Although soccer remains the undisputed king of sports in Uganda, basketball is gaining in popularity, thanks to the teachings of UCLA’s iconic basketball Coach John Wooden. Halfway across the world, soccer players on the fields of Kampala are hearing the same words that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton heard more than 40 years ago:
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Make each day your masterpiece.
It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.
In fact, it was life lessons such as those that compelled four Ugandan basketball coaches to make a pilgrimage to Westwood recently. By visiting the campus facilities Wooden frequented — the J.D. Morgan Center, the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, Drake Stadium — the Ugandan visitors got a taste of what it must have been like to have met the famed coach himself.
After a tour that took them through campus and to the painstakingly re-created Wooden Den in the Morgan Center, the four coaches got the opportunity to see Wooden himself on the big screen. UCLA Psychology Professor Tara Scanlan had taped the coach in 2006 when he spoke to her Psychology 137F class, something he did every year from 1996 until his death in June 2010 at age 99. The group also traveled to the Los Angeles Sports Arena, where they watched the UCLA men’s basketball team defeat the University of Utah, 76-49.
The four coaches — Ayeet Timothy Odeke, Nicholas Twesigye, Immaculate "Chocho" Nalwadda and Caroline Nyafwono — were accompanied by Texas Tech Sports Science Professor Jens Omli, who organized the trip. In 2007, Omli was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota when he traveled to Uganda and met Kyambadde "Stone" Ndibassa, a soccer coach in Kampala who was a devotee of John Wooden.
Ndibassa had found some of Wooden’s simple phrases online and was incorporating them into his soccer program for inner-city youth. He created a "Stone Method" by giving his soccer players short Wooden maxims or pillars from the Pyramid of Success to think about each week.
In Ndibassa, Omli found a coach who had taken Wooden’s teachings to heart without ever reading one of his books or hearing him speak. The doctoral student from Minnesota saw the positive impact the sports program was having on the young athletes — many of whom had been traumatized by the brutal civil war in Northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006 — and began collaborating with Ndibassa to extend sporting programs throughout Uganda, starting with a coaching-development program.
With the support of the U.S. State Department, Omli began a cultural-exchange program called International Sport Connection. More than 380 Ugandan coaches have been trained over the past two years through the program’s clinics. One day of each clinic is devoted to Wooden’s philosophies and the Pyramid of Success.
Back at UCLA, the four Ugandan basketball coaches were enthusiastically absorbing as much information as they could about Wooden. Ayeet Timothy Odeke, basketball coach at Nkumba University in Kampala, explained Wooden’s impact on his own coaching. "He made me seriously think about my coaching philosophy," he said. "Why am I coaching?"
For Odeke, like Wooden before him, coaching transcends the basketball court. "The reason we should be coaching is to make a positive influence on the people who are coming through our hands. The real gratification in coaching ... is to see people successful afterwards."
Hearing Wooden speak and walking through the same campus his mentor experienced was a "surreal" experience for Odeke. But what impacted him most was the universality of Wooden’s teachings.
"The problems you have are universal," he said. "It transcends religion, it transcends race, it transcends barriers. That’s why he’s had so much impact across the globe."