A VISIT WITH JOHN WOODEN : He Walks Alone With His Memories

Times Staff Writer

Almost every morning, just as daylight begins to brighten the color of the leaves on the Eucalyptus trees lining the sidewalk closest to his front door, John Wooden sets out on a 5-mile walk.

The route he takes is always the same: White Oak to Burbank, up Burbank to Balboa Park, through the park, up Balboa to Ventura and back home. He could probably walk his path with his eyes closed, because in 17 years, it has never varied.

Each morning, John Wooden walks alone, a 78-year-old man alone with his thoughts. Sometimes he recites Biblical quotations as he makes his way. Sometimes he says a favorite poem or verse aloud, but only if no one is around.

There is a chance that a tree or a flower or a bird or a cloud might give him an idea for a poem. Maybe he will include it in the book of poetry he is writing for his children, their children and their children.

Each morning, the greatest college basketball coach who ever lived, the sport's greatest perfectionist, studies the imperfect world through which he walks and thinks about writing some of it down.

"Recently, I got an idea for a poem from geese flying above me," Wooden said. "I've learned that you just can't sit down and write a poem. It must flow. Something has to hit you."

But this morning is different.

It is not like any of the other mornings Wooden has taken his walk. Something hit him 4 years ago this very morning.

It was Christmas morning that Wooden took Nell, his wife of 52 years, to the hospital. She was a fighter, that smart Irish girl, but she couldn't beat cancer. Nell Wooden, 73, John Wooden's sweetheart for 60 years, died 3 months later.

Because Christmas will never be the same, neither will Wooden, who sits in a comfortable armchair that Nell chose in a room that Nell decorated in a condominium that Nell wanted. Wooden said he will never change it.

A dark-stained wood cart with silver tea service rests against one wall. On the kitchen table, next to a dish of jellybeans and candy, a small wooden stand holds a card with a quotation from Socrates:

I pray Thee, O God ,

That I may be beautiful within .

The Christmas memories that come rushing back to Wooden are sometimes painful ones.

"It's a hard time for me," he said. "It was 4 years ago that we rushed her to the hospital and she never got out. So that's always kind of a hard time thinking about that, in connection with a time that should be a beautiful time, a joyous time, Christmas.

"But at Christmas, I think of her even more."

Nearly 3 months into his 78th year, Wooden has slowed his pace somewhat. Arthritic knees have affected his gait, for which he apologizes, but he still covers ground quicker than those many years younger. Wooden has taken vessel dilator pills every 4 hours since he had a heart attack in 1973, but he seems remarkably spry and relishes his fitness.

Last summer, Wooden decided that he would no longer develop and run the program in his basketball camps, the John Wooden Basketball Fundamentals Camp. But he has recently changed his mind. The owner of the camps that bear Wooden's name agreed to provide an annuity for the college education of Wooden's 2 great-grandchildren if Wooden agreed to one youth camp and one adult camp.

Wooden continues to be much in demand as a speaker. He has no secretary and not only answers his own correspondence, but also books his speaking engagements. Wooden says he has cut down on them, especially those that involve a great deal of travel, although he is a favorite at many coaching clinics.

And why not? Wooden coached for 27 years at UCLA and had 27 winning seasons. His teams won 620 games, 19 conference titles and 10 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships, 7 of them consecutively, from 1967-1973.

He announced his retirement during the 1975 NCAA tournament, which UCLA eventually won, just after the Bruins had defeated Louisville in overtime in the semifinals. Wooden was 64. He walked into the locker room and stunned his players with 3 words: "I'm bowing out."

Wooden had decided to retire the previous December and his plan was not really a well kept secret, but until he made it official, there was always a little doubt. Actually, Wooden had wanted to quit after the previous season, but Nell talked him out of it.Such was her power that she could change the mind of the most successful coach in the history of college basketball.

All those victories, piled one atop another as memories in Wooden's plaque-lined study, apparently meant more to others than to him. Wooden said he never really preached winning. What he sought, he said, was effort; something a bit less tangible, with less of a hard edge to it.

"The general conception of what winning is, is wrong," he said. "I felt on occasions, very, very sincerely, that we may have out-scored someone and I felt in reality we really lost.

"One of my favorite quotes is, well, Cervantes said it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Well, I sort of equated that . . . I always, from the beginning, enjoyed planning my practices and conducting my practices more than I did the games."

Ralph Drollinger, a center on Wooden's last UCLA team, the 1975 national champion, had great appreciation for Wooden practices, which is rare for a player, especially when that player is a center.

"(Wooden practices) were like a symphony," Drollinger said. "Starts off hard, goes up and really flows."

Wooden said he wouldn't mind making more music, even now.

"I'd like to today--today, right now--I'd like to have a basketball team and have them all week long, plan the practices, have the practices and then the weekend when they play the game, go up in the stands and observe whether I did any good during the week.

"You see, my definition of success is peace of mind. That can be obtained only in self-satisfaction, in knowing you made the effort to do the best you are capable of doing. And you're the only one who will know."

