3.12.2018

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 116

Here are two excerpts from a book I recently read, "Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:



Trying to apply his philosophy solely toward winning would be like doing good deeds only because you hope it will get you into heaven. Being good is the payoff, athletically and spiritually. That’s why he didn’t care for sports movies in which the underdog team or player learns the hard way that winning isn’t everything, but then they go on to win at the end. To him, those movies should have ended with the lesson learned, the team taking the court happy in their newfound wisdom, the whistle blowing to start the game, and then freeze-frame and run credits. Showing the team winning sends the wrong message: that life lessons exist to serve as a guide for acquiring things that make you feel like a success. His point was that the life lesson is the success. The traveling is the reward, not reaching the destination. 

This book is not just an appreciation of our friendship or an acknowledgment of Coach Wooden’s deep influence on my life. It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren’t diminished or lost altogether. 

Coach was an old white Midwesterner with old-fashioned ideals; I was a quiet but cocky black kid from New York City who towered eighteen inches over him. He was a devout Christian; I became a devout Muslim. He loved big band music of the swing era; I loved modern jazz. On paper, it’s understandable that we would have a good working relationship as coach and player. But nothing on that same paper would even hint that we would have a close friendship that would endure a lifetime. 



It’s appropriate that the first photo is black-and-white. That accurately defined our rigid relationship in the beginning. In this photo he is leading me. He was the coach; I was his player. He made the rules; I followed them. Black and white. Mutual respect but not warmth. It’s also appropriate that we were posed, because we both look a little awkward, stiff as mannequins in a store window. As if there were something artificial about the roles we were forced to play in the photo and in life. 

The second photo, with its rich, warm colors and candid appearance, more accurately reflected the depth of our friendship. Our two hands—one fragile and one strong, one white and one black—entwined. His white head barely clears my elbow, yet I am standing straight and proud, like a man showing off his hero dad. In that photo, I appear to be leading him. But knowing how much he taught me, I knew I was still following in his footsteps, even though he was beside me.
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