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A visit with Coach John Wooden

 

The following was taken from an anonymous tribute believed written in 2000, 15 years after Mrs. Wooden’s death:

This coming March 21, the best man I know will do what he always does on the 21st of the month. He’ll sit down and pen a love letter to his best girl. He’ll say how much he misses her and loves her and can’t wait to see her again. Then he’ll fold it, slide it into an envelope, and walk into his bedroom. He’ll take the stack of love letters on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place it on top, and re-tie the ribbon. The stack will be 180 letters high, because it will be 15 years since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years, died.

There’s never been a finer man in American sports than John Wooden. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA, the last in 1975. Nobody has come within six of him. He won 88 straight games between Jan. 30, 1971, and Jan. 17, 1974. Nobody has come within 42 since.

Sometimes, when March Madness gets to be too much too many players trying to make “SportsCenter,” too few players trying to make assists, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids I like to go see Coach Wooden in his little condo in Encino, 20 minutes northwest of L.A.

I like to hear him say things like, “Gracious sakes alive!” and tell stories about teaching “Lewis” the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

There has never been another coach like Wooden, quiet as an April snow; square as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one school, and one way; walking around campus in his sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart morals.

He’d spend a half hour the first day of practice teaching his men how to put on a sock. “Wrinkles can lead to blisters,” he’d warn. These huge players would sneak looks at one another and roll their eyes. Eventually, they’d do it right. “Good,” he’d say, “now for the other foot.”

Of the 180 players who played for him, Wooden knows the whereabouts of 172. Of course, it’s not hard when most of them call, checking on his health, secretly hoping to hear some simple life lessons so they can write them on the lunch bags of their kids who will roll their eyes.

“Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to,” Coach would say. “Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Earn the right to be proud and confident.”

You played by his rules: Never score without acknowledging a teammate. One word of profanity and you’re done for the day. Treat your opponent with respect.

He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships. No dribbling behind the back or through the legs. “There’s no need,” he’d say.

No UCLA basketball number was retired under his watch. “What about the fellows who wore that number before? Didn’t they contribute to the team?”

No long hair, no facial hair. “They take too long to dry, and you could catch cold leaving the gym.”

It’s always too soon when you have to leave and get back out into the real world, where the rules are so much grayer and the teams so much worse. As Wooden shows you to the door, he smiles, “I’m not afraid to die; death is my only chance to be with her again.”

Problem is, we still need him here.

John Wooden died June 4, 2010, at 99 years.

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at kennanco@gmail.com or visit www.kennancompany.com.

 
 
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