Wooden still touching basketball people a world away

UCLA hosted a delegation from Uganda who study the teachings of John Wooden. Courtesy of UCLA

It's hard to say exactly why UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez showed up Thursday afternoon. Her boss had sent an e-mail earlier in the week mentioning an event where UCLA was hosting a delegation of Ugandan basketball coaches who were studying and applying Wooden's principles. But it was a mention, not an ask. If she had time, only. Which she probably wouldn't since the opening of softball season is just a few weeks away.

But for some reason Inouye-Perez wanted to come. Had to come. The mention of something new to do with the late John Wooden drew her in reflexively. The chance to connect with a group of coaches who'd travelled around the world just to be in the place he once was, was too intriguing. And so she spent three hours she really didn't have on Thursday afternoon watching an old video of Wooden speaking to a sports psychology class at UCLA, somehow knowing it would be worth it.

"You know," Inouye-Perez said. "It just never gets old. Every time I get a chance to relive how simply he puts things, it's just really special. As a coach, any time you hear his words or his philosophies like that, you can't help but get excited to go to practice the next day."

It was probably the 20th speech Inouye-Perez had heard Wooden give. It could've been the 100th time she heard him talk about the tenets of his Pyramid of Success. But as she watched, she took notes on her iPad like it was the first she'd heard of any of it.

"I love when he says: 'Don't be so engrossed in making a living that you forget to make a life,' " she said, reading from her notes. "Or the part when he says, 'We are many, but are we much? Until we are together, we can't do much at all.'

"It's the same stuff I've read about and even talked to him about when he was alive, but every time I get a chance to relive it, it's just really special."

Wooden has been gone more than 18 months. The grief and sadness over his death in June of 2010 are muted now. Time is good at making such amends.

Those that knew him well are still dealing with the loss. And yet sometimes it feels like he isn't really gone. His words, his wisdom continue to inspire. Across oceans and deep into war zones, his message resounds.

The Ugandan coaches came to UCLA this week with only a cursory knowledge of Wooden and his career. They knew only his words.

"The more you read, the more you want to know about him," said Caroline Nyafwono, one of the Ugandan coaches taking part in the State Department-funded trip. "I had a friend who downloaded the Pyramid of Success a long time ago. All along I had this thing [Pyramid of Success], but now I am here and it is here."

Nyafwono first came to know Wooden through a young doctoral student at the University of Minnesota named Jens Omli.

Omli, now a professor at Texas Tech, was interested in the habits and principles of successful coaches around the world. During his studies he met an Ugandan soccer coach named Kyambadde Stone, who had achieved remarkable results with some of the poorest children in Uganda by using Wooden's methods and philosophies.

It was as striking then as it is now to see how far the great UCLA coaches' wisdom had travelled. It will travel even farther through the program Stone and Omli founded, International Sport Connection, whose aim is to train coaches in Uganda and help construct new basketball courts and soccer fields for the war-torn countries' youth.

"There are so many people in my country that have the talent, but how are the going to get it out? How will they know how to use it?" Nyafwono said. "We have to coach them. We have to encourage them.

"Most of the kids we work with are street kids. They have no home. They are wandering around looking for something to eat. They do drugs. We help them. We encourage them."

Not so long ago Nyafwongo, 24, was one of those children. Her family was stable, but very poor. Towards the end of high school she was faced with a choice: Quit school because her family no longer could afford to pay her tuition (about $50/term) or play basketball.

"I was tall, that is why they wanted me," she said. "But I didn't want to play. I was too shy to even wear the shorts. I didn't think I was strong, or that a woman should be strong.

"The only reason I played is so I could stay in school."

As it would turn out, she was good. Very good. Eventually she'd earn a scholarship to university to play netball, a sister sport of basketball popular in Africa. She is now on the Ugandan national netball team. She uses the small salary she draws from playing professionally to send her younger siblings to school.

But as she gets older, coaching has become a priority. The few Wooden books and teachings she's been able to acquire have served as guides and an inspirations.

"I look back on the things John Wooden wrote and all of them are so true," she said. "It is amazing. It makes me want to do something like he did. Not only in sports but as a leader as well."

If that sounds a bit like what Inouye-Perez said at the beginning of this article, you are not mistaken.

There is a reason why she took three hours out of a busy day to listen to reconnect with Wooden and see what new she could learn. It is the same reason the four basketball coaches travelled halfway around the world to learn more about him.

"It just keeps on going," Inouye-Perez said, while reading through the list of notes she took after watching Wooden's old lecture.

"I wrote down a bunch of things today. He just had the ability to say difficult things very simply, in this timeless way everyone can understand."