It is just over 40 years that John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach was at his last National Championship. Wooden’s impact is still spreading and, this week, his impact touched the hearts of Messiah students and athletes alike.
Wooden, in his tenure at UCLA, turned the school into a dominant basketball program, at one point winning 10 NCAA National Championships in 12 years.
Winning championships was not the only thing important to Wooden, however, as he was almost more well known for developing not only Championship caliber athletes, but fine young Christian men. Wooden’s impact was so great and widespread, that his impact reached that of Paul Putz, Messiah’s History Lecturer.
In the 1970’s, Wooden was re-inventing faith in sports, something that Putz describes as “Sportianity.”
Putz first was first impacted by Wooden when he began playing basketball in his hometown of Nebraska. Putz’s high school basketball coach gave out team handbooks that covered basketball plays and ideas, but also had moral values and Wooden quotes intertwined in the pages. Putz said this handbook taught him, “John Wooden, Jesus, and Basketball.”
Putz said that “the ideas in this book were some of the most influential factors in my life to shaping my ideas and beliefs.”
Wooden’s impact on Putz was so great, that on Wednesday, Putz gave a public lecture on Messiah’s campus about Wooden and his impact on sports and faith. Messiah’s entire basketball team had the day off practice in order to attend the event, along with a wide variety of other sport-crazed Messiah students and staff.
Putz challenged the students, players, and staff in attendance to think about sport’s effect on faith. This is an area that Putz is familiar with, as his dissertation explored the ways in which American Protestantism became embedded in the world of commercialized, big-time sport in the twentieth-century United States.
When big-time sports were first on the rise in the 1920’s many religious leaders were questioning the morality of sports, and its effect on religion. Some pastors and leaders questioned the fact that people would pay to watch a sports event, but would not pay to attend a Christian event or service.
The main question, Putz noted, that was asked during this time period was “do the moral benefits of sports still exist when there is money involved?” John Tunis, a Christian writer in 1928, wrote that “sports are so big and valuable, that we have lost the moral value in them.”
However, as Wooden’s time came closer and closer, a group of Christians (Putz called “Middlebrow Protestants”) began to accept sports. They did not exactly think that sports had the best influence, but thought it to be the best place to bring people together, and shape their beliefs.
One famous “Middlebrow Protestant”, is Amos Stagg, who coached college football in the ‘20s. Stagg argued that “sports build character, and that instead of going to church, kids go to sports, so we need to accept that and use it for good.”
All the ideas of the “Middlebrow Protestants” shaped Wooden’s beliefs. Everything Wooden said, and did, reflected the values and the foundations set by these “Middlebrows.”
Fast forward now from the ‘20’s to the ‘70’s, and Wooden was integrating these ideas firmly into his successful program. Wooden used sports in a way that was able to shape successful athletes, but more importantly successful men.
Putz ended his lecture with a challenge to those in attendance asking, “If Wooden hadn’t won a single championship, would we still consider what he did a success? Wooden would not have wanted us to look at his material success to judge him, but rather view his character.”
Messiah students, staff and athletes that attended Wednesday’s lecture “John Wooden, Jesus, and Me”, by Paul Putz, all came away shaken in their understanding of what sports can do. While Putz noted that the impact of sports can be profound, at the same time Putz hopes that we “do not cherish championships over character.”
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