My Lunch with John Wooden

I’ve had a few fortunate encounters with some truly amazing people, but my lunch with John Wooden stands out. I was opening a new restaurant. A fellow server, Kathleen, casually asked me if I would be able to come to help during lunch on Thursday. Her grandfather wanted to come in and see her in her new job. I of course said yes, but was confused. I didn’t understand why she needed me to come in and work a shift for her grandfather. As we headed back to the kitchen to get silverware, Kathleen told me her grandfather was John Wooden: one of the most successful coaches of all time, in any sport.

I arrived 15 minutes before John Wooden, who came in dressed in the blue button-down sweater he always wore. He looked much smaller than I thought. We shook hands and sat down. He asked me questions about my family. He loved hearing about my seven brothers and sisters. I asked him questions about his teams, Bell Walton and Kareem, who was Alcinder while playing at UCLA.

I began to relax. I enjoyed telling the legendary coach about being in the Old Guard. At some point realized I was doing the most talking because he was asking some really pointed questions. I plucked up the courage to ask the coach questions about his own childhood, and his family. He talked a lot about his father and his influence on him. We sat and talked for over three hours.

Later, as we walked out to the parking lot, he told me he wanted to give me something. I said, “Coach, you don’t need to give me anything, just talking with you was enough.” He handed me a basketball, which he signed, and a copy of “The Pyramid of Success,” which he had devised for his players to follow as a blueprint for success.

After he left, I sat down on a bench. I took a minute to reflect on my time with the coach I had looked up to for so long. I realized that, although this man was a legend, he hadn’t lived his life that way. He cared so much about people, which I saw because he asked so many questions, and listened to every word I said. His true greatness started with connecting with whoever he was talking with. I was twenty-five years old and trying to find my way, but he treated me as an equal.

Connection is what made John Wooden truly great. If you look back at some clips of him speaking to the media, you can see that he connected with all of us. He treated everyone with respect and without judgment.

This lunch was remarkable in my life. Over the years I would run into John Wooden at one of his favorite restaurants. I would walk up to him and remind him that we met. He always smiled and remembered, and I’d inquire about Kathleen.

Everybody you meet deserves a connection, and when you truly connect, you will be surprised at what you learn. When you see someone for the first time, or when you are talking to an old friend, take some time and really listen. I assure you the impact you can have is lasting.

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