Nell Wooden, the wife of former UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, died Thursday at St. Vincent Medical Center after a long illness. She was 73.
Wooden, 74, was at her bedside when she died.
Funeral services will be private, according to a UCLA spokesman, who also said that the family would appreciate donations to the Los Angeles Heart Institute at St. Vincent Medical Center, rather than flowers.
The Woodens were married after John’s graduation from Purdue in 1932, but their relationship dated back to high school in Martinsville, Ind., where John was a basketball star and Nell was first a trumpet player and then a cheerleader. The story is that Nell faked her way into the band just to watch Wooden play. She’d march in with the team, holding the trumpet to her lips, never blowing a note.
They became a close couple, and Nell was a fixture in the stands wherever Wooden or his teams played. Before every game, Wooden would find her in the seats and they would exchange special greetings.
While Wooden coached at UCLA, winning 10 NCAA titles in 27 years, Nell was even a common sight at coaching conventions.
Later, when she became ill, Wooden planned his activities around her. Still in demand as a speaker and still involved in his instructional camps, Wooden made sure that he spent as much time as possible with her. Last year, for instance, Wooden traveled to New York for a speech on an Eastern swing that included his presentation of the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s Wooden Award in North Carolina several days later. Wooden flew back to Los Angeles between events to spend the extra night with his wife.
This year’s award was announced March 10 during halftime of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship at Atlanta, but Wooden did not make the trip. He remained at Nell’s bedside. In his place, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith announced that Chris Mullin of St. John’s had won the award.
Nell Wooden’s medical problems began in August, 1982, when a degenerative bone disease led to surgery for a double hip replacement. She suffered cardiac arrest during surgery, then had a second heart attack immediately after surgery and lapsed into a coma.
The coma lasted 93 days, but she recovered enough to attend the NCAA tournament in Seattle last year, her first in three years after having made 35 straight with her husband. Wooden once said when asked about the string, “Wouldn’t go without her.”
Said current UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard, who played for Wooden in the early 1960s: “I will always remember the great relationship they had.”
The Woodens’ daughter, Nancy, recently said: “I’ve known a lot of married people, and I’ve always said what they (her parents) had was rare. It’s like they were one person, and totally devoted to each other and the family.”
In addition to Nancy, the Woodens had three other children, a daughter, Anne, and two sons, James and Hugh.