John Wooden’s life was a love letter
To say it is a sad day would be to risk meeting him again, and getting that look from John Wooden.
To say it is a time to be happy might not sound right, but you could hear the anticipation in his voice about this very day whenever he spoke about the chance to reunite with Nellie Riley, the love of his life.
He meant so much to so many, but it was the only girl he ever dated and then married who meant the most to him -- a love letter written from husband to wife on the 21st of every month to mark her death.
On the table in his condo is a stack of inspirational sayings, which are designed to reveal a new passage every day. But it has been 25 years since anyone turned the page, Nellie the last to do so before going to the hospital and never returning.
“It says, ‘Oh Lord, make me beautiful within,”’ Wooden said in recounting the inspirational reading that still sits there today. “She was beautiful within.”
And so was he, a marvel late into life until losing his independence -- his 1989 Taurus disabled so he would not be tempted to drive it, and then requiring 24-hour help at home.
Two years ago this month, his tireless caretaker, Tony Spino, wheeled him onto the Nokia Theatre stage, Wooden none too happy because he wanted to walk out with Vin Scully.
Billed as “Scully & Wooden For the Kids” to raise money for sick children, it was also a night for many in Los Angeles to say goodbye to Wooden between the laughs and his countless words of inspiration.
He was 97 at the time, sharp, witty, and to the surprise of some who may not have known him beyond his public persona, eager to tease as he had done his whole life.
At one point he scooted forward and almost out of his wheelchair to teach Robert, a 12-year-old cancer survivor, how to put his socks and shoes on. At one point, it was as if everyone in the audience was leaning forward with him as he tried to tie the youngster’s shoes.
He talked that evening about courting Nellie while they were together in high school, although his coach had a rule that no dating was allowed during the season.
When asked about religiously breaking that rule, Wooden said, “I’d hardly call it religiously.”
And what would he have done as a coach if one of his players had done the same thing?
“Depends on what kind of player he was, of course” he said with a twinkle.
Ten months shy of turning 100, “ninety-nine is a long time too,” he rasped with a hint of exasperation between Wooden Classic basketball games this past December, he’s no longer with us.
In the next few days there will be all kinds of stories about the legendary basketball coach, the games, players, and great memories. Someone will refer to him as the “Wizard of Westwood,” and he just hated being called that -- a little dismayed upon the dedication two years ago to find it prominently noted on his plaque in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
They will praise him for being the best coach of all time, although teaching is what he loved the most. He began his career as a high school English teacher, honored later when Aliso High in Reseda became known as “John R. Wooden High.”
They will credit him with saying, “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” and “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Some will recall being scolded: “Kids? What are kids?” he would sternly say. “Baby goats, aren’t they? Try to remember you’re talking about children.”
They will talk about all the championships he won, yet his most treasured prize sits in a small box at home, a medal marking his academic accomplishments at Purdue.
They will dust off the Pyramid of Success, and he would like that.
They will quote any number of important people talking about how much they admired Wooden, which more often than not made him uncomfortable. He preferred to quote others.
“A life not lived for others is not a life,” he would often say in repeating something said by Mother Teresa, the person in his lifetime he admired the most.
He was a student of Abraham Lincoln and worshipped his own father, suggesting everyone’s mother and father should be first on the list to be revered.
All his life he carried his father’s seven-point creed with him in his wallet, one of his father’s maxims best explaining John Wooden’s entire life: “Make each day your masterpiece.”
I will recall his wicked sense of humor, our arguments over tattoos, and the first NCAA tournament bracket he ever filled out ÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â‚– as wrong as the rest of us.
I will also treasure our little jokes about mixing up Sally Rand the stripper with Sally Ride the astronaut, and the mock outrage for naming a post office after someone who drank moonshine during Prohibition.
He did not take himself as seriously as everyone else did, a quick quip as much a part of his repertoire as his words of wisdom.
I will remember the minutes just prior to Scully & Wooden, getting a frantic call to join him, his family and mine in his Nokia Theatre dressing room.
He had a beautifully wrapped box on his lap, UCLA colors, and he appeared so serious. The room went quiet as he gave this marvelous speech about getting the opportunity to be with Scully and help sick kids.
“On behalf of the Wooden family,” he said with a grin beginning at each corner of his mouth, “we would like to present this to you as a token of our appreciation.”
Inside the box was the hideous singing bass that my daughter and I have jokingly traded over the years, Wooden visibly thrilled to be in on the family one-upmanship, and delighted he had played his part to perfection.
Who knew the man who inspires almost pope-like treatment could be so devilish?
I will also recall the end of that evening, Scully graciously stepping aside so Wooden might sit center stage, 7,000 admirers standing, applauding and so unlike Los Angeles -- in no hurry to leave.
And he loved it, almost giddy afterward, a competitor for one more night, pulling the very best he had to offer out of himself at age 97, and giving everyone a show.
Scully, who called Wooden earlier this week, is urging Fox Sports Prime Ticket to air the Scully & Wooden event again. A Prime Ticket spokesman said it will run Monday night after the Dodgers-Cardinals game.
There will be all kinds of personal remembrances from one end of the country to the other, some as simple and as powerful as something written in one of his books and what it has meant to someone.
But maybe it’s really Nellie, Nellie’s memory and his love for his wife more than anything that explains Wooden’s legacy, or John Bob, as his wife of 53 years called him.
Wooden lived what he preached, as sound a road map as anyone might want to follow, and while obviously in no hurry to die, he did so at peace with the prospect of even happier days ahead with the woman he loved.
A few years back, moved by such devotion, one of his former players, Swen Nater, put it in a poem, “Yonder,” which Wooden recited from memory near the end of Scully & Wooden.
Once I was afraid of dying.
Terrified of ever-lying.
Petrified of leaving family, home and friends.
Thoughts of absence from my dear ones,
Drew a melancholy tear once.
And a lonely, dreadful fear of when life ends.
But those days are long behind me;
Fear of leaving does not bind me.
And departure does not host a single care.
Peace does comfort as I ponder,
A reunion in the Yonder,
With my dearest who is waiting for me there.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.