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John Wooden, the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency

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Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times magazine, March 29, 1998

I am just steps out of John Wooden's condo when I realize he has, once again, transformed me into Jack Nicholson, gazing across the dinner table at Helen Hunt. Wooden has made me want to be a better man.

My professional life is so much the antithesis of Wooden. It is basketball players with orange hair and boxers with an appetite for ear. In my world, Charles Barkley says he doesn't want to be a role model, and I thank the heavens.

I am cynical, with both reason and pride. I tell our political reporters that they are the second-most lied-to group at our paper. I live with coach-speak, player-spin and owner-hype. I'm not sure anymore which is more psychobabble, "Oprah" or the National Football League.

But I have found my safe harbor, my antidote for the Dennis Rodmans and Mike Tysons, in the form of a hunched-over, slightly rumpled 87-year-old former English teacher, the same former English teacher who dabbled enough in basketball to play on one Indiana State High School championship team (1927) and two national championship teams at Purdue (1930 and '32), and coach UCLA to 10 NCAA titles in the '60s and '70s.

Nobody else has ever done that. Nobody else ever will.

And nobody else will ever be like John Wooden.

Millions of words have been written about his 40 years in college coaching, about his 27 years at UCLA that not only produced the record 10 NCAA titles and a record 88-game winning streak, but also contributed to an 885-203 record and .813 winning average.

That, like so many things about this scholarly, dignified man, is unprecedented.

He lives in a small condominium on a quiet street in Encino, the same place chosen for them 25 years ago by his wife, Nell, to whom he was married for 53 years and to whom, by the very tone of his voice, he pays homage at any mention. She died in 1985, and yet Wooden's home remains, in many ways, a shrine to her. In his tiny study, stacked floor to ceiling with shelves of books, plaques, trophies and pictures, one wall is reserved for commemoration of the 10 national championships. There are 10 team pictures, symbolically configured in a triangle that represents his Pyramid of Success, a 15-step process that is the core of his philosophy.

"Nellie put them up like that," he says reverently.

*

John Wooden is a celebrity who either doesn't know it or doesn't show it. He drives a 1989 Ford Taurus with 25,000 miles on it ("It gets me there") and never has had much to do with charge cards ("Nellie and I didn't believe in them").

When he lunches out, his favorite stop is just down the street on Ventura Blvd., a place called Fromin's. He orders soup and half a sandwich and is oblivious to the buzz around him ("Hey, there's Johnny Wooden. Doesn't he still look great?").

When people stop by, he treats his guest like the royalty at the table. ("This is the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. I'd like you to meet him.")

On the way out, he points to the empty table near the cashier. It was the favorite table of a longtime customer who died while eating there, and Fromin's has left the table there, unoccupied, with new flowers every day and a commemorative plaque. Wooden likes that sort of perpetuation of a person's memory.

Even now, 23 years after his retirement from UCLA, he is in demand. His telephone rings constantly, and he lets the message machine begin the screening process, but if he is there, he picks it up halfway through the incoming message. While not naive, he is also incurably friendly, remarkably patient and seldom short or gruff with anybody.

"Hi, Coach Wooden, this is Jim Smith from the High Premium and Low Payoff Insurance Company and I was calling to see if you'd be interested in . . . "

"Well, hello, Jim. How are you? I'm not really in the market for any insurance these days, but it was kind of you to call. Thank you so much."

He got a call recently from somebody who wanted a copy of his new book, "WOODEN: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court." The caller said he needed the book right away, so Wooden got one off the shelf, stuffed some padding in the envelope, packaged it up, taped it shut and went out and mailed it. The man had given Wooden a collect Federal Express number, but Wooden fretted that sending the book that way would be much too costly for the caller. It never occurred to him that few Hall of Fame sports figures prepare mailings for strangers.

He has no secretarial help, and when asked how he keeps it all straight, he responds proudly, with a huge smile on his face: "I'll show you." He returns from the tiny study with an 8-by-10 calendar, each day filled in in longhand. "See, I've got you right there. Bill Dwyre at 1 o'clock on the 18th, then changed to the 19th."

February is filled. March looks like it will get even busier. He will be at Monday night's national championship game in San Antonio. Wooden didn't go to the Final Four much after Nell died, but recently he has been attending. "Yes, I agreed to go this year," he says, half regretting that it will stir memories of her, half thrilled to still be part of the excitement.

Then there are appearances for basketball's version of the Heisman, the Wooden Award, plus speeches and appearances for his book and for a bank he represents, all adding up to a pace that would tire a 25-year-old.

"My children are always telling me to slow down," he says, "and I think I'm doing a better job of saying no to things."

