LATimes: Wooden was faithful, but to what?

So, the Los Angeles Times has published its giant salute to the life and times of John Wooden and, unless I have missed something, the bottom line is that he was an amazingly nice man of sterling integrity and a sense of honor and values that came from the American heartland.

To cut to the chase, he appears to have been “spiritual,” but not “religious” — at least not “religious” in any specific way that could be cited in a newspaper. Was he a “Christian”? The Times is totally agnostic on that issue.

Take, for example, that final essay on the essence of the man, the one that ran under the double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Remembering John Wooden: Simple principles, such as honor and family, were his guides

He always clung to his homespun roots. And even though he left UCLA, he never stopped teaching those values

Here is one crucial passage about the values that Wooden inherited from one of his few heroes in life — his father.

Wooden came by it honestly. His father, who lost his farm in the Depression, taught him a set of life principles, which the coach carried on a piece of paper: “Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.”

The problem, of course, is that the Los Angeles Times has horribly misquoted that precious fragment of paper that Wooden carried with him at all times. At best, it could be said that the team of journalists that worked on this story edited the list — while leaving no sign to the reader that the list was edited. You can find the full quotation all over the World Wide Web, including the obituary in that bastion of Christian content, The New York Times.

“Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day. Pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day.”

Spot any crucial difference in these two lists? The edits kind of look intentional, don’t they?

Actually, the New York Times did some similar editing early on, as well. However, readers caught the error and, thus, a correction was published (go to the very end):

Correction: June 13, 2010

An obituary last Sunday and in late editions on Saturday, June 5, about the U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden omitted the last entry in a seven-point creed that his father suggested that Mr. Wooden live by, and it also omitted the final three words of the fourth point in the creed. According to Mr. Wooden’s autobiography, “They Call Me Coach,” the creed was: “1. Be true to yourself. 2. Make each day your masterpiece. 3. Help others. 4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. 5. Make friendship a fine art. 6. Build a shelter against a rainy day. 7. Pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day.”

Now, will the Los Angeles Times run a correction, as well? One is needed.

Later on, that final salute from the newspaper of record on the West Coast ends with another modest reference to those oh-so-vague “values” that guided one of the most famous and celebrated men in that great city.

In his personal life, … Wooden tried to live his code. He was self-effacing, a dignified and gentle-spoken man of faith. His sharpest curse, employed in the heat of battle on the hardwood, should be familiar to any Midwesterner: “Goodness gracious sakes alive.”

Wooden lived modestly, the last three decades in a condo in Encino. It was there that he wrote letters to his wife, who died in 1985, and kept them on her pillow. As he once put it: “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.” He was talking about basketball, of course, but also about life.

That commemorative section published in Wooden’s honor also included a rerun of a Mike Penner piece, written to mark the coach’s 99th birthday, entitled, “99 candles, 99 facts about John Wooden.” This piece does, I should note, contain the word “God,” which comes rather naturally since it offers a few of Wooden’s famous soundbites of wisdom that he taught his players.

(51) “Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be thankful. Conceit is self-given; be careful.”

That is a modest breakthrough. However, this list of 99 important Wooden facts still misses some interesting details. If I had been doing the list, I would have cut out a few of the factoids about sports and added these items.

* The coach read his Bible every day, without fail. His favorite scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 13 (full text here) and it guided his relationships with his wife, family and players. That famous chapter ends with these words: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

* Wooden met his future wife, Nell Riley, at a carnival in July 1926. She was the only woman he ever kissed.

* Wooden was active in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and rarely missed church. He was also a national leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

* The person he admired the most, of those who lived during his 99 years of life, was Mother Teresa.

* Wooden didn’t like being called the “Wizard of Westwood.” However, his close friends had given him another nickname — the “reverend.”

* Here’s another one of the sayings that liked to share, especially when discussing the fact that many people twist sports into a kind of pseudo-religion: “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.”

So, GetReligion readers, any other life-defining Wooden facts you would have liked to have seen in that list of 99 things that readers needed to know to understand this “faithful” man?

Help me watch for the correction on that edited list of life principles that Wooden was given by his father. I’m sure that one will be published. Right? I mean, someone edited out the part about the Bible and didn’t even use an ellipsis — as simple ethics would require — to tell readers that material was removed.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    You can find the full quotation all over the World Wide Web, including the obituary in that bastion of Christian content, The New York Times.

    What’s next? That bastion of liberal content Fox news?
    :-)

  • Jon Winterburn

    He seemed like a solid fellow. Here’s an appelation that would have been refreshing: heretic.

  • http://themcj.com Christopher Johnson

    Uh, tmatt? Do you, perhaps, mean Christian Church(Disciples of Christ)?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Christopher,

    I think he did — I fixed the typo.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Christopher:

    I hate getting old. Thanks MZ, that is what I meant. What typo did this old geezer serve up this time?

    Is this linked to the “heretic” line above?
    ;-)

  • http://lucemichael.wordpress.com/ Luce

    You’ve done another public service, Terry. I find the re-writing of Wooden’s history strangely and frightening similar to Stalin-era disinformation.

  • http://lakeneuron.com John Carney

    The extra “Church” was for extra churchiness. ;)

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    That the NYT and LAT made the same error is highly suspicious. I’d guess that either both poached the inaccurate creed from the same uncredited source or that the LAT poached from an early printout of the NYT obit.

  • DA

    More than 30 years ago, I read THEY CALL ME COACH. If I recall correctly, John Wooden kept a Christian cross in his pocket and carried it everywhere.


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