Dear John –
I’m not sure why we think about people more after they die than while they’re alive, but your passing away this weekend at the age of 99 had me thinking about you, something I’d not done much of since college. I’m one of the millions who knew of you and were affected by your life. I played a little basketball in Jr. High and it was while I was in love with the game that you had your best years at UCLA. Ten national titles in twelve years? Nobody’s ever come close to matching that, before or since. But it was the way you built winners that impressed, even as a kid of 14. You weren’t throwing chairs and swearing at refs; you were building young men by teaching the old school values of hard work, discipline, and integrity.
But these too, are the standard fare of many great coaches. What set you apart was your love for Christ, your family, and your players. You read your Bible every day, and once quipped that if you were ever put on trial for your faith, there’d be plenty of evidence to convict you. I love, though, that your faith was pouring through you right in the thick of UCLA at that time of incredible unrest, both racially and nationally known as “the 60’s”. That you forged deep relationships and loyalty to a team at a time when so many players were choosing paths different than yours is a testimony to the reality that your players weren’t evangelism projects – you loved them: deeply and unconditionally.
This kind of love and advocacy showed up way back in the 46-47 season, when you were coaching at Indiana State Teachers College. Your team earned an invitation to the NAIB national playoffs. But when you learned that Clarence Walker, your African-American second string guard wouldn’t be allowed to make the trip, you declined the offer. This stunned the basketball world. They invited you the next year and said that he could play, but that he wouldn’t be able to stay with the team. You declined again, but when his family and the NAACP tried to persuade you, you went, and led your team to breaking the color barrier. On that trip, if Clarence was going to be refused service at a restaurant, the whole team would leave the restaurant, often eating in the bus. (there’s more on this story here)
Did you understand the “breaking down of the dividing wall” in Ephesians 2? I don’t know, but I’ll say this much. You were making God’s reign visible as a basketball coach while countless pastors were still preaching racism and justifying slavery based on a wrong reading of Genesis 9. You got it right John, while lots of seminarians kept missing the point.
Growing up closer to San Francisco than Los Angeles, I learned to love the Bay Area teams and actively cheer for all things Southern Cal to lose, especially the Dodgers. UCLA Basketball was the single exception to this paradigm. I’d come in, with friends, from our 3 on 3’s in the front driveway and watch your team on TV because you inspired us. Though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, I can now see that you were making God’s reign visible; in your life, your marriage (writing love letters to your wife on the 21st of every month since her death in 1985), and your ministry of basketball. Thanks for that. Like so many other glimpses of glory, you’ve encouraged me to press on.