Soon, the phone rings, the caller makes a request and Wooden is scribbling on February or March.

*

Wooden took the job at UCLA in 1948 for a salary of $6,000 and soon discovered that his paycheck was being signed by the president of the student association, who also signed the paychecks of the maintenance staff. Since the Associated Students didn't pay into any retirement fund, Wooden earned no retirement benefits during his first 12 years there. So his modest amount of speeches and appearances benefit not only his state of mind but also his state of pocketbook.

"Had I known some of the things about how my check was being handled and about the retirement situation," he says, "I would have never come to UCLA. But I agreed to come. It was my decision, my duty to find out all the things I should have."

His top salary was $32,500, with $8,000 more from postgame radio appearances that averaged about $50 a show. The $32,500 contract was his last at UCLA, given to him after nine national championships. The comparison with Wooden and the current average annual salary of $475,000 for Bruin coach Steve Lavin, 33, who had no head coaching experience before he got the job in 1996, has been made often recently.

But Wooden wants none of that: "These are different times, different economies. I'm very happy for Steve Lavin. I would never begrudge him what he got. I never compare myself to anybody else. My father taught me that. He would always say, 'Don't look back, don't whine, don't complain.'

"So I don't."

*

The head of the Wooden family of Martinsville, Ind., was Joshua Hugh Wooden, who went by Hugh.

He was a farmer who lost the farm in rural Centerton during the Depression. On the farm, there had been no running water and no electricity. Hugh's family included wife Roxie Anna, two girls and four boys. One girl died at birth, the other at age 3. The boys were all athletes, and at one time or another, all would be teachers.

Remaining from the Wooden family (one brother died in 1985 and another in January) is Billy, father of seven, all college graduates, and John Robert, who will say that a large influence in making him the most successful college basketball coach ever was his father.

"My father was not big but a physically strong man," Wooden says. "He was a gentle man, and Mr. Lincoln, my favorite American, said there is nothing stronger than gentleness. When I think of my father, I think of a gentle man.

"I've seen dogs that would scare me to death, and my father would go up to them and they'd just lick his hand.

"I know I'd rather take a whipping than hear him say a bad word to me.

"He'd read to us at night. That's where I first got my love for poetry. I can remember him reading Hiawatha. 'By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water . . . '

"Without a great deal of formal education, he was a high school graduate, a great chess player. And crossword puzzles. You'd get a word on a crossword puzzle, an unusual word, he'd have it. And three weeks later, he would still have that word. Well, I've loved crossword puzzles for a long time, and I work them and get words by working around the other words. Then it will come up the next day and I won't remember it. Dad would always remember.

"He was a kind man. I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody. He always said if you can't say something nice, just keep your mouth shut.

"We lost the farm between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. Dad had decided he wanted to raise hogs. Well, the hogs had been inoculated for cholera, and he got some bad serum. They all died. He never blamed anybody. It was just a decision he made.

"Then he invested a little something in some company that turned out to be crooked, so he lost all that. But he didn't blame anybody. He'd made the decision.

"So we moved [from the farm] into this little town called Martinsville, 30 miles south of Indianapolis. Martinsville was known as the Artesian City and that's because of the Artesian wells. At that time, I think there were seven sanatoriums. Something like Hot Springs, Ark. People would come from Europe and other places, and Dad became a bath attendant. He worked there till he died (in 1960). Never complained about what happened."

*

It is a night in November, a black-tie dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, and John Wooden is to be the featured guest and speaker.

He will share the spotlight on a program that has been advertised as "a night with John Wooden and some of the greatest basketball players in the world." Those basketball players are all in wheelchairs, all with Paralympic and national championship credentials. Outside, guests start filing in for the cocktail party. Inside, while the tables are still being set and the doors are closed to the cocktail party, they come to him, one by one, shyly at first, then surrounding him in tuxedos, cocktail dresses and chairs with wheels.

They are first intimidated, then charmed. Dave Kiley, perhaps the most honored and successful wheelchair athlete in the country, flew all the way from the East to be part of the program. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything," he says. Ruth Nunez, here from Champaign, Ill., and fast becoming Kiley's female counterpart, hangs on every word. "I can't believe I got to meet John Wooden," says she.

Businessman Barry Eichorn is retrieved from the cocktail party. He is a Southern California native as well as a former college basketball player at Pasadena City College and Weber State. He has admired Wooden from afar but never met him. They sit, alone, in this huge ballroom, talking basketball. Afterward, he is asked what they talked about. Eichorn doesn't say much. It's almost as though the conversation, no matter how trivial, is too sacred to repeat.

