I do not care if you are orange, black, yellow, white, athletic, have two left feet, love sports or hate them, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden left a manuscript of deeds that anyone can learn from and admire.
Sure, Coach will always be scanned in the pages of history for his unbelievable basketball dynasty orchestrated at UCLA. His Bruins’ teams won 10 national championships in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975. From 1971 to 1974, UCLA won 88 consecutive games, still the NCAA record. Four of Wooden’s teams finished with 30-0 records.
Because of his astounding success he earned the nickname the Wizard of Westwood. When he passed recently he was 99. One could easily change his name to the Wizard of Life. I consider myself lucky and blessed to have been in his company many times.
One memorable occasion was 1995 when I was covering UCLA basketball and we were in Seattle after UCLA had won its last NCAA title. Wooden held an impromptu press gathering where he recounted his coaching philosophy and the Bruins PR staff passed out copies of “Wooden’s Pyramid for Success.” I still have it and look at it quite regularly.
Another time I was picked to write the main feature story, a piece on his undefeated Walton Gang squad, in the NCAA Final Four Commemorative Program in 1995. I got to sit one-on-one with the legend and he was so humble and gracious.
Every time after that I made sure I went over to him and shook his hand before or after every UCLA game. Then I was selected to write another lead feature for the Sixth Annual John R. Wooden Basketball Classic program in 1999. The piece titled “Passing it On” was centered on him and his former point guard Henry Bibby, who at the time was head coach at rival USC.
During the interview Coach astounded me by remembering the feature I wrote about his years coaching the Bill Walton and Bibby-led Bruins.
Not only was Wooden a supreme coach, he was an even better person. I’ve sat and talked with Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamal Wilkes, Walt Hazzard and Mike Warren, just to name a few, and each one talked about his life lessons delivered in sayings interjected at them every day in practice and meetings. He was a teacher first and coach second.
Jabbar told me in a talk we had that he and Wooden hit it off right away. He noted that Coach did not try to overwhelm him with his scholarship right. And he liked the fact Wooden was in no hurry to display his power.
Wooden showed all he could cajole and motivate with the best coaches ever in any sport, without ever cursing and yelling and berating his players. He carried himself as a dignified, scholarly man who spoke with the precise language of an English professor.
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines a coach as a person who carries students through examinations. Wooden epitomized the indispensable properties of a coach. He has turned more boys to men than anyone who has every traversed the hardwood courts. In his 40 years as a head coach (27 at UCLA) he touched more lives than a high powered evangelist minister.
Gone but never forgotten, Coach has passed on his lessons in life to so many that his spirit will always be alive.
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.