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Former Bison Tom Kelsey recalls visit with John Wooden

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tom Kelsey is a former Lipscomb Bisons basketball player who was part of the 1986 NAIA National Championship Team. He continues to work in college basketball at Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's life was celebrated with a memorial service Saturday at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. Wooden died earlier this month at the age of 99. Kelsey recalls his dream of a lifetime one-on-one meeting with Wooden.

My college coach at Lipscomb, Don Meyer, said if in your lifetime you had one person that expected greatness out of you then you should be thankful. Most people can live their whole lives and never get pushed or driven to the point of their maximum potential. People can live without ever having someone expecting greatness out of them.

In addition to being pushed by towards greatness by someone there is the chance of being around greatness or someone that would be considered to be outstanding. Some people never get to encounter people that are at the top in their chosen field.

I have spent a lot of my coaching and teaching career seeking out people that are exceptional in their chosen profession. I ask a lot of questions and some people give me a hard time for being so inquisitive, but that is my nature. It must be in the genes because a couple of my own children seem to have the same trait. It has been that way for me been since I was a little kid. Something about me wants to know what makes people tick and especially those that are successful. I try to pass on to my children and players the lessons I have learned from others. Hopefully one golden nugget can help them on their path of life.

The Gottfried connection

In 1990 I was able to be an assistant coach for the Athletes in Action (AIA) basketball team that traveled to Poland and Greece. Mark Gottfried was the head coach of that team. At that time Mark was the graduate assistant coach at UCLA. We developed a close relationship and our families also became close. Being part of the UCLA family Mark was also beginning to get to know Coach John Wooden fairly well.

John Wooden is the leader in the coaching profession. Being two degrees from him made me feel close to him.

Mark would tell me stories about how he and the staff at UCLA would meet with coach Wooden periodically. He also talked of how he was able to spend some one-on-one time with coach Wooden. That was not something I could wrap my brain around. Coach Wooden was an icon to all basketball coaches and probably you could say to coaches of all sports in general.

To be that close to coach Wooden, I thought, must have been the ultimate in coaching.

Mark and I stayed in fairly close contact. One day Mark asked me the date of my birthday. I knew we were close, but guy friends just usually aren’t into sharing birthday gifts. (Dec. 21st for anyone interested).

Around the first of December I received a long envelope with Mark’s return address. I’m glad I didn’t just rip into the envelope. Once I opened it up it was an autographed copy of the “Pyramid of Success” by Coach John Wooden. It was like I held the copy in my hand and for a minute couldn’t breathe. I thought how awesome a gift. It was the best birthday gift I had ever received. I couldn’t really tell anyone that because I didn’t want to offend my mother or my wife. I can remember when I opened the package and just sitting there for a few minutes and staring at the autographed Pyramid by Coach Wooden. It was not just any autograph and it was not just any copy of the “Pyramid of Success”. It was the real deal and signed by the Coach himself. This was something that I could tell I was going to a treasure for quite some time. I still have it on my wall in my office and I hope it stays there for a long time. It is a cherished possession.

Arranging the visit

Years later I was an assistant for Mark at Murray State University and then at the University of Alabama. I had always wanted to go and see Coach Wooden and meet him personally. Mark had said sometime maybe when we were out in California recruiting we could make it happen. Some trips had come and gone to Los Angeles without seeing Coach Wooden. I never pushed Mark about going to see Coach Wooden and I’m not sure why. For some reason I guess I thought if it was meant to be it would all work out.

We were recruiting a young man from Southern California in the spring of 1999. As we made travel plans to go out for our home visit Mark came into my office a couple of days before the trip and said, “If you can get us into Los Angeles early enough in the day maybe we can go see Coach Wooden before the home visit.”

That’s all I needed to hear. Get us there early enough? I would have had us walking there. We had one other stop before we headed to Los Angeles. I had us on the latest flight into Dallas the night before and getting up for the first flight out the next morning for LA. Mark was surprised this was the best way for us to get to L.A. When we were getting up the next morning with only a few hours of sleep Mark, asked, “Is the best flight we could get to L.A.?” It was selective hearing on my part of course. I didn’t say it was the best way. I just said was the way we were getting to Los Angeles.

When he said get there early to see Coach Wooden that was all I needed to hear. Sleep could come later. Once we landed and got the rental car and drove near Coach Wooden’s condominium I was bugging Mark to call almost with the anxiety of a seventh grader. We called once around 7:45 a.m. and there was no answer. Coach Wooden goes to eat breakfast usually at the same place every day at the same time I learned later. There we were in early from our flight. Mark is tired and I’m anxious. “Call, call, call”, I ‘m telling Mark. It is like two kids in junior high. Mark does not want to keep leaving messages so we wait and wait and wait.