The dinner, called a Tribute to Courage, is for Casa Colina, a Pomona rehabilitation hospital. During the program, Wooden makes it clear that any courage he has shown in whatever he has done is minuscule compared to that surrounding him onstage. As more than a dozen world-class athletes in wheelchairs are introduced and their achievements chronicled, Wooden looks almost in awe. Later, he says, "I was."

But, as always, it is the almost folksy, homespun philosophy of Wooden that carries the night. He is from the same Midwestern stock that brought us Will Rogers' wit and now brings us John Wooden's wisdom. Interestingly, it is the wisdom of somebody who never met a man he didn't like.

In a quiet way, Wooden is becoming the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency in a sports world that offers less of that all the time.

When the program ends at 10 p.m., the audience is invited to bring Wooden the copies of his book that each attendee has received. He has agreed to do autographs. The line snakes through the ballroom. Wooden signs each meticulously, with personal messages for all that wish one. All do.

At 11:25 p.m., having listened to each story and satisfied each request, Wooden rises stiffly, feeling the effects of hip replacement surgery and a right knee that has almost no cartilage left, and shuffles off for his 45-minute ride home.

Just days later, Casa Colina receives checks totaling nearly $15,000 -- from people who have already paid between $3,000 and $5,000 for a table -- in additional contributions to its wheelchair sports program. Each donor cites the inspiration of Wooden's words, at the banquet or in his book:

* Discipline yourself and others won't need to.

* If I am through learning, I am through.

* What is right is more important than who is right.

* Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life.

* The time to make friends is before you need them.

Wooden's departure from UCLA was sudden, unlike his 1948 arrival and relatively slow march to a national dynasty that began with the first national title in 1964.

It was 1975, NCAA Final Four, San Diego.

"Ten minutes before I decided to retire, I didn't know I was going to do it," Wooden says. "Nobody believes that, but it is true.

"On Saturday night, we played Louisville in the semifinals. A beautiful game. Both teams had similar styles. Both teams played well. Neither team should have lost, but of course the right one did. We won it in overtime, and in many ways we were fortunate to win. There is always more satisfaction in a tight game than in one you run away with.

"I talked to Denny [Louisville Coach Crum] for a few minutes, and then, as I left him, I normally would head for the press conference. But for the first time, I didn't want to go. First time that ever happened to me. The lights were going to be flashing and microphones in my face, and I thought to myself, 'I don't want to do this.' Suddenly, I realized if I feel this way, it's time to get out.

"So I veered off and headed for the dressing room first, and I congratulated my players on the wonderful game they had played. I told them I don't know how we will do Monday night against Kentucky. I think we'll do all right because we are quicker than they are. They are stronger physically, but we are quicker.

"I think we'll be all right. I don't know, but I think so. But regardless of how the game comes out Monday, I want you to know that I've never had a team in all my years of whom I've been more proud. You haven't caused me a problem on or off the court all year long, and I'm just very proud of you. And that's nice to feel about the last team I'll ever coach.

"When I got to the press conference, somebody asked me what I felt about this year's team. Well, that gave the opening and I said what I had said to my players: that I've had more physically talented teams, but I've never had a team that gave me more satisfaction. Now I think we have an excellent chance to win it all, and if we do, no team has ever given me more satisfaction than this last team I'll ever coach."

Just like that, a shocker dropped in the lap of the press and public, moments after dropping it in the lap of his team. Wooden says that athletic director J. D. Morgan spent much of the rest of the night trying to get him to change his mind.

And Wooden says there were some mitigating factors: "Nellie wasn't feeling good, and she was also worried about me, because I'd had some little heart problems.

"And then something else had happened which I haven't really talked about. And I'm not proud of this. It is a weakness on my part. My feelings had been hurt.

"You probably disagree with me, and I understand that. You have a job, and I have a job. I never believed in letting reporters into the locker room after the games. Dressing rooms were small, and if you let one reporter in, you have to let them all in. I always let the press take players outside. You were welcome to take them outside. Players they want, just tell me.

"Well, there had been some conflict about that, and the tournament committee had just passed a rule that you had to let reporters into the dressing room. OK, so the tournament decides, so I'll go along with that. But then the chairman of the tournament committee says, after they pass that rule, 'That'll take care of John Wooden . . . . '

"Now, I don't think they ever had a coach more cooperative with tournament committees. I believe that in my heart. I never missed a meeting, and lots of coaches did. That one thing I disagreed with, but if they say you do it, then you do it. But for him to make that statement -- and it was in all the papers -- it hurt me. That's a weakness on my part. I let it hurt me, and I shouldn't have."

