his life in a deep and dark closet.

What Andy Hill will tell you is that his success came from the same environment as did Bill Walton’s and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s; it is just that he did not see it at first. It was only after success had come and he remembered the words and the encouragement that he had received while practicing at UCLA that he realized that John Wooden was not preparing him for success in basketball but rather success in life. That is why I say that those who look for this book to prepare them for success may be disappointed when there is no quick and easy recipe for success in the book.

The others who cite John Wooden as a mentor are Roy Williams (coach at the University of North Carolina), Dale Brown (former coach at Louisiana State University), Bob Vigars (a high school special-education teacher and coach in Canada) and Cori Nicholson (John Wooden’s oldest great grandchild).

It again is not surprising that two college level coaches consider John Wooden a mentor. In both cases, they saw what John Wooden did outside the boundaries of the basketball court as important as what he did inside the boundaries, though I felt that Dale Brown was trying to find some secret formula about winning more than perhaps Roy Williams was doing.

But Bob Vigars and Cori Nicholson offer a different perspective. For Bob Vigars, the Pyramid of Success that John Wooden built over the years was a valuable tool for working with special-needs and disadvantaged youth. That it helped him to become a better coach need not be stated; his becoming a better teacher because of the example that John Wooden made allowed him to become a better coach as well.

And I think it is rather fitting that Cori Nicholson be included in this mixture of players and coaches. To some extent, her presence shows the enduring value of mentoring, as she sought advice and counsel from her PaPa. The key to mentoring is not just rules but advice. And the advice need not always be good; it can be, as Cori will tell you, to disagree with your choices but to support you in your decision.

This is a good book because it sets the tone one must have in order to be a mentor. You must first define or understand your own core values; you must understand what it is that makes you who you are. Then and only then can you be a mentor for someone else. John Wooden showed the foundation for his life that lead to this point; others have shown how what John Wooden has done has made a difference in their own lives.

Success is not found in wins or losses or in how the game is played. It is found in the legacy you leave behind. In the movie “A Man for All Seasons”, Sir Thomas More asks Richard Rich “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.”

Rich replies, “If I was, who would know it?”

To which More replies, “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”

John Wooden was and will always be a teacher and this book shows the results. For you the reader, there is a challenge in this book and that makes it worthwhile.

13 thoughts on “John Wooden – A review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger

  1. Hi Tony,

    A very good friend of mine, (Kris Casey, friends for well over 30 years) sent me this review today and you have done a wonderful job reviewing the book. Coach Wooden is a great teacher and I have never read about a better teacher with sound principles that have worked and will always work. I have never met Coach Wooden but feel like I have known him for years and have shared his teachings/principles with students/players I have had the pleasure of teaching for the last sixteen years. If only we could put forth Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success in the curriculum of all elementary & secondary schools I feel our world would be a much better place. I feel very privileged and blessed to be included in Coach Wooden’s very last book. Thanks very much for providing your candid thoughts to your readers.

    Bob Vigars
    St. Thomas, Ontario

  2. How does the book compare to his other books? If you had to rank it respectively amongst his past works where it stand? And is there much regurgitated material from his past efforts?

  3. It would be very hard to compare this to his other books. I have, as I mentioned in the piece, his coaching book and two others, a biography and one I would qualify as “thoughts for life”. With only those books on my shelf, it would be very hard to compare this book.

    For me, the material in this book was new material and while the Pyramid of Success is the central part of the book (as it is in so much of Coach Wooden’s work), it is done in a way that relates how it works rather than anything else.

    I think the important thing about this book is that it goes beyond basketball. Too many times, someone writes a book that frames life around what the writer did in his specialty (be it basketball, football, or business). While many of those in the book are connected to Coach Wooden through basketball, the focus is on life outside or after basketball that matters.

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