Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a series of articles about Christians who rescue cultures. The first installment, The Servant, can be found here.  We hope that through this series, you will be persuaded of God’s call for you to rescue the cultures you are in, that you will get ideas from the examples of others and that you will be encouraged to take action in rescuing the cultures around you.  

When John Wooden returned from serving in the Navy following World War II, he became the athletic director and head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.  Wooden’s 1946–47 team received a post-season invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) national play-offs. (The NAIB existed before the NCAA.) After Wooden learned that Clarence Walker, a second-string guard on his team, would not be allowed to participate in the post-season tournament because he was African-American, Wooden declined the offer.  At that time, African-American players were not allowed to play in the post-season college basketball tournament.  

The college basketball world was stunned as word spread like wildfire that John Wooden turned down a post-season invitation. (Remember, this occurred more than two decades before the Civil Rights Act was passed in America.) Although Wooden was already well-known and respected in Indiana for leading his high school team to a state championship and leading Purdue to a national championship, you can be sure that it didn’t shield him from a considerable amount of criticism and pressure to cave in and go to the tournament.  Wooden, however, was unyielding.

The following season NAIB officials invited Indiana State again, and this time decided they would allow Clarence to play, provided he didn’t stay at the hotel with his teammates and wouldn’t be seen publicly with them. Once again, coach Wooden declined.

Wooden and his wife Nell knew that each and every young man on their team was created in the image of God.  They treated them as extended members of their family and loved them like they were their own sons.  The coach wasn’t about to allow Clarence to be humiliated. But Clarence and his family saw it in a different light. They were excited about the opportunity for Clarence to become the first African-American player in history to participate in the prestigious post-season college basketball tournament.

So Clarence’s family, along with officials from the NAACP, approached coach Wooden to persuade him that attending the tournament would help, not hurt, Clarence and other African-American players. After the meeting and much prayer, Wooden decided to accept the NAIB’s offer.  It wasn’t long before the team packed up and headed to the play-offs in Kansas City.

On their way to the tournament, the team bus stopped for meals. If a restaurant wouldn’t serve Clarence, coach Wooden made the team get back on the bus. Often the team had to pick up food at grocery stores along the way and eat on the bus.

When Clarence finally walked onto the basketball court to warm up, he appeared to be nearly paralyzed with fear. Many people in the crowd spotted the courageous young man, and they began to applaud. Clarence Walker became the first African-American player to participate in the NAIB play-offs, and Indiana State made it to the finals, where they lost to Louisville.

Because of Clarence’s courage to play where he was not welcome and Coach Wooden’s courage to stand up to a culture that was wrong when it came to excluding young men of color, the NAIB tournament was finally opened to all student-athletes. The following season three teams brought African-American players with them to the tournament.

Wooden went on to become the legendary head basketball coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team where he led them to 10 national championships and four perfect seasons.  At UCLA, Wooden continued to rescue the cultures he came in contact with by standing up for others who had less power and status. He watched out for the student managers on the UCLA men’s basketball team by making sure all of his players picked up their own towels and trash in the locker room after games rather than expecting the student managers to clean up after them.

Periodically, Wooden himself would pick up a mop and work along side the student managers to clean the floors of the basketball court.  No position on the team was beneath the great coach. Wooden always expected his players to respect and be courteous to flight attendants, hotel, and wait staff workers when they traveled. He taught the players that “you are as good as anyone, but no better than anyone.”

Wooden, a committed Christian, was a culture rescuer, as Jesus calls us to be. You can learn more about him, including the impact he had on the men who played for him, in our book, Fired Up or Burned Out (Thomas Nelson) where we wrote much more about John Wooden’s story, his character and leadership style.

Control, Indifference, or Connection?

Remember the three types of Cultures explained in part one of this series?  The Dog-Eat-Dog Culture (where people with power try to control and dominate others) was the culture of those creating racist rules for the NAIB. The organization was playing into the fear and hatred of those who refused to admit that no matter our color, we are all equal human beings. This culture permeated Wooden’s time and place, sometimes even preventing the boys from all eating together in the same restaurant. It is a toxic culture, breeding only fear, selfishness, and false superiority.

The second type of culture, the Culture of Indifference, can also be seen in the life of John Wooden. The fact that he was the first coach in the league to put an African-American player in a tournament game means that many other coaches were sitting on the sidelines. Whether they were afraid to take a stand or indifferent to the bigger problem, these coaches valued their own personal security over making a difference in the world and standing up for something.

John and Nell Wooden knew about the power of Connection Culture, where people feel connected to those with whom they work and to their work (because it brings truth, beauty or goodness into the world). The boys on Wooden’s team were connected by a powerful bond, because their coach taught them to believe that all men are equal, and that discrimination should not be dismissed or accepted. Because of this Christ-like connection, the league (and eventually many other leagues, both college and professional) grew toward the Connection Culture model.

 Connection is Biblical. Jesus prayed to God that believers would “all be one… so that the world will believe you sent me” (John 17:21 NLT). Paul states that“God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10 NLT). We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world by creating homes, neighborhoods, churches, workplaces and communities that are cultures of love and connection (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).  What cultures are you a part of?  What cultures is God calling you to rescue and strengthen to become cultures that glorify Him?

Jason Pankau and Michael Lee Stallard are co-authors of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson). Rev. Jason Pankau is president of Life Spring Network, a ministry that helps pastors and church leaders develop holistic, transformational, disciple-making communities, and he is the author of Beyond Self Help: The True Path to Harnessing God’s Wisdom, Realizing Life’s Potential and Living the Abundant Life (Xulon Press).  Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training, consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders develop “Connection Cultures” that boost productivity, innovation and performance. 

Publication date: July 11, 2012