How I remember Coach John Wooden

Life is filled with intriguing human intersections in which peoples’ paths cross and sometimes recross years later in seemingly random ways. This is one reporter's remembrance of a close encounter with Coach John Wooden

By , Staff writer

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    In this 1948 file photo, John Wooden, newly announced head basketball coach at UCLA, is shown with his wife, Nell, at their home in Terre Haute, Ind. Wooden, college basketball's gentlemanly "Wizard of Westwood" built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches ever.
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This is one reporter's remembrance of a close encounter with Coach John Wooden in a condensed version of a Monitor blog post from 2006.

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Life is filled with all sorts of intriguing human intersections in which peoples’ paths cross and sometimes recross years later in seemingly random, yet meaningful ways.

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John Wooden and Birch Bayh surely knew this feeling at this month's National Collegiate Athletic Association convention in Indianapolis. The two distinguished Hoosiers (one of whose lives fleetingly intersected with my own – more on that later) were honored as co-recipients of the Gerald R. Ford Award in the capital of their home state of Indiana, which also serves as the home of the NCAA.

Because the convention marked the beginning of the NCAA's centennial, receiving the award carried special significance. Both men were deeply moved by standing ovations in recognition of their ongoing leadership and support of the intercollegiate athletic community.

Wooden's contributions to the world of sports are far more widely known to the general public.

As the gentlemanly coach of UCLAs men's basketball team, he led the Bruins to 10 national championships, including seven in consecutive years, from 1967 to 1973. During that stretch, UCLA set the all-time NCAA winning streak with a run of 88 straight victories.

Bayh, who served in the US senate from 1962 to 1980 before the current tenure of his son, Evan, is not a sports figure in the same way, yet his impact on participation by girls and women is immense. He is often call the "father of Title IX," after the landmark 1972 legislation that mandates equal opportunity for both genders in federally-funded education programs, including sports.

Both men graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., although years apart - Wooden in 1932, when he co-captained the Boilermaker basketball team that was voted the national champion, and Bayh in 1951. Wooden was from small-town Martinsville; Bayh from more citified Terre Haute, roughly 50 miles away.

As befits two Hoosiers, basketball connects them. Wooden's first college coaching job was in Terre Haute at Indiana State University, which today is most famous for being Larry Bird's alma mater. Bayh's father coached there as well and later became a referee. Occasionally, the elder Bayh officiated games that Wooden played in.

After being saluted at the NCAA awards banquet, the two compared notes about the home state, which Wooden visits once a year even now that he's in his mid 90s.

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My personal recollection of the Wizard of Westwood, as Wooden was known, dates to 1977. Two years after retiring, he came to Boston to speak at a coaching clinic. I arranged an interview at the sprawling suburban hotel where the clinic was held. When I called from the lobby to announce my arrival, Wooden said he'd come down to meet me. I wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of conducting such an important interview in such a public place, but who was I to argue?

Fortunately, the lobby was very quiet at first, as the coaches were off learning their Xs and Os.

Once the strategy sessions, ended, though, the coaches spilled into the lobby, and before long a dozen or so were hanging over us listening to his every word. Although the rapt audience of experts didn't make me feel very comfortable, Wooden kept his focus. Eventually one bystander couldn't restrain himself and jumped in with a question, to which the revered celebrity said something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, but I'm being interviewed by this young man from The Christian Science Monitor right now. You'll have to wait until I finish."

I've never forgotten that small act of courtesy, which speaks volumes about Wooden's values and principles.

Looking back on the story I subsequently wrote based on our conversation, one quote stands out to me today, especially given the unrestrained displays by many modern athletes. It's what he said during a final timeout each time UCLA was on the verge of winning another championship.

"During these timeouts, " he explained, "I reaffirmed to everyone that when the game was over we shouldn't act like fools. I told them it was a basketball game, and nothing more."

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As any of his players, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton, will tell you, Wooden is an educator in the broadest sense of the word, concerned not simply with teaching basketball skills, but life skills. His famous "Pyramid of Success," inspired by his high school coach's "Ladder of Achievement," has five foundational building blocks: industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm.

Last year, a friend of mine who has taught high school art in Evansville, Ind., for many years enjoyed his own encounter with Wooden. The friend was the recipient of a statewide teaching award presented in conjunction with the John R. Wooden Tradition, a benefit basketball doubleheader in Indianapolis. Wooden was present for the Tradition banquet and the games that followed at Conseco Fieldhouse.

My friend managed to get a few minutes with the coach and mentioned that a couple of our classmates at Evansville's Harrison High School had been members of the team that lost to UCLA in the 1970 NCAA championship game.

It was not the most memorable of many wins during Wooden's 40 years as a head coach, yet to my friend's amazement – and mine as well – Wooden was not only able to name the opponent, Jacksonville (Fla.) University, but the players: Vaughn Wedeking, a starting guard, and Greg Nelson, the first reserve off the bench. That was 35 years after the fact!

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People who know Wooden well have paid wonderful tributes to him as Walton has on a personal website where he speaks of his former coach as a "positive force."

Wooden is not one to immodestly revel in past glories. In fact, he was hesitant to let UCLA dedicate its Pauley Pavilion basketball court in his name. What convinced him to accept the idea was when the university suggested in 2003 that the court be named for his late wife, Nell, as well as himself – and that Nell's name come first.

The two had been high school sweethearts and forged what one observer has called the most enduring love affair in Los Angeles sports history, a 53-year marriage that ended with Nell's passing in 1985.

Today, UCLA's home floor is officially the Nell and John Wooden Court, a name printed right on the hardwood planks.

"She was always first with me," he explains. "It just sounds better that way."

Related:

John Wooden: Lessons for basketball and life

Our top ten favorite John Wooden quotes

The John Wooden reading list

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