Monday, August 19, 2013

Wooden It Be Nice

I‘ve about had it with list stories. You know: “The 2,500 Most Despicable Reality Shows” or “Five People That Became President” or “Three Signs That It’s Time To Breathe.” Buzzfeed, the Death Star of list stories, calls them “listicles,” and even has a listicle clock showing a different Buzzfeed list every second. Like that’s a good thing.
So instead of doing a story on “The Five Most Annoying People of the Handful O’Landfill Era”[1] I thought I would do a story on one thing, and one thing only: The John Wooden Award Set.
You don’t have to be a follower of anything besides your own nose to know that John Wooden was about as close to a perfect human being as was ever created. He was an athlete, a teacher, a father, a mentor, a friend, a philosopher, a leader, an inspiration, and perhaps the best coach of anything ever. He was religious without being pious, a salesman without being a shill, and moral without being a prude. He was married to the same woman for more than 50 years, and that was about the least remarkable thing about him. As a leader in a segment of a sport where fair play is far less important than an athlete’s chosen brand of jockstrap, John Wooden stands alone.
Needless to say, John Wooden did not adopt a significant position in the sports-collectibles industry.
However, John Wooden did lend his name to at least one award – the award given annually to the nation’s best college-basketball player.
There is a disconnect here, in that John Wooden was not a great college-basketball player in the way that Pete Maravich or Elvin Hayes or Larry Bird was a great basketball player. Coach Wooden was a three-time All-American to be sure, but at a time where being a three-time All-American in basketball was roughly akin to being a three-time All-American in water polo today – a sterling achievement, but not something that would make you say he was one of the best ever.
Handing out a John Wooden Award to the nation’s top college-basketball coach -- now that would be a different story.[2]
Still, John Heisman was not a great college-football player, nor was Golden Spikes a great amateur baseball player.[3] So there is precedent for naming awards given to players after people who weren’t great players – a fact that should give us all hope. (I personally am dying to present the John B. "Sparky" Seals Award to the nation’s best C-level peewee hockey player.)
So the John Wooden Award it is, and the John Wooden Award it has been since 1977, meaning there is ample material for a John Wooden Award card set, even if you happen to be living in 1992 and can’t get “Life Is A Highway” out of your head.
So let’s imagine it is 1992, and “Life Is A Highway” just got done playing and now it’s “To Be With You,” to be shortly followed by “2 Legit 2 Quit” and “Achy Breaky Heart.” There have been 15 winners of the John Wooden Award, and you have all the paperwork in place to make a John Wooden Award card set. What do you do?
If you’re Ken Goldin, you tear up the paperwork and make a 100-card draft-pick set, cram it full of Eric Lindros, Russell Maryland, Brien Taylor, and Larry Johnson autographs, and sell it on QVC.
If you’re Mike Cramer, you make a 500-card set with one card of this year’s winner die-cut 499 different ways, and a checklist.
If you’re Richard McWilliam, you borrow Ken Goldin and Mike Cramer’s cards, color-correct the heck out of them, put Ken Griffey Jr.’s head on Danny Ainge’s body, and forget to send the royalty check.
If you’re David Greenhill, you sell everyone else’s cards at a loss.
And if you’re my brother, you keep demanding that they put Carlton Fisk cards in the set, just so you can pull them out and destroy them.
Fortunately, Little Sun was at the helm, and no one knew more than Little Sun, albeit inadvertently, about making a trading-card set without possibility of financial gain. In this case, Little Sun created a simple set, with one card for each award-winner through Larry Johnson, four cards of Coach Wooden (who deserves a multiple-card salute more than anyone on the planet), a card of the trophy, a card devoted to the president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a card devoted to the club (told you this was done without thought of financial gain), and a numbered Certification of Limited Edition[4]. It put everything in a wallet-sized case, with a page for each card. You page through the cards, admire the photos, read about Coach Wooden, and when you’re done, simply set it aside.
There’s nothing flashy about the cards, just a nice photo in an attractive border with player-card backs that state the player's name, position, and college. Say what you want about Little Sun, but they refuse to waste your time, and printer's ink, with triviata about Darrell Griffith. You come away from your few minutes spent with the set understanding all things needful about the award, its recipients, and Coach Wooden.
Sure, there were better sets made during the HOL era. There were more important sets. There were more valuable sets. But there were also many more trashier sets, and contract-obligation sets, and misrepresented sets, and bizarro sets, and sets that sold collectors a big ol’ bill of cardboard goods.
Not this set. The John Wooden Award set delights through its Hoosier simplicity, its adherence to its purpose, and its celebration of what is most important.
I’m guessing Coach Wooden approved.

[1] Ken Goldin, Mike Cramer, Richard McWilliam, David Greenhill, and my brother. Top that, Buzzfeed.
[2] Actually, there is a John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award that no one knows about except you and me. And Mike Krzyzewski.
[3] And Tewaaraton didn’t even play lacrosse at all; go figure.
[4] “Limited” not really being necessary in this case, seeing as Little Sun Made 21,000 sets.

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