By Andrew C. Jenkins
Courtesy of Bolivar Herald-Free Press
BOLIVAR—What seems like a relatively short time frame of meetings every couple of weeks over a period of about three years resulted in a life-altering experience for J.C. Carter, head coach of the Southwest Baptist University women’s basketball team.
Carter’s chance encounter and subsequent friendship with a basketball legend seems like the stuff of Mitch Albom books or PBS documentaries but, for Carter, it was a time of gaining inspiration for both his on-court and off-court life.
From 2004 to 2007, Carter met regularly with revered basketball coach John Wooden at Wooden’s cozy condominium in Encino, Calif.
Wooden is best known for his years spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he coached the Bruins’ men’s basketball team for nearly 30 years, earning UCLA 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championships in a period of 12 years.
Wooden died at the age of 99 on June 4, just four months shy of his 100th birthday.
Although Carter began to lose contact with Wooden after gaining an assistant coaching position at California State University-Northridge and eventually moving back to Missouri from California, Carter said his life forever will be shaped by Wooden.
“Whatever success I achieve in my life, I owe a large part of it to him,” Carter said. “He was able to keep his faith, his family and basketball all a part of his life without compartmentalizing anything. I try to do the same.”
The path to becoming friends with Wooden was almost not meant to be, however, if it hadn’t been for an enticing job offer and a broken vacuum.
It all began with an interview for a coaching position Carter was seeking at Village Christian High School in Los Angeles. During the interview, Carter mentioned that one of his three life goals was to meet Wooden. One of the interviewers ensured Carter that he could make that happen. Carter didn’t give any credence to what the man had to say regarding Wooden but accepted the job anyway.
Flash forward a few weeks, and the fellow high school co-worker who helped conduct the interview offered Carter the chance of a lifetime: meeting John Wooden face-to-face. Carter eagerly accepted, and before he knew it, he was having breakfast with Wooden at Vips restaurant in Tarzana, Calif., the haunt where Wooden ate breakfast every morning.
If the day hadn’t been progressing well enough already, it was about to get even better.
Out of the blue, Wooden invited the group of people to his nearby home, where the group ultimately stayed for two hours, chatting and sharing stories with Wooden.
“The first time we met, I was really on guard,” Carter said, “but after that, I was at ease. It was like talking to your granddad.”
Carter was determined not to let any future encounters be the last.
The co-worker who initially invited Carter along offered him a second chance to meet with Wooden.
While at Wooden’s house this time, the cleaning woman informed Wooden she could not finish vacuuming because the vacuum had broke.
Recognizing this as a chance to continue to pick Wooden’s brain and keep up their conversations, Carter repeatedly insisted on having the vacuum fixed for him until, finally, Wooden agreed.
“He had speaking engagements nearly every day as part of a contract, so I figured I’d help him out by having his vacuum fixed,” Carter said.
After a trip to Sears to have the vacuum repaired, Carter found himself visiting Wooden every couple of weeks.
Carter said he focused on asking Wooden for basketball advice, such as about Wooden’s famed full-court presses, recruiting techniques and the way he organized practices.
Nonetheless, Carter learned much more from Wooden than just basketball tips.
“He loved talking basketball,” Carter said, “but he had an exceeding wisdom on life. He could easily quote poems and Scripture.”
Carter said what left the deepest impact was Wooden’s striking humility and graciousness.
“The award for the most outstanding player is named after him, he won 10 NCAA championships and he was named the greatest coach of the century, yet he never let it all get to his head,” Carter said. “Everyone knew how good he was, except him.”
Divine intervention may have played a role in keeping Wooden level-headed. On a Sunday morning in 1964 while walking to church with his wife, Wooden was feeling quite proud after winning his first NCAA championship. Just then, a bird’s droppings fell from the sky and landed directly on Wooden. Wooden quickly shed his bravado.
The expert teacher, Wooden mixed tough love into his meetings with Carter.
“I was telling him about a player of mine that just didn’t get it,” Carter said. “And he said to me, ‘If he doesn’t get it, then you haven’t taught him.’ I will never forget that.”
Although these meetings fulfilled one of Carter’s life goals, Carter was also able to share his new friendship with another person whose dream it was to meet Wooden: his father, Jim.
For his father’s birthday one year, Carter introduced him to Wooden.
“My Dad couldn’t believe it,” Carter said. “My Dad is a coach, and it had been his dream to take Coach Wooden’s spot at UCLA.”
In three years, Carter learned a lifetime’s worth of wisdom and advice from his mentor.
“Over teach, don’t over coach.
“Find a balance in life and coaching.
“Never take bad practices back home.
“Focus on enthusiasm and industriousness.”
But for now, Wooden will live on in the autographed Pyramid of Success chart that Wooden developed and the multitude of photographs featuring Carter and Wooden, all of which dot Carter’s office in Bolivar.
More so than the memorabilia, though, Wooden’s genuineness and humble spirit are what Carter will remember most about him.
“He made time for everyone,” Carter said. “And you don’t have to be coaching basketball to learn from him.”