A personal audience with the greatest coach

Finally around 9 a.m. we get in touch with Coach Wooden and head to his home. If you have read any stories about his home they are true. At the time I had no idea what to expect. What do you expect when you go into the house of a living legend? We walked down the hall toward his condominium and then knocked on the door. There he was. He answered the door alone without the help of anyone else. No maid or butler. Just Coach Wooden, possibly the greatest coach of all time, at the door.

Whatever your chosen profession, imagine how you would go into that meeting with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Billy Graham, any top politician or any top leader in the entertainment field. John Wooden was named by ESPN as the greatest coach of century (1900-1999). As a coach he holds a record that many feel will not be broken in men’s college basketball with 88 consecutive victories. His 10 national championships in 12 years are among the few records that will stay for a long time.

One of the first things I saw once I stepped in the front door was a basketball from one of Coach Meyer’s Lipscomb University basketball camps. Right there was a gold and purple basketball that had the Bison logo and the phrase “Team Attitude” sitting on the book shelf. Seeing my alma mater’s camp basketball made me feel at home right away.

Walking along the hallways you would see a National Championship team photo and then a picture drawn by one of his great grandchildren. You might see a cover photo of Coach Wooden from a Time magazine or Sports Illustrated and then another art project from one of his grandchildren. I felt like I was in the house of my own grandparents or someone’s grandparents. It never had the feel of someone that was once named the ESPN “Greatest Coach of the Decade” or Sports Illustrated “Man of the Year”.

I looked around at all the pictures amazed by the famous players and teams I have read about and seen on highlights down through the years. Once we sat down in his living room there was a large stack of books on the coffee table that were manuscripts from him to hopefully read and endorse. His living room was like a giant library. There were so many books on the shelves and things to read in that small room.

From 9 a.m. to noon we sat there and talked about a variety of subjects. Most of the issues were basketball related. We talked and talked and when it slowed down I would ask more questions.

Mark was gracefull enough to let me ask a lot of questions. You can imagine growing up watching someone that you probably never would have imagined sitting in their living room having a casual conversation. I remember the Notre Dame loss when their streak was broken. I remember the North Carolina State National Semifinal double overtime loss in 1974. I remember him winning his last game vs. Kentucky in 1975. You are sitting with a national hero and you are also in the presence of one of the most God-fearing humble men I have ever met. Still to this day I have a hard time at comprehending all his patience and wisdom.

A nugget of wisdom

The one question I recall more than all the others is when I asked Coach Wooden, “What makes a good teacher?” You have to understand Coach Wooden considered that coaching was really teaching. A “teacher” is what he considered himself. He started out as an English teacher (taught five classes, as well as was the football coach, basketball coach, baseball coach and track coach) at his first job once he graduated from Purdue.

I knew not to ask him what makes a good coach, but by asking what makes a good teacher he might light up and give a more detailed answer. I was sitting to his right on a couch. Mark was more directly in front of him He sat there in what was probably his main chair. While we there as a group it was an almost unreal situation. To coaches it would be like sitting in the Oval Office. I had heard this giant of man so many times and read his books. It is hard to imagine I was sitting there with him.

Despite all the records and distinguished awards he never had an air of arrogance about him. It was just like sitting in the house of a long lost relative who acts as if he has all the time for you and would sit all day long to visit. He sounded in real life just like he did in the interviews I had seen on TV or had listened to on cassettes and CDs.

Once I asked the question he didn’t hesitate a second. He grabbed the right arm rest of the chair he was sitting in and leaned closer to me. Almost in a voice that was not as loud as his real voice, but louder than a whisper he said, “a good listener”. You have those moments in time when you ask an older person a question and they have an answer that gives you no chance for a comeback or response. We are given those nuggets of wisdom and at that point there is not a follow-up question. I think I hoped Mark would just say something so the silence would not be so loud. When he said that, there was nothing I could say in response. I just had to think about the answer and sit on the couch.

When you have three hours with someone famous or considered great you also want to make sure you ask the right questions. I had to make sure not to say the wrong things or step on any toes. He didn’t need me there to tell him how great he was, but I did want to ask some questions about building a program. I read so much about the man I wanted to get some behind the story information. Over all I came out unscathed and didn’t offend him or embarrass Mark.

Over and over I have replayed my question about “what makes a good teacher?” and his reply constantly in my mind. I didn’t go in with a preset list of questions. The question just came up, but to me it was the most important question on what I could take from him. It took me a while to understand what he meant.

