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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

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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."

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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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