In my home I have an expansive trophy case filled with a variety of sports memorabilia and collectibles that I have assembled over the years.
The stash includes a large number of Mickey Mantle and Yankees items, a baseball collection, signed photos, plaques, baseball bats and other trinkets.
In the very front of the middle shelf is a seemingly unremarkable item that means as much to me as all the other memorabilia combined.
Looking at the display, one might not even notice the small 2-by-3 1/2 -inch laminated card propped up close to the glass. The card was given to me by legendary former UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, and I cherish it.
Wooden’s passing at 99 on Friday made me think of the item he had personally handed me in 2005. So, when I got home from work Friday night, I went to the case and pulled it out.
The card, “Timeless Wisdom from a Godly Father” has a small picture of Wooden, as well as a small picture of his father, Joshua. It is also signed by the coach.
What the card contains, however, is what is most important. It includes words of wisdom that we can all live our lives better by following.
On the front it lists the “Two sets of Threes": Never lie, never cheat, never steal, don’t wine, don’t complain and don’t make excuses.”
On the reverse side it contains a poem by Henry Van Dyke — “Four things a man must learn to do if he would make his life more true: To think without confusion clearly. To love his fellow man sincerely. To act from honest motives purely. To trust in God and Heaven securely.”
Lastly, the card contains a seven-point creed: “1. Be true to yourself. 2. Help others. 3. Make each day your masterpiece. 4. Drink deeply from the good books — especially the Bible. 5. Make friendship a fine art. 6. Build shelter against a rainy day (faith in God). 7. Pray for guidance and counsel and give thanks for your blessings each day.”
These are some of the words and beliefs that Wooden lived his life by. And it was those strong beliefs, along with his selfless character and his dedication to his fellow man, that made the coach one of the most beloved figures in the history of American sport.
I had the opportunity to meet Wooden in 2005 when I was granted a one-on-one interview with the legend.
I was honored to be given the opportunity to talk with the coach. The meeting was set up by Bellarmine-Jefferson High’s Dennis Ryan, a close friend of Wooden’s.
Wooden was scheduled to be Burbank to make an appearance at St. Francis Xavier School. He talked to students and read from his children’s book “Inch and Miles.”
I accompanied Ryan to pick up the coach to Wooden’s modest condominium in Encino. I thought I would wait in the car for Ryan to go up and bring down the coach for the car ride. However, much to my surprise I was invited into his home.
When I entered, I was overwhelmed with what I saw. Nine decades of his involvement in basketball was displayed on walls adorned with plaques, certificates and proclamations, along with tables filled with awards. There was enough there to fill a museum.
On the drive from Encino to Burbank, I was able to pick the brain of one of the sharpest and most influential figures in modern sport.
We touched upon an array of subjects, from the day’s young athletes, to his love for poetry and baseball, to some of the fondest memories in his life.
Coming up often in the conversation was his beloved wife, Nell, who passed away in 1985. The two were married for 53 years.
God also played a prominent place in the interview, and it was obvious that Wooden had a profound faith and unwavering love of the Lord.
Along with his uncanny recollections — some of which went back more than 50 years — I was struck by Wooden’s wit and his surprising sense of humor.
I can truly say it was the most enjoyable interview I have had in my journalistic career.
Although I had just a brief encounter with the coach, I can see why those who come to know him have such a deep and profound respect for Wooden. I for one, know I am a better person for having met the coach.