“What makes a good teacher?” I thought was going to bring a deep answer. The response I got was deeper and more difficult to carry out: “a good listener.”

Putting the advice to work

People ask about recruiting and how difficult is it in dealing with young student-athletes. My response is if you ask enough questions you will find out what you need to know. Kids will eventually let you know what you need to know. They can play it cool for a while, but they will let you in and give you a couple of key points if you are a good listener. It can save you a lot of time. It is not worth spending a lot of your time and energy on a kid who is not interested in your program. You will be able to pick out the kids that have a serious interest in your program by listening to what they have to say and probably by the questions they ask. If you listen long enough you will find out everything you need to know.

As a parent it can be difficult to get your kids to talk at times. A lot of parents will agree that your kids will want to talk at the most inopportune moments (maybe good for them and bad for you). You have to make time for them. If they don’t open up much you have to take whatever chances you can to visit with them whether it fits into your schedule or not. What will your kids say about you as a parent one day? You can fail in some areas, but if you fail in the area of listening I think that is a big one that they remember. As a parent you may not be able to provide everything your kid wants (or needs), but most of us can be good listeners. I think Coach Wooden would say, ”A good parent is a good listener.”

As a mate you don’t always feel like talking. Your better half may feel like talking when you are “talked out”. You come home at the end of the day and you are worn out. There are no more words in the tank. That is exactly the time you have to be a good listener. Maybe a stressful situation at work or with extended family keeps us from being engaged when we get home. The tougher the time the more important it is to make time to be a good listener. I think Coach Wooden would say, “A good husband or wife is a good listener.”

When you have a friend that has just been given a pink slip and is now out of work is when you have to carve out time to make the call, send the text message or email. It is not the time to bury yourself in your cocoon and worry about your own problems. A friend is there to listen to what others have to say.

The phone call you get out of the blue from a friend that tells you they are going through a divorce or some other type of family difficulty is calling you for a reason. They picked your number for a reason. You answered for a reason. However they contacted or found you, reached out to you for help is for a reason. They need you because they know you will hear what they have to say. That is when your skills as a listening friend are beyond value. You mean more to that friend than you will ever know. Once you end up on the dialing end of the phone call you will understand. A friend that will listen to another friend’s problems is more valuable than gold. A friend that calls you because their wife or husband has asked for a divorce called you for a reason. Coach Wooden would say, “A good friend is a good listener.”

I think back to my days as high school teacher and I realize how much more effective I could have been had I been a better listener. There are keys to listening. Understanding the kids you are teaching is so important these days. I sometimes would just want to storm through assignments or lesson plans to get them checked off a list.

I never really engaged with the students to listen to them and get a feel if they were tuned in or not. What a mistake to miss out on being taught and being able to teach better by becoming better in the area of listening. There were so many hurting kids in my classes that I didn’t take time to listen and see where I could help.

Coaches are teachers

As a coach I am entrusted with young men from a variety of different backgrounds. Players come to us with visions of how their futures are going to look. They have special plans. Their roles will each be unique and how we tailor them to fit our team will determine how successful we can be ultimately as a team. It does not matter how diverse our squad makeup is in a particular season. I know that my job as a head coach comes down to how well I relate with our players.

Talent can win a lot of games, but I think over time how well a coach relates to his players is the most important thing in coaching. Some players won’t let you in initially. You have to earn their trust and trust takes time. Every team is different. I have learned in over 20 years of coaching that it is the relationships that matter over the Xs and Os.

If I want to be a good teacher/coach like Coach Wooden talked about I have to be a good listener. Listening can be hard at times, but it is not painful. It does not require a lot of work or an extreme amount of hard labor. What it does require is the desire to move out of a comfort zone. I am always looking for ways to get better whether that means reading books, watching tapes or going to clinics.

When I think back to my time with Coach Wooden he gave me the best advice anyone could have given me. It is advice I give others all the time. For some reason hearing it from the “greatest Coach of all time” gave a little bit of extra zing to the message.

I challenge you to be a great listener. If you have never taken the time to read one of Coach Wooden’s books or a book about him take the time to read about ageless wisdom. It has been said he had more books written about him after the age of 90 than any other person.

A sampling of quotes

Here are some other quotes from Coach Wooden that you can share with your family, friends or team:

• “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

• “If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

• “You can't let praise or criticism get to you. It's a weakness to get caught up in either one.”

• ” Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”

• “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”

• “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts.”

• “There are many things that are essential to arriving at true peace of mind, and one of the most important is faith, which cannot be acquired without prayer.”

• “You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

• “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”

“I always tried to make clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.”

This article was written by Tom Kelsey.