On March 31, 1975, UCLA beat Kentucky, 92-85. It was John Wooden's 10th national title, his last game. Retirement had begun and, as his father had advised years before, Wooden never looked back.

So who was the tournament committee chairman in 1975?

Wooden won't say.

The NCAA tournament record book from 1975 lists Tom Scott of Davidson as the Division I tournament chairman that year.

Wooden won't confirm any name.

"It was my weakness," he says, "my failing."

*

How Wooden wound up at UCLA and stayed there for 27 years is fascinating, almost eerie.

He wanted to be a civil engineer but was told at Purdue that such majors must go to summer engineering camp. Since there were no athletic scholarships in those days, even an All-American such as Wooden was required to pay for his schooling. Wooden needed to work during the summer and couldn't afford to go to engineering camp.

He became an English major.

During World War II, he was a Navy lieutenant about to be shipped out to the USS Franklin, on tour in the Pacific. But on his scheduled departure day, his appendix ruptured, and the man who replaced him on the mission, friend and Purdue quarterback Freddie Stalcup, was killed when a kamikaze pilot scored a damaging hit on the Franklin.

Wooden returned from the war and took a job teaching English at South Bend Central High School. He says he would have been content to stay there forever, teaching English until retirement. But he didn't like the way some of his teaching colleagues were being moved around in their jobs upon their return from military service. On principle, he started looking around at other things, including a basketball coaching job at Indiana State.

He took that, was very successful in two seasons and became a hot prospect for a job at a bigger school. The job he liked most was at Minnesota, since it was close to home and a Big Ten school. Others were in the running, including UCLA, which had just suffered through a 12-13 season under coach Wilbur Johns. Minnesota officials had promised they would call at a certain time, but a snowstorm had knocked down some power lines and they were about half an hour late with their job offer. By then, UCLA had called, and Wooden had accepted.

*

Upon retirement, Wooden needed to look no farther than Southern California for the next chapter.

"My father always told me to hold sacred my faith, family and friends," he says. "I always put family first, even though your faith probably should be."

He has two children, James Hugh Wooden and Nancy Ann Muehlhausen, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

"I am blessed," he says. "They are all right here in Southern California, right here around me."

They are all a daily reminder of Nell, who lived for the first 10 years of his retirement and who inspired yet another of Wooden's maxims: The best thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

*

Wooden never played favorites with his basketball team, and he won't with his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But there is a special corner in his heart for a great-grandchild named Cameron.

Cameron Trapani is 4 1/2. He had a stroke in the womb about five months into his mother's pregnancy. Doctors didn't think he'd live, and he had to survive heart surgery at age 1 1/2. Today, his disabilities remain severe.

Cameron's mother is Cathleen Amy Trapani, one of Muehlhausen's three daughters. "I am so proud of Cathleen Amy," Wooden says. "When she found out how severely disabled Cameron would be, she went very quickly from 'Why me?' to 'Why not me?' "

Wooden carries copies of a poem he found and gave to Cathleen Amy, something she can pick up and read as needed. Wooden sits down and reads it just about every time he comes home from visiting Cameron. It was written by Lou Franchini and is called "Heaven's Special Child."

*

A meeting was held quite far from earth:

"It's time again for another birth,"

Said the angels to the Lord above.

"This special child will need much love.

"His progress may seem very slow,

"Accomplishments he may not show,

"And he'll require extra care

"From the folks he meets way down there.

"He may not run or laugh or play,

"His thoughts may seem quite far away.

"In many ways he won't adapt,

"And he'll be known as handicapped.

"So let's be careful where he's sent.

"We want his life to be content.

"Please, Lord, find the parents who

"Will do a special job for you.

"They will not realize right away.

"The leading role they're asked to play.

"But with this child sent from above,

"Come stronger faith and richer love.

"And soon they'll know the privilege given

"In caring for this gift from Heaven.

"Their previous charge, so meek and mild,

"Is Heaven's very special child."

*

I am finished now. we have spent hours together, him talking and me taping. I have no more questions, no more tape, no more pretense to stay here and soak up more of the gospel of life according to John Wooden.

My real world awaits my return. There are hockey players with fire extinguishers and basketball coaches with chairs to throw. I have just spent some of the best hours of my life with a man of little means and so much left to give, and I return to reporting on millionaires with so much left to take.

And so we leave his condo.

On Oct. 14, 2000, he will be 90 years old. Yet he walks me out, shuffling alongside and making sure the gate is open and that I can find my way comfortably. My comfort is his.

As I drive away, I remember something he told me weeks ago, a quote from Mother Teresa that he found meaningful: "A life not lived for others is not a life."

And I find myself wondering if there really is another one like him out there, or if this really is as good as it gets.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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