Above all else, John Wooden's selflessness stands out

Every generation needs its Socrates, and now ours is gone.

John Wooden coached us through life, and we learned a few things about basketball along the way too.

As he got older of body, he got younger of mind. He never yelled, but when he spoke, the room fell silent. He told us things that didn't slap us in the face, but crept slowly into our hearts and minds until, fully absorbed, we understood.

In life, he was both an inspiration and a crutch. As rotten as things could get, as much as evil and cheating and laziness prevailed, there was always Wooden to look to for hope and guidance. He was our 11th Commandment.

His dedication to his wife, Nell, went beyond love to such a high emotional strata that few can comprehend. When she died, and when his children, Nan and Jim, came from the hospital to the door of his condominium in Encino, he opened the door, saw them and moaned, "No, no, no, no …"

That was 1985. John and Nell had been married for 53 years. That same year, great-granddaughter Cori Nicholson was born. When she was 4, she saw how sad her grandpa was and told him that when she got older, she would buy him an airplane, so he could fly up and see mommy.

Cori is 24 now. In August, she will have the first great-great-grandchild of John and Nell Wooden. John got to rub Cori's belly and hoped to see "little Charlie" in person. The next milestone would have been Oct. 14, his 100th birthday.

As he aged, he battled for his independence. He kept driving his 1989 Ford Taurus, but mostly to breakfast down the street. Nan and Jim struggled to balance caring for him and allowing him that independence. Nan persuaded him to wear a device that would allow him to push a button and call for help, if in distress.

Helping with Wooden, right to the moment of his death, was UCLA trainer Tony Spino, a guardian angel who was with him often and regularly. Early one morning, Spino showed up and saw Wooden on the floor, where he had been for several hours after slipping during the night. He got him up and asked him why he hadn't pushed the medical-alert button. The answer was the words of a proud and stubborn man.

"I promised Nan I'd wear it," he said, "but I never promised I'd use it."

Had paramedics arrived before Spino, they would have seen a note on the refrigerator: Do not resuscitate. Why, after all, delay the reunion with Nell?

Wooden was in his late 80s when he was asked to speak at a reunion of players from the Walt Hazzard championship team he had coached. The room was packed. Hazzard was in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke. The entire team showed up and stood with Hazzard on the stage. It could have been maudlin, but Wooden took care of that. They handed him a microphone and he walked from player to player, saying something about each. He had been their taskmaster. Now he was their narrator. Each player was praised for strengths and kidded for weaknesses. It was warm, and funny. The quips were quick and gentle. Many of the players were wide-eyed. Their disciplinarian father figure had become Jay Leno.

A few years later, a small group of counselors from Santa Ana College waited in a hotel meeting room in Laguna Beach. They had been told that John Wooden was coming to speak, but they didn't believe it. He walked in as if it were a General Motors keynote speech, then spent the next hour talking about how important teachers are. Basketball was little discussed. The trip home took almost two hours in traffic. He had a cold and said he felt bad that it had kept him from speaking longer. He apologized for nodding off in the car. His speaking fee had been chocolate chip cookies, and a few days later he called to make sure the word was passed to the baker that they had been the best he ever had.

When you visited, for as long as he was able, he would walk you to your car, or at least to the condominium elevator. Your comfort level was his primary concern.

Until recent years, when the phone rang in his apartment, he would let the answering machine take it and then, invariably, feel guilty about doing such a selfish thing as screening calls. It didn't matter who it was, even after the caller indentified himself. One day, he took a call from an aluminum siding salesman and spent five minutes explaining that he lived in a condo and didn't make building decisions, but that he appreciated how hard the man worked at his job and wished him well.

Wooden liked to have lunch at Fromin's on Ventura Boulevard, just minutes from his condo. Once seated, he would spot people he knew, call them to the table and introduce his lunch companion as if he were the king of England. He was John Wooden, the star, the big name. But not in his mind.

He always knew what he was doing, and why. A few years ago, at NCAA tournament time, he told a reporter during an interview that he thought Ben Howland's UCLA team played better defense than any of his teams had. The reporter printed the comment, then called Howland to tell him that he didn't need to win any NCAA titles, that his career had just been made.

In 99 years, you can touch a lot of people. Wooden's compassion, more than his longevity, achieved that. He touched Terry Donahue, one of the most successful football coaches in college history while at UCLA.

It is almost midnight, barely five hours after Wooden died. Donahue is on the phone, and in his sorrow, he's got it right.

"So, what do we do now?" Donahue says. "How do we replace a man like that?

The answer says the same thing as the moisture on this computer keyboard.

We don't.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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