On Wooden's 65th birthday, Oct. 14, 1975, the first season of his retirement, 6,800 fans paid $5 apiece to honor him. He was given a powder-blue Mercedes-Benz, a gold watch with 10 diamonds and a ring with 10 diamonds. The diamonds represented the 10 NCAA titles UCLA won under Wooden.

Wooden has had 13 birthdays since, but he insists he is no different now, as the man walking alone on his 5-mile treks, than the man who won so many games in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

Never a smoker nor a drinker, Wooden once derided the way of professional sports when he objected to their manner of celebrating victory: pouring champagne over each others' heads.

"I think my values are the same as before," he said. "One of the things I am the proudest of--when I was coaching, a lot of people said I was the same after we had won a lot of championships as I had been before we won any. I hoped I wouldn't change."

He said he tried never to bring his work home with him, so Nell wouldn't ever see if he were affected by it. There were priorities, well established, that were important for him.

"Family, Lord, profession," Wooden said. "And that's not the order it should be, but I think No. 2 understands."

Every game he coached, Wooden held a small metal cross in his hand. With his fingers wrapped around it, no one could see what he held. A minister Wooden knew had given him the cross in 1942 before Wooden entered the Navy. The cross, worn smooth from constant rubbing, has the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet, inscribed at two of its ends. The sun and the moon are at the other two ends.

Since Wooden does not coach anymore, the cross has other uses.

"Now, I keep it in my hand whenever I'm speaking," he said. "As you can see, it's kind of worn down. I always carried it in my left hand at games, but nobody knew it. It gave me a certain peace, a serenity."

The first year after Nell died, there was little peace and certainly scant serenity for Wooden. He withdrew. For a year, he went through what he called "a very rough time." Wooden said he became something of a recluse until his family, principally daughter Nan, urged him to become involved again.

Wooden said he is close to his extended family of two children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

This is the family that will receive his book of poetry when he completes it. The collection will include 100 poems, 20 of them on family, 20 on nature, 20 on faith, 20 on patriotism and 20 on various subjects. The book of poetry will not be for sale, since it is meant only for the enjoyment of his family.

Besides Nan, who lives in Reseda, Wooden has a son, James, who lives in Irvine. James Wooden has 4 children. Nan Muehlhausen has 2 daughters who have given Wooden great-grandchildren Cori, 3, and James, 2. Last week, Wooden spent 2 afternoons with Cori and on another day, went to the Christmas program at James' preschool.

" 'L is for love,' that was his line," Wooden said. "Well, he said it early, so when his time came, he's looking around and says, 'I'm John.' "

The love of Wooden's life walked into his world in the 1920s in Martinsville, Ind., where John Wooden was a high school basketball star and Nell Riley played the trumpet. Then she became a cheerleader at Wooden's games and the two soon became inseparable.

Just before every game, Wooden's high school coach would gather the players around him in a semicircle for last-minute instructions. Wooden would position himself where he would be facing Nell. When the coach was through, Wooden looked at Nell in the stands and she would give him an OK sign. Wooden would wink or nod or smile back at her.

"Well, that continued all through my playing days and all through my coaching days," he said. "Habit? I don't know. But I missed it if it wasn't there."

Every night for the last 4 years, Wooden has spoken to his wife. Every Sunday morning, he visits the cemetery where she is buried. Although he lives in the condo they bought in Encino in 1974, Wooden still goes to the same church in Santa Monica that he and Nell began attending when they moved from Indiana almost 40 years ago.

"Since I lost her, I certainly wouldn't change membership," he said.

Wooden still drives a car, but tries to avoid trips at night. He eats only twice a day, after his 5-mile walk and again in the middle of the afternoon, often at cafeterias. He is a frequent visitor for dinner with one of his family, who have stepped in to fill the empty spaces of time that Nell Wooden once occupied with wit and wisdom and strength.

Life now is different than it was before, not so very long ago, although it seems that way, Wooden said.

"It's peaceful," he said.

"Satisfying? Relatively satisfying. In some ways, since losing Nellie and because we were so close--sweethearts for 60 years, married for almost 53--some things change.

"For example, since losing her, I lost all fear of death. None at all. No fear in any way, because I know now that that's the only possibility I have of ever being reunited. So instead of fearing it, I look forward to it. But my life, since losing her, is for my children, as she would want."

Nan said that when Wooden visits her family this morning, they will certainly talk about the wife and mother who left them that last time 4 years ago this very day. They will remember her goodness, Nan said, think about the happiness she brought into this world and give thanks for her marriage to a former basketball player at Purdue. It's probably not going to be all that easy for her father, Nan said.

"You know, when one's gone, it's like a lot of the other is missing, too," she said. "But when you think about my father and my mother, there are not too many people that are aware that such a devotion of one to another can even exist. Unfortunately, that's rare."

A rare one, too, in our midst, is John Robert Wooden. So Christmas Day comes to college basketball's living icon, its model of coaching greatness and clear voice of teaching authority. He has much to think about today.

And maybe tomorrow he will take his 5-mile walk with a clearer head. There are still more trees to ponder and poems to be written. His great-grandchildren are waiting.

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