Much of the tension in our country’s politics stems from our preferences for individualism or collectivism. Some Americans, for example, view ownership and possession of a gun as a fundamental human right –the right of the individual to carry a weapon and to protect himself from another armed person who may not respect his individual, human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They point to the Constitution’s “right to bear arms.” Others view the prevalence of guns in our culture as contributing to violence, increasing the frequency of impulsive and deadly decisions, accidental deaths, and delusional acts of the mentally ill. They seek laws, or collective restrictions, on who can purchase guns, or prohibiting their concealment or possession in specific public places.
John Wooden, the late and legendary basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins, frequently told a story about Bill Walton, his 7’0” All-American center, when he was returning to school before his junior season. Over the summer months, Walton had allowed his hair to grow long. He also had a beard.
The year before, UCLA had won the National Championship, and Walton had received the Sullivan Award as the country’s best player. The first day was media day, and when Walton arrived, Coach Wooden reminded him about the team rules regarding length of hair and no facial hair. Walton, in a response typical of of the time, explained calmly and thoughtfully his view of human rights – that he had an individual, human right to wear his hair how he wanted it, and to shave his beard if he felt like it.
Wooden responded with civility and respect, “Bill. I understand what you are saying, and I agree. You do have that right, and I have the right to decide who plays. And the team is going to miss you if you don’t have your hair cut and beard shaved in 15 minutes.” Walton started to defend his perspective, and Wooden responded, “Now 14”. Walton raced out of the building to the barber, shaved his face with a razor and a cup of water while his hair was being cut, and returned as fast as he could. No more was said.
Before his death in 2010, both Wooden and Walton would share this story with fondness and a wry smile, their mutual love and respect evident. But at that moment in 1974, when John Wooden told Bill Walton that he had a choice – to respect the collective mores of the program or to exercise his individual rights concerning his personal appearance – there was undoubtedly a tension. Wooden’s response respected Walton’s autonomy, even honored it. In the end, Walton didexercise his free will and his individual, human right to choose. He chose to abide by the collective rules of the UCLA basketball program, rather than live by his individual standards of appearance.
Click on the link below to view a video of Walton and Wooden discussing the incident.