Remembering John Wooden: Swen Nater says thank you with poetry


Of the untold number of deep relationships forged between John Wooden and his players, his friendship with former center Swen Nater stood out.

Theirs was a friendship not just of respect and reverence, but also of rhyme.

During the last dozen years, Nater sent his coach roughly 120 poems he composed, most of which were inspired by something Wooden had taught him at UCLA.

“You try to give back to a teacher if you can,” said Nater, 60, now a Costco executive. “He gave you so much, and it’s difficult for a student to give back to a teacher. You can’t give him an apple; it’s too late for that.

“The best thing you can give them is to show them you learned something. That’s the most valuable thing to them. That’s the reason I wrote these things and sent them to him.”

Wooden, a onetime English teacher, was so enamored of the poems that he committed many to memory, and kept them in a binder on the desk in his home office. Often, when reporters and friends stopped by his Encino condominium, Wooden would conclude the visit by reading selections of Nater’s poetry.

The first of those poems, “I Saw Love Once,” was written as a Christmas present in 1998. Wooden received the others periodically, and sometimes as frequently as two per week. Often, he’d help edit them, and, as fond as he was of them, he wasn’t always effusive in his praise.

Recalled Nater with a laugh: “I’d call him and said, ‘What did you think?’ and he’d say, ‘I liked it.’ Then I’d say, ‘Did you really?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I just said I liked it. You want to hear it twice?’ ”

Nater has either written or cowritten five books on basketball, among them “You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices.” He’s also a featured speaker and conducts basketball clinics around the country.

The 6-foot-11 Nater played at UCLA from 1970-73, redshirting his first year after transferring from Cypress College. Even though he was backup to All-American Bill Walton, Nater was selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He went on to spend a combined 12 seasons in the American Basketball Assn. and NBA, distinguishing himself as a particularly strong rebounder.

“One thing [Wooden] never did was compare us to someone else,” Nater said. “He’d never say, ‘Swen, why can’t you do that like Bill?’ He’d never do that. But he would challenge you and get on you.

“One time I wasn’t understanding something in practice and he said, ‘Coach [Gary] Cunningham, take Swen to a separate basket. I can’t watch this anymore.’ He knew me well enough to know that I would work my butt off to get back into the practice. That was the right thing to do. It wasn’t discouraging.”

Nater said he applied the same strategy in raising his two daughters, now in their 30s.

“I basically took the way he treated me in practice and away from the court and just did the same with my kids,” he said. “The respect, the high expectations, the never giving up. When you do something stupid, not laughing at you. I just applied it all. Because I felt good. He made me feel important. He made me feel smart. He made me feel a part of a group.”

Likewise, Nater is meticulous in trying to emulate Wooden when conducting coaching clinics and delivering his speech on the coach’s “Pyramid of Success.”

“When I conduct my clinics, I do my practices exactly the same way that he did,” he said. “Every second is accounted for. Only a few water breaks. It’s extremely planned out, it’s systematic.

“When I do my speech, I actually listened to his entire speech on the pyramid and copied and took notes on exactly what he did and why I thought it was effective. It works really well.”

Apparently, the men taught each other. Perhaps inspired by Nater, Wooden tried his hand at poetry and sent this to his player-turned-friend:

At times when I am feeling low,

I hear from a friend and then,

My worries start to go away, and

I am on the mend.

No matter what the doctors say, and

Their studies never end,

The best cure of all, when spirits fall, is

A kind word from a friend.



I saw love once, I saw it clear.

It had no leash; it had no fear.

It gave itself without a thought.

No reservation had it bought.

It seemed so free to demonstrate.

It seemed obsessed to orchestrate,

A symphony, designed to feed,

Composed to lift the one in need.

Concern for others was its goal,

No matter what would be the toll.

It’s strange just how much care it stores,

To recognize its neighbor’s sores,

And doesn’t rest until the day,

It’s helped to take those sores away.

Its joy retains and does not run,

Until the blessing’s job is done.

I saw love once; ‘twas not pretend.

He was my coach; he is my friend.


Now that you’re home with your Nellie,

In peace and sweet bliss up above,

Your precepts still teach,

And your axioms preach,

Of a decency, wisdom, and love.

Now that you’re home with your Nellie,

You’re still teaching us fathers and mothers.

Your words, they still ring,

And your truths, they still sing,

Of a life that’s best lived for others.

Now that you’re home with your Nellie,

And I mourn with a joy and a tear,

Through your teachings, I’ll try,

Till we meet in the sky,

To become a John Wooden down here.