Column: It’s the little things that made John Wooden so legendary that we so miss
My last visit with John Wooden took place in a cluttered San Fernando Valley condo with shag carpeting, a broken bedroom television and no internet.
The greatest coach in basketball history lived there.
My last visit with John Wooden was set up by dialing his listed home phone number because he had no cell. He confirmed our appointment by scribbling my name on a calendar because he had no secretary.
The greatest teacher in sports history was never paid than $32,500 a year.
My last visit with John Wooden on the occasion of his 90th birthday ended not with a handshake or hug, but verse. Before walking alongside me to his front door, he read a line from a poem.
“If death should beckon me with an outstretched hand, and whisper softly of ‘an unknown land,’ I shall not be afraid to go.”
On the 10-year anniversary of his death, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden remains a legendary figure to so many, especially his family.
Even as he prepared for the end, John Wooden moved about this world with warm simplicity, uncommon dignity and unceasing grace. There was always one more lesson to impart, one more bit of inspiration to endow, one more poem to share.
On this 10th anniversary of the death of a 99-year-old man forever known as simply “Coach,” it is instructive to know that Wooden would have cringed at his national obituary. The first sentence in the Associated Press story used a nickname he hated as much as that sweet soul could hate.
“Wizard of Westwood,” the wire service called him, and upon reading that he would have banged his rolled-up program against his thigh in frustration.
“I hate being called a wizard,” he told me once. “I am not a wizard.”
He was a high school English teacher. He was a country preacher. He was a homespun philosopher. His angriest invective was, “Goodness gracious sakes alive!”
Coach steered UCLA to a record 10 NCAA titles, twice as many as any other men’s coach, including a mind-boggling seven straight.
He also drove a 15-year-old Ford Taurus.
“I think being famous is somebody who did something good for mankind,” he said. “Mother Teresa was famous. Nobel Prize winners are famous. Basketball coaches aren’t famous.”
The story of his Hollywood arrival was famously odd. Wooden took the job at UCLA only because of a Midwestern snowstorm.
It was 1948, and Wooden was a small-town Indiana kid coaching at Indiana State and hoping to stay in the middle of the country by joining the University of Minnesota. But a blizzard knocked down some power lines and delayed the Gophers’ offer by about 30 minutes. By the time they finally called, Wooden had already agreed to join the Bruins.
In 1975, he retired under equally legendary circumstances. It was immediately after UCLA had defeated Louisville in the national semifinals. On the spot, he decided he’d had enough. He told the media that the title game against Kentucky would be his last. His farewell tour lasted one day. UCLA won that game, and he was gone.
During his tenure, he ruled with pearls of wisdom found in both his legendary Pyramid of Success and Seven-Point Creed, but his favorite sayings can best be described with a brown paper bag.
When Luke Walton was growing up, his father Bill would decorate his school lunch bags with Wooden’s tiny philosophies.
One day the bag might read, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
The next day it might read, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn was an assistant for the Broncos when he had lunch with John Wooden in 2000. What the legendary UCLA coach said has stuck with Lynn to this day.
Luke, who went on to play for and coach the Lakers, acknowledged, “My dad is like, a real Wooden freak.”
Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the two biggest stars who were greatly affected by Wooden. Abdul-Jabbar wrote a book about their relationship called, “Coach Wooden and Me.” Walton, meanwhile, gives speeches about how Wooden taught him to tie his shoes.
During my last visit with Wooden, the phone rang, the answering machine picked up, and suddenly there was a familiar voice singing “Happy Birthday.” The caller finished the song, said he was calling from Australia, and kept talking as if he knew it would take the aging Wooden a few minutes to shuffle to the phone. Sure enough, Wooden eventually made it to the machine and picked up.
“Bill, Bill, I love you too,” he said to Walton.
Coach wasn’t perfect. His UCLA tenure was not all pretty. His teams were shadowed by the presence of businessman Sam Gilbert, who violated numerous NCAA rules by funding the activities of many UCLA stars while Wooden was the coach.
There was never any evidence that Wooden knew what was happening, but there were always suspicions that he surely had hints, and one day several years before Wooden’s death, longtime Times sports editor and columnist Bill Dwyre gave him a chance to set the record straight.
Over breakfast, Dwyre told Wooden that his obituaries would all contain the name, “Sam Gilbert,” and that this was his chance to control the narrative.
“I said, ‘Tell me right now, what you knew, what you saw, and I will write the story, and that will be the database everyone uses when you die,’ ” Dwyre recalled.
After much thought, Wooden finally answered.
“I really didn’t know much Bill,” he said. “I’ll just let it go the way it goes.”
And so it went, with Wooden’s legend only growing stronger after his death, the power of his legacy and the goodness of his message overcoming all negative insinuation.
Did you know that, because of his love for fundamentals, his favorite sport was women’s basketball? Did you know he gave away all but one of his 10 championship rings, but kept a bronze medallion he won for academic-athletic achievement as a student at Purdue?
VIP’s Cafe in Tarzana, where John Wooden had breakfast each morning, nearly had to go out of business because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners are hoping to bounce back.
Did you know he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom only after a prolonged letter-writing campaign by 30 former players organized by a freewheeling spirit who Wooden used to bench for breaking rules, a guy named Andre McCarter?
“I was the least likely guy to do this,” McCarter said at the time, later adding, “What Coach taught me, it transcended basketball.”
In his final years, through his undying love for his wife of 53 years, John Wooden even transcended devotion.
After Nell Wooden died in 1985, he refused to attend the Final Four for nearly 10 years without her. He continued living in his throwback condo because she decorated it. When UCLA decided to dedicate the Pauley Pavilion court in his name, Wooden insisted Nell’s name also be included, and listed first.
In his final years, on his bed, on the pillow Nell once used, there sat a neatly arranged pile of love notes. Wooden wrote one to her on the 21st of every month to mark the day of her death.
John Wooden’s teachings still serve as a blueprint for coaches today. Several coaches of major teams in Southern California share their thoughts on Wooden.
“I haven’t been afraid of death since I lost Nell,” he said. “I tell myself, this is the only chance I have to be with her again.”
And so, high above the Nell & John Wooden Court, Coach has been reunited with his bride for 10 years now, leaving the rest of us to cling to the wisps of his timeless teachings, forever trying be quick without hurrying, how we miss him still.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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