With each year that passed since his retirement, it seemed less likely that any coach would match his record of success. The NCAA tournament expanded significantly, meaning that teams had to win more games to reach the championship. Wooden's legacy seemed complete.
Sam Gilbert was a former UCLA student and wealthy contractor who opened his Los Angeles home to players beginning in the late 1960s and liked to think of himself as their surrogate father. In 1967, when Alcindor and guard Lucius Allen were dissatisfied with life in Westwood and thinking seriously of transferring, Gilbert counseled them and was instrumental in persuading Allen to stay.
In a 1981-82 Los Angeles Times investigative series, several UCLA players said that Gilbert had helped athletes in ways that violated NCAA rules. The improper benefits allegedly ranged from buying players' game tickets at inflated prices to helping them buy cars and arrange for loans at steep discounts. On occasion, Gilbert also reportedly helped arrange abortions for their girlfriends.
Former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps called Gilbert the "Sugar Daddy" of the UCLA program. After the Times series ran, the NCAA placed the team on probation.
None of the violations were tied to Wooden, but the retired coach acknowledged harboring suspicions about Gilbert during the 1960s and '70s, and former players spoke of Wooden's see-no-evil relationship with the booster.
Andy Hill, a former guard who later became a television producer and motivational speaker, told The Times that he believed that Wooden relied on longtime trainer Elvin "Ducky" Drake to be something of a watchdog for the team, and that Drake had apparently missed what was going on with Gilbert.
"Among the things Coach Wooden was good at," Hill said, "was knowing what he didn't want to know."
Another former player, Greg Lee, told The Times in 1982: "On the one hand, he was glad about [Gilbert's] presence. But whatever was happening was going to be out of sight, out of mind."
In the same article, Wooden put it this way: "There's as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said — he'd rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time.
"Maybe I trusted too much."
Then in 1985, Wooden suffered the devastating loss of his wife Nell, who died after a long illness at age 73.
They had been married 53 years and had enjoyed a remarkably close relationship given the demands of big-time coaching. Nell Wooden attended UCLA games, even on the road, and in a pregame ritual Wooden would seek her out in the stands and exchange what became known as "the lucky look." He would wave his rolled-up program at her and wink and she would give him the OK sign.
After her death, Wooden became what he described as "bordering on" a recluse for several years, staying in the Encino condominium they had shared, refusing to change anything about it. He stopped going to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four, saying: "She was always with me. So the memories are too painful." Each month, he wrote her a letter, adding it to a growing stack on her pillow.
Yet until this past season he remained a presence at Pauley Pavilion, sitting in the second row, watching over a program that would never be the same after he stepped down. Seven coaches have come and gone in the 35 years since his retirement. Only once, under Jim Harrick in 1995, have the Bruins won a national championship.
Around that time, Wooden told Prugh that "the players are better today, but the team play is not."
Asked repeatedly to select his all-time squad, he invariably declined, but did pick a most valuable player. It was Abdul-Jabbar, whom he still called Lewis Alcindor.
"I believe he caused his opponents more difficulties both on offense and defense than any player in the history of the game," he wrote in his memoir. "And I would choose Bill Walton as the second most valuable player I ever had. Bill probably could do more things than Kareem, although he was not the dominant force that Lewis was."
Age did little to slow Wooden. Although he never fully recovered from Nell's death, he resumed his annual trip to the NCAA Final Four when the Bruins made their title run in 1995. His calendar was once again filled with personal appearances.
UCLA wanted to honor him in 2003. Wooden agreed, on one condition. The floor of Pauley Pavilion was renamed the "Nell and John Wooden Court."
He remained a keen observer of the college basketball scene, especially UCLA. In March 2007, as UCLA advanced in the NCAA basketball tournament only to lose to Florida in the championship game, Wooden told a Times writer that Coach Ben Howland's team played better defense than his teams did.
One of Wooden's last major appearances was in June 2008, when he and Dodger announcer Vin Scully sat for a 90-minute question-and-answer session with Times sports columnist T.J. Simers. A sold-out crowd at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles sat spellbound by the conversation between two local legends, which was televised live.
That night Wooden shared his insight into his longevity: "Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valley. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low."
Wooden is survived by his son, Jim; daughter Nan; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. One of his great-grandchildren, Tyler Trapani, is a non-scholarship player on the UCLA basketball team.
Funeral services will be private, but a public memorial is being planned at UCLA.
Former Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this report.