"WOODEN SOLDIERS: Chance meeting with a basketball coaching legend propels Lions"
by Christopher C. Wuensch
IF you could scale the highest mountain and ask the all-knowing guru who sits atop it just one question, what would you ask?
In the world of basketball, legendary hall-of-fame coach John Wooden is that guru. During a late December voyage to the Golden State, the Pusch Ridge boys basketball team got the rare opportunity to sit down with the guru and their season hasn't been the same since.
Before its 520-mile trip to Santa Clarita, Calif., to compete in the Hart Holiday Classic, the Lions found themselves in an unenviable position. Squabbling, illness and inexperience within the Class 2A program left Pusch Ridge's young team struggling for answers and, more importantly, wins.
The most blatant problem, however, was playing together as one.
That selfish play was never more evident than in the Lions first and only loss in the region, a game they should have won at home against Baboquivari. Although more than half the team was battling a flu-like illness - the "me-first" attitude was the factor that cost Pusch Ridge the game, said head coach Tom Norris.
In other words, the team with no seniors put the quintessential "me" in the word "team."
"The unity wasn't there," says junior forward David Robison of the ailments that plagued the team early on.
Lions point guard Jordan Cook echoed his teammates' thoughts.
"We weren't clicking. Guys were sick, injured," said the junior. "We weren't meshing well at all."
All that changed on a dreary southern California afternoon, in a place where legend claims it never rains.
After winning its game in the Hart Holiday Classic, the Lions were approached by Wooden's niece, who asked the team if it would like to meet the legendary former UCLA men's basketball coach, who lived nearby, politely asking if the team didn't mind wading out in the rain to do so.
"I know the coaches and I would have swam there if we had to," said Norris of the thought of meeting the 94-year-old Wooden at his unassuming condo in Encino.
In 29 seasons, 28 of which were spent coaching UCLA, Wooden amassed 664 wins against just 162 losses. During the 1960s and early '70s, Wooden took the Bruins to never before-seen heights. Under his tutelage, UCLA staked four 30-0 seasons, 10 national championships and 20 Pac-8 titles. During that stretch UCLA won an amazing 88-straight games and claimed seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1967 to 1973.
During his tenure at UCLA, Wooden was able to harness the raw talents of future NBA legends Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar, teaching them the true meaning of playing unselfishly together as a team.
The Lions got to meet with Wooden, who has been enshrined in the Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Mass., as both a player and a coach, for an hour-and-a-half. During the visit he spewed forth his vast wisdom through quotes and poetry, citing fabled historic icons from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Teresa.
"It was such a prestigious moment," said Robison. "We couldn't believe it."
Quietly the players sat on the floor, along with many of the coach's medals and accolades too numerous to fit on the already filled walls, and absorbed everything the former coach had to say. Wooden spoke of basketball, answering questions in a methodical, roundabout fashion, lecturing that sports aren't the most important part of life.
Legend has it that Wooden can tell you the whereabouts of 172 of his 180 players from UCLA and may be more proud of those who went on to succeed outside of basketball.
"I could have sat at that man's feet for hours and listened to him," said Cheryl Morgan, mother of Lions' junior forward Ryan Morgan.
Outside the vortex of Wooden's condo, Pusch Ridge closed out the Hart Classic with a 1-3 record, but the results may have been somewhat skewed. In those four games, the Lions where pitted up against tough Class 5A-sized teams from inner-city Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Calif.
Since returning from Southern California soaked with Wooden-isms, the Lions (10-7, 6-1) have reeled off six straight wins and have vaulted from being a marginal team searching for an identity to winning first place in the Class 2A Desert Region.
"He told us to listen to coach," said Cook of the advice passed along by Wooden, "and do everything as a team."
Working together, the Lions have resurrected their season, dropping conference foes Benson, Bisbee, Desert Christian, St. Gregory's and Tombstone (twice).
"Every night it's somebody new who steps up," said Norris.
Not all the credit for turning the season around belongs to Wooden.
"In California we did a lot of soul searching," said Norris, who annually plans getaways such as the Hart Classic trip to give the team a chance to bond. According to the coach, it was only a matter of time before this fledgling squad learned to play together, whether it was this year or next.
If Norris learned anything from Wooden, it's to take every game one at a time, which is exactly what the Lions intend to do as they lumber toward the region and state playoffs.
Pusch Ridge still has a long way to go before claiming its first region title in school history. Looming over the horizon of the season's second half is rematches with Benson, Desert Christian and St. Gregory.