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Coach John Wooden saw enough athletes up close and personal during his reign on UCLA's basketball court to know there are few saints in sneakers.

Many parents may wonder if it's proper - after waves of depressing news reports about drugs, dishonesty and greed - to let children idolize the stars that shine in arenas and stadiums, Wooden said.His answer: Children need heroes, but they also need to be warned that sports cannot take the place of character and faith.

"People have always asked me if athletics build character," said Wooden, whose teams won 10 national championships during his final 12 years as the "Wizard of Westwood."

"My answer has always been that, yes, sports can build character. But they also can tear down character."

Sports are not immune from the ills that afflict politics, business, religion and other areas of public life, he said. People make their own decisions and can be hurt by bad leaders.

"It's not automatic that sports will be good for someone," Wooden said. "That has always been true."

Retired NBA star Bobby Jones would say "amen" to that.

Many Americans seem intent on turning sports into a religion all it's own, a life-and-death matter in which success is the only creed, he said. Jones knows, because he once worshipped at this altar.

In college, his entire existence was wrapped up in "basketball, basketball, basketball. It was all I wanted . . .. Basketball became my god," Jones said, during a recent Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer breakfast.

But Jones met a circle of athletes who tried to take religious faith as seriously as they did their box-score statistics. Their examples helped him learn to blend competitive fire with warm faith.

"I had decided that if you were a Christian, then you had to either be a doormat for other people to walk on or some kind of missionary over in Africa. Well, that wasn't for me. I was planning on going to the NBA," said Jones, a 6-foot-9 forward best known for his years with the Philadelphia 76ers.

"In a way, God let me become a missionary . . . but in the NBA."