Did Sarah Palin mistakenly attribute a quote to John Wooden?
BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said a notable impassioned quote about the importance of land to Americans.
Besides being a legendary basketball coach, the late, great John Wooden was also an inspirational writer and speaker. He wrote (or co-wrote) over half a dozen books and was an in-demand motivational speaker until his death in 2010. He was a proponent of what he called the Pyramid of Success, which consisted of philosophical building blocks for winning at basketball and at life. Some of the famous maxims that Wooden coined over the years include, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail" and "Flexibility is the key to stability."
In her 2009 memoir, Going Rogue, former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke about a time that Coach Wooden's words helped her through a disappointing moment in her life. Palin, who was a basketball player during high school (leading her team to an Alaskan state championship in 1982), has been a sports fan her whole life and even once dreamed of being a sportscaster for ESPN (which is at least partially the reason her daughter's name is Bristol) so it comes as no surprise that she would find comfort in the words of Coach Wooden. In 2002, after his election a Governor of Alaksa, Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski had to choose his successor in the United States Senate. He put together a list of candidates, including Palin. He interviewed her, but after the interview was over she had the impression that he was not going to be appointing her. On the drive home, she discussed her disappointment with her husband, Todd.
We were disappointed...for about seven seconds. We talked about the way the "ball bounces." We reminded each other how UCLA Coach John Wooden had captured our thoughts in a book we'd read about him. I told Todd, "Coach Wooden said, 'Things work out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.'" We said in unison, "Or something like that!"
Later on in the book, Palin continued to show her appreciation for Wooden's words by making a Wooden quote the epigram for the chapter about her decision to run for Governor of Alaska against Murkowski. The quote reads:
Our land is everything...I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember that our grandfathers paid for it - with their lives.
It's a powerful quote. But did Wooden actually say it?
No, he did not. The quote has been attributed to Wooden by many different writers over the years, so Palin is certainly far from the only person to think that Wooden said it. Again, this is a man who is known for his quotes. There is a whole book called just Quotable Wooden. So when you become that famous for your quotes, people tend to both A. attribute quotes to you that you didn't say and B. accept that you said everything that is attributed to you. In this instance, however, it was more than just simply a case of someone saying, "Hey, this sounds like something John Wooden would say, I guess he must have said it" (which happens all the time with people like Mark Twain and Yogi Berra), but rather a case of confusion over the identity of the real originator of the quote, whose name is extremely similar to John Wooden. In fact, it is John Wooden...with a little bit added on at the end.
The quote is from John Woodenlegs (1909-1981), a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, who he served as tribal president from 1955 to 1968. A grandson of Wooden Leg, who fought against General George A. Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, Woodenleg was an activist for Native American rights. The entire quote is quite interesting:
Our land is everything to us. It is the only place in the world where Cheyennes talk the Cheyenne language to each other. It is the only place where Cheyennes remember the same things together. I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it--with their life. My people and the Sioux defeated General Custer at the Little Big Horn.
So no, not something that Coach Wooden would ever say, I don't believe.
So this one is...
Thanks to Geoffrey Dunn of the Huffington Post for catching the quote mistake as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer for their earlier article about the mis-attributed quote.
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Photo: John Wooden throws out the first pitch before Game 2 of the 2002 World Series. Credit: Adrees Latif / Reuters.