I am a huge basketball fan, indeed, sports fan in general. Since I am also a Christian philosopher, people have often assumed that I must be a fan of John Wooden, the legendary coach who won numerous national championships at UCLA. In fact, however, I am not, and people are often surprised when I tell them so. They are often even more surprised when I go on to tell them that I am big fan of Bob Knight, also known as the General, an equally legendary coach who won three national championships at Indiana. How can I admire the hothead who is infamous for throwing a chair during a game more than the elegant “Wizard of Westwood”?
I have answered that question in detail in an essay entitled “The Wizard Versus the General: Why Bob Knight is a Greater Coach Than John Wooden.”[i] Here I will briefly give the two main reasons. First, Knight won with far less talent than Wooden. Whereas every one of Wooden’s teams had at least one player who went on to become an NBA all-star, including some of the most dominant players who ever played the game, Knight had only one player who became an NBA all-star. That player was Isiah Thomas, a 6’1” guard who played only two years at Indiana, but led them to the national championship in 1981.
Knight had many excellent players to be sure, and he is famous for getting the best out of them, but the talent level of his players was not even close to that of the players Wooden coached. A good example is Steve Alford (the current coach at UCLA), a player who did not have NBA caliber athleticism, but who was a two time All America for Knight, leading Indiana to the national championship in 1987.
But the second reason I consider Knight a greater coach is the truly decisive one for me. Whereas the General was staunchly committed to playing fair, the Wizard succeeded with the help of a booster named Sam Gilbert, a corrupt businessman who provided a variety of benefits to his players that violated NCAA rules.
I know this will come as a surprise to many people, and indeed, I recall my own stunned surprise, if not shock, when I first learned about this several years ago. I found it hard to believe, given the impression of Wooden I had always had. He has been held up for decades as the very epitome of coaching excellence, as a man who “did things the right way.”
To be sure, Wooden won at a level no one likely ever will again during his tenure at UCLA. Wooden was hired in 1948, and won no championship during his first fifteen years as head coach with the Bruins. Then, amazingly, after fifteen years with no championships, he won 10 in 12 years in the period from 1964-1975.
What changed? Well, during this period UCLA’s recruiting was elevated when a steady stream of the top players in the nation chose to play for the Bruins. Many think this was all due to Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success” but the Gilbert Factor was no doubt a significant part of the equation that explains why his fortunes turned so dramatically during those dozen years.
To be fair, Wooden won a couple championships before Gilbert got involved with the program, and had some outstanding players on those teams. But the recruiting elevated and remained at an exceptional level during the next several years when UCLA dominated college basketball.
By contrast, Knight was a stickler for playing by the rules. In his autobiography, Knight discussed his passion for winning, but rejected out of hand the idea of winning at any cost. “No, absolutely not” he said. “ I’ve never understood how anybody who cheated to get a players, or players, could take any satisfaction whatsoever out of whatever winning came afterward.”
Victory bought at the price of cheating is a hollow affair. Worse, it is a form of theft. It steals the honor and glory from those who played by the rules, and who would have won if everyone had played fair. And it steals the joy of celebration from the fans of those who played fairly. I cannot admire Wooden’s record breaking accomplishments for the same reason I cannot admire those who hit record numbers of home runs, or win Tours de France by using illegal performance enhancing substances.
Here is what I find curious and deeply ironic. Everyone who knows anything about sports knows Bobby Knight threw a chair, but even among fairly well informed fans, few know, or care, about Sam Gilbert.
So what does this have to do with what’s wrong with America? Well, a couple of things. First, it is an interesting window into the fact that our culture is more inclined to assess things in psychological terms than moral terms. Our culture is far more concerned about personality and good manners than it is about character. Indeed, it is more important to be likeable and gracious than it is to be honest. For us, after all, image is everything. This is true in our culture everywhere from the basketball court to the highest levels of politics, where likeability counts far more than honesty.
Wooden was gracious and gentlemanly, even a grandfather figure. Knight is blunt, gruff and temperamental. Our culture is accordingly quick to judge Knight but prone to ignore altogether the shadow of Sam Gilbert when assessing Wooden because it is far more concerned with personality than character.
But second, the way these two coaches are assessed also shows we have a badly distorted sense of moral proportion even when ethical considerations do come into the picture. Several years ago, during the controversies that led to Knight’s firing at Indiana, Dave Kindred of Sporting News wrote an article in response to the fact that Wooden’s name was often invoked as a coach to be emulated, in contrast to the more volatile Knight. After citing the evidence of Wooden’s tarnished legacy at UCLA, he concluded with what he called a “scruples question: Would you rather have a coach who throws a vase against a wall or a coach who turns a blind eye to the buying of players in his behalf?”
To me, the answer is clear. This is not to suggest Knight a saint . Indeed, I would guess he will need some time in purgatory before he will be ready for that honor. Nor is it to deny that his own character flaws have marred his illustrious career. But Knight’s flaws do not detract from his greatness as a coach even remotely as much as the corruption that Wooden ignored detracts from his. And I would contend that to think otherwise, you must have developed quite a taste for swallowing camels.
[i] In Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint, eds. Jerry L. Walls and Greogry Bassham (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 129-144.