Since I am from Indiana, it is a necessity that on occasion I refer to the great game of basketball. If you have seen the move “Hoosiers” it is not an inaccurate representation of how basketball is such an ingrained part of our state. At one time, Indiana had 7 of the 10 largest high school gymnasiums in our nation and that was because of basketball. In addition to being from Indiana, I also happen to live in the small town of Martinsville, which is thirty miles southwest of Indianapolis. Martinsville is the hometown of basketball’s greatest coach, and the one who is often at the top of the lists of all-time greatest coaches in any sport, Coach John Wooden. Under his leadership, the UCLA basketball team won ten NCAA championships in twelve years (1963-1975).
In addition to being from Martinsville, the Wooden family was also active in the First Christian Church in this small town. This is the church I presently serve. It was in this congregation that a young John Wooden confessed his faith and was baptized into the Christian faith on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1927. All of this is prelude to the story I wish to share with you.
Before Coach Wooden was at UCLA, he was the basketball coach at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. In 1947, his first year at ISU he had such success that the team was invited to participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament. Coach Wooden, however, declined the invitation. On his team was an African-American player by the name of Clarence Walker. In 1947, African-American players were not allowed to participate in the NAIB tournament. But Coach Wooden said, “If Clarence can’t play. We won’t play.” Some of the other players from that team have shared that if the team went together to a restaurant and service was refused to Clarence, Coach Wooden would make them all leave. Clarence kept a journal during his playing days at ISU. His son, Kevin, has shared what Clarence wrote about his coach at that time, “Coach Wooden is a wonderful man and not bias at all.” The underline of the word “not” is from Clarence’s own hand.
This was 1947. Only 20 years before, the state of Indiana was practically controlled by the Ku Klux Klan. The reach of its power extending all the way into the governor’s office. I have wondered on occasion what kind of pressure Coach Wooden felt to go ahead and play in that 1947 tournament – pressure from other players, from parents, from school administrators, from other coaches. I really don’t know what kind of pressure there was to make a decision other than the one he made. What I do know is that when there was one person being singled out as unworthy, one who was being treated unjustly and unfairly, one who was being told that he was less than he was, Coach Wooden stood with that one. This was 1947, ten years before the Montgomery Bus boycott and the rise of a young preacher named, Dr. King. 1947 and Coach Wooden stood up to prejudice and bigotry and injustice and said “No.”
Well, by the time the 1948 NAIB tournament came around the rule barring African-American players from participating had been changed. And that year, Clarence Walker, became the first African-American player to participate in an intercollegiate postseason basketball tournament. The ISU team advanced to the championship game where they lost to Louisville. That is the only championship game that a Coach Wooden team ever lost . . . but the truth is, it may have been his biggest victory ever.
John Wooden’s faith was an integral part of who he was and how he chose to live in this world. That faith was nurtured in his family, by his mother and his father. It was also strengthened by a larger community of faith that gathered regularly to hear the story of God’s love for all people. The hymns, the prayers, the scriptures, the sermons, the communion table, Sunday School – all played a role in John Wooden becoming the man of faith he was. That faith, nurtured and strengthened by others, helped to change our world for the better.
The pulpit in our sanctuary is presently located where the church baptistery used to be. So every week, when I step into the pulpit, I stand over the place where John Wooden and thousands of others were baptized into the Christian faith. I remember each week that indeed I am standing on holy ground and the words of the prayers, the sermon, the invitation to the table, the music selected, it all plays a part in helping to form the lives of people and how they live their faith in this world.
On Easter day in 1927, no one could know how John Wooden would go on to impact the world the way he did. He was then just a teenage boy with some kind of future before him. Thanks be, that the church helped to form that future and thus was itself an active participant in helping to change the world for the better.
Those of us who preach and are involved in church leadership should never underestimate the importance of the work we are engaged in. The pews are filled by people who have the opportunity to go out, and in all sorts of ways, make a difference in this world. Our task is to equip them with the knowledge, the courage and the hope, that in God’s grace, making a difference is indeed possible.