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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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The Essential Wooden " an inspiring read (04/29/2007)
By John Edstrom

Riffling through the sports pages of the Minneapolis Tribune last week in an attempt to mine some new nugget of information about the upcoming NFL draft, I instead encountered a long familiar face " my first cousin, Steve Edstrom, whose nom de plume out in California is Steve Jamison. Over the past decade or so, he has produced several books about the life, times, and philosophy of famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. These he has co-authored with the great man, no small feat in itself, as there isn't any shortage of writers who would kill for intimate access to the legend. The Tribune story was an interview with Steve, which of course touted the latest book, The Essential Wooden, published just this year.

Independent of that story, a few days later we received a copy of the book in the mail and, subsequently, a call from Steve's publicist asking us if we wouldn't like to review our local author's latest work. "Naturally," said Fran. "If you can't count on a little boost out of your own family, where else is it going to come from?" The guy didn't know we were related.

So, this last week, I sat down with The Essential Wooden, particularly interesting, not only for the subject matter itself, but because of my connection with Steve and also, the local experience, just now, of Mike Leaf and his Warrior basketball team, who might well have surpassed Wooden's record of 88 straight wins if they'd gotten by Barton out East.

The Essential Wooden fits well into the genre of inspiration through the example of great sports heroes, which clings to the notion that the arena of sport and the preparation for its rigors are representative, if not training for, life itself. This is a tough analogy to sell these days, even on a college level, with the vast sums of money, the crassness of individuals, and the rampant cheating and commercialism. But in Wooden it is all the more believable for the old coach's stubborn insistence that the real value in the games, the real aim, is never winning, but the striving towards the individual's greatest achievement, whatever that might be, even if it were spent in a losing effort. Over and over again Wooden's former players, (who are quoted often and interestingly), write that Coach was less pleased with a win resulting from a sloppy effort than a loss in which they had given their best effort. (And never even think about big money ahead in the pros.)

What is unique about the philosophy of John Wooden is not so much the values expressed " manly character, selflessness, courage, adherence to principle, etc. " but the rock solid belief in these values over more glamorous ones like fame, fortune, winning, personal glory. One of my favorite anecdotes from the Wooden canon illustrates it; back in the ‘60s, when revolution and smoke (of all sorts) were in the air, Bill Walton grew some wispy facial hair, against team policy time out of mind. When summoned before the big desk he explained himself. Yes, Walton understood that there was a stricture against facial hair, but that he also felt that, as an individual, he had a certain right to express himself freely, perhaps by wearing a beard, and this was one of his very important principles. Wooden replied that he was very proud of Walton for having such a commitment to his principles as to give up his college basketball career for them. Walton shaved the beard, of course.

This story is, in fact, about principles, Wooden's. Bill Walton was flakey enough to have wandered off, beard intact, and foul UCLA basketball out of one or more seasons. Wooden ran that risk rather than let a star player become bigger than the team. That is an inspiring example of courage and character in any era. (It also redounds in Walton's favor, if you think about it.)

The book is full of such inspiration, plus maxims, lists, charts, and a wealth of anecdote that will amuse as well as inspire, not just the sports fan, but anyone wishing to bring a little sharper focus to life.

There. Buy my cousin's book.



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