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Amir HussainApril 05, 2024
John Wooden coaching the UCLA men's basketball team (Wikimedia Commons)

I came to Loyola Marymount University almost 20 years ago, hired in April 2005 as a refugee from the California State University system. Last semester, while leading a first-year seminar on Islam and the building of America, I realized that I had been teaching at Loyola Marymount longer than my freshman students had been alive. While I have been at a Jesuit university for almost two decades, I can still remember when that idea was unthinkable to me.

I am a Muslim, born in Pakistan, who grew up in Canada. All of my education from kindergarten through to my doctorate took place in Toronto. My parents were working-class, employed in various factories, and neither had been to university. When we came to Toronto in 1970, it was not just overwhelmingly white, but 85 percent British, a provincial Protestant city where Italian Catholics were the exotic “other” and South Asian Muslims were almost non-existent. By the time I left in 1997, it was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with a thriving and vibrant Muslim population.

As the child of immigrants, I knew that I was going to university to escape factory life, and the “smartest” thing I could think of was to be a doctor. Within my first few weeks at the University of Toronto, I realized that there was something called an “intellectual,” and one could make a living reading and writing books.

If you asked me if I wanted to be a teacher, I would have immediately said no, as I saw what my friends did to high school teachers. However, the university was different, and I had some of the most extraordinary professors in the world. That opened up a new possibility: becoming an academic.

I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology. Realizing one needed a doctorate to teach at a university, I switched to what I was truly interested in: the study of religion. I wrote my dissertation on Muslims in Toronto, and in 1997 got a job teaching at California State University Northridge (CSUN) in the San Fernando Valley.

I loved being at CSUN, which was quietly becoming the flagship campus of the California State University system three years after the Northridge earthquake. I was in a state school, teaching in a department of religious studies, with students who had similar working-class backgrounds to mine. But a state institution depends on state funding and every year, we had to do more with less—more students, but less funding for each student.

I knew that it was time to leave when the CSU system brought in a new chancellor who publicly declared that he saw the goal of the California State University system as creating “educated workers for the California workforce.”

As a working-class person, I understood the importance of giving our students skills that would get them gainful employment, but I also thought that what I was doing was helping to shape educated citizens for the world, not workers for California. That’s when I first considered Loyola Marymount University.

I knew that Loyola Marymount was a Jesuit school, but I didn’t know much about the order other than its reputation for academic excellence, basketball prowess and exorcisms (the latter two from Georgetown University and “The Exorcist,” which was filmed nearby). I knew that the school was Catholic, but I didn’t know if non-Catholics, not to mention non-Christians, would be welcome. I also knew that the school’s two other founding religious orders, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, made Loyola Marymount distinctive from other Jesuit universities.

Their department of theological studies was in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. The dean, Michael Engh, S.J., was both a Jesuit and a fine historian of California. The Jesuit president of the university, Robert Lawton, S.J., had a doctorate from Harvard in Near Eastern languages. That immediately intrigued me, as there aren’t a lot of workplace applications that involve knowledge of Aramaic or Akkadian. This was learning for its own sake, and not as a means to an end. Father Engh hired me, and Father Lawton promoted me in 2009, making me the first non-Christian to be tenured in our department. To this day, I thank both men in my prayers.

As I began the process of learning about the distinctiveness of Jesuit education, the phrase that kept coming up was cura personalis, care of the whole person. As I learned more about this idea, I realized that I already knew about it; not from academics, but athletics.

As a young Muslim kid growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, I had very few Muslim role models. One of them was the basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and in learning more about him, I came to appreciate the influence that his college coach at UCLA, the blessed John Wooden, had on him during the racially and politically charged period of the late 1960s. Kareem would later write about this in his 2017 book Coach Wooden and Me. I wrote to Coach Wooden when I was an undergraduate, asking for a copy of his famous “Pyramid of Success.” About a month later, I received an autographed copy along with a nice note.

That in turn led me to his textbook, Practical Modern Basketball, first published in 1966, which helped me to work on my game. I was the nerdy kid in high school, on the basketball team but not very good until I played in university. There, I developed and flourished not simply as a basketball player, but as an athlete. To this day, one of the awards of which I am most proud was when I graduated from University College at the University of Toronto in 1987 as the Best Male Athlete. As I tell my students at Loyola Marymount, I don’t look like much now, being old, slow and fat, but I used to be somebody.

I sought out Coach Wooden again when I moved to CSUN, and got to know him and have a friendship with him until his death in 2010. During my development as a teacher, I came to realize even more powerfully the skills that Coach Wooden had, and I tried to incorporate his ideas into my developing Jesuit pedagogy. He was a man of deep faith, though he didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. None of the 15 blocks of the “Pyramid of Success,” for example, are about religion; but the mortar was patience and faith (“through prayer,” as he wrote). One of the first theological pieces I wrote after I moved to Loyola Marymount was dedicated to Coach Wooden, who I thought was underappreciated for the theological reflection that was his life.

As I write this, it is March Madness, the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments for both men and women. Coach Wooden won 10 titles in a dozen years at UCLA; no other men’s basketball coach has ever come close. Geno Auriemma won 11 as the coach of the women’s team at the University of Connecticut, and Pat Summitt won eight at the University of Tennessee, but those both came over 21-year spans for the coaches.

For a man who was the best there ever was at what he did, Coach Wooden didn’t care about winning and losing. A teacher at heart, he cared about his players not so much as athletes, but as students with promise and potential. That is another way to describe cura personalis, which doesn’t simply mean that we reach our students in different ways. We do that, of course, by reaching them intellectually through classroom study, but also emotionally through music and dance, or vocationally through service.

It also means we see them as whole persons, and address the different parts of their being, developing them as well-rounded educated citizens for the world. What we do as teachers is a sacred trust. Coach Wooden helped me to do that in my Jesuit setting.

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