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Legendary Wooden dead at 99

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June 4, 2010

 

(RIVALS.COM)  Swing open the door to John Wooden’s tiny two-bedroom condominium, and the first thing that stands out is that there’s hardly any room to walk amid the clutter.

Piles of items awaiting autographs occupy the living room table. Stacks of poetry anthologies, baseball books and Abraham Lincoln biographies litter the shelves. And enshrouding every inch of wall space are dozens of photos, some of Wooden’s late wife Nell and his extended family and others of the legendary basketball teams he coached.

As his colorful condo suggests, college basketball’s most iconic coach lived a remarkably full life, from his all-American playing days at Purdue, to his success on the bench at UCLA, to his 53-year marriage to his high school sweetheart. He died at UCLA Medical Center on Friday four months shy of his 100th birthday, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy highlighted by a record-setting 88-game win streak, four undefeated seasons and 10 national titles from 1964 to 1975.

Even after abruptly retiring following his last championship, Wooden remained relevant as an author and motivational speaker, mentor to younger coaches. Only after his failing health confined him to a wheelchair the past couple years did he finally stop attending games at Pauley Pavilion in his customary seat two rows behind the UCLA bench.

Wooden was hospitalized several times over the past few years, suffering a broken left wrist and collarbone in a fall at his home in March 2008 and then overcoming a month-long bout of pneumonia nearly a year later. He remained as sharp and perceptive as ever during most of those medical woes, but former UCLA star Marques Johnson said Wooden’s condition deteriorated the past few weeks.

“From a selfish standpoint, you’d love to see him live as long as possible, hit 100 at least,” Johnson said. “But after spending a couple hours with him two weeks ago and seeing how he was struggling, reclined in his easy chair and nodding in and out, I felt it would be selfish on our part to want him to stay around just to hit that milestone. He was never about numbers, in life or in basketball. It was always about the quality of effort.”

That Wooden maintained those wholesome values throughout his life is a testament to his small-town upbringing.

Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910 in Hall, Ind, the second-eldest son of a hard-working farming couple. Soft-spoken Joshua Wooden taught his four sons the value of hard work, having them assist tending crops and livestock and then reading them poetry and scriptures every night by coal lamp.

When John Wooden finished eighth grade, his father gave him a card with a seven-point creed on it that included such tenets as “Be True to yourself” and “Make each day your masterpiece.” Wooden later used those philosophies in coaching and kept a copy of the card in his pocket the rest of his life.

It’s ironic that Wooden forged a career for himself in basketball because baseball was actually always his favorite sport. The Indiana native split much of his free time between a baseball diamond amid the cornfields and a hoop nailed to the hayloft, wisely choosing to pursue basketball when he blossomed into a three-time all-state selection at Martinsville High School.

After leading Purdue to a national title and becoming the first college player ever to be named a three-time all-American in 1932, Wooden married longtime girlfriend Nell and began his professional life as a high school coach and English teacher. He amassed a 218-42 record at Central High in South Bend before breaking into the college ranks as coach at Indiana State in 1946.

Two successful seasons at Indiana State caught the eye of more prominent programs, but Wooden and his wife desired to stay in the Midwest. His intention was to accept the coaching job at the University of Minnesota in 1948, but when a snowstorm prevented Minnesota’s athletic director from getting to the phone to offer him the position by a stipulated deadline, Wooden snapped up UCLA’s offer instead.

“If fate had not intervened, I would never have gone to UCLA,” Wooden once said.

Despite a handful of league championships during Wooden’s first 13 years in Westwood, his UCLA teams received more publicity for their unusual up-tempo style of play than for their modest success. Bill Russell’s San Francisco teams and Pete Newell’s Cal teams dominated 1950s basketball on the West Coast, relegating the Bruins to second-tier status in the region.

The pendulum swung in UCLA’s favor in the early 1960s when Wooden landed talented recruits Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Keith Erickson and introduced the full-court zone press that later became one of his trademarks. The Bruins didn’t start a single player taller than 6-foot-5 in 1963-64, but they out-ran all their opponents, rolling to a 30-0 season and Wooden’s first national title.

The next 11 years brought more championships, more elite recruits and more attention for Wooden, but former players insist his meticulous approach and homespun charm never wavered. He still taught his players how to wear their socks and tie their shoelaces to avoid blisters. He still kept notes detailing every minute of practice. He still forbade players from dunking or showing off on the court. And he still ran workouts that were more physically demanding for his team than most games.

“That was one of the secrets to our success,” said Greg Lee, a three-year starter during the Bruins’ 88-game win streak. “For a little more than a decade, we had the best basketball players, the hardest practices and a phenomenal coach and we were tough to beat.”

The abrupt end of Wooden’s coaching career came as a surprise to all but his closest confidantes. As exuberant UCLA players piled into the locker room at San Diego Sports Arena after a thrilling overtime victory over Louisville at the 1975 Final Four, Wooden gathered the team together and informed them the national title game would be his finale. It was initially silent in the locker room after Wooden’s announcement, but starting point guard Andre McCarter challenged his teammates to make certain their coach went on top two nights later against Kentucky. Heavy underdogs against a formidable Wildcats team that featured significantly more size and depth than UCLA, the inspired Bruins took McCarter’s words to heart, eking out a 92-85 victory despite only playing six players.

“It was almost beyond a Hollywood moment,” said McCarter, who had 14 assists in the national title game. “To win the game and send coach out a winner, it felt like Muhammad Ali after he won the championship. We just shut people up.”

Wooden’s devout faith, attention to detail and aversion to drinking or swearing are well-chronicled, but one reason for his success that often gets overshadowed by his clean-cut image was his ability to relate to players of all backgrounds. Johnson said he viewed Wooden as “other-worldly, god-like figure” when he signed with UCLA in 1973, but the Los Angeles native’s perception changed when he realized he could relate to his coach’s sense of humor.

Johnson was at the pool hall one day during his sophomore year when Wooden spotted him, walked through the door in his usual blue sweater and gray slacks and proceeded to take the pool cue from his star player’s hands. Wooden then proceeded to run off eight balls in a row before exiting the room without a word, leaving Johnson in slack-jawed disbelief.

Years later, Johnson got another taste of his former coach’s wry sense of humor while reliving the 1975 title game while on a flight home from an award show in New York. Johnson told Wooden he didn’t believe he played 28 minutes in that game,
so Wooden responded, “Well, the way you were playing, you weren’t the only one who didn’t realize you were on the court for 28 minutes.”

“He was just real good with those quips,” Johnson chuckled. “It made him human. It put him down on our level as players. To me that was a big thing. It felt like almost a badge of honor when he would cut on you like that.”

None of the eight UCLA coaches who have followed in Wooden’s footsteps have approached his level of sustained success, but shades of his influence and philosophies are nonetheless visible in many of them. Ben Howland grew up in Santa Barbara watching UCLA basketball in the 1960s, refers to himself as the caretaker of Wooden’s program and shares the former coach’s religious conviction and relentless minute-to-minute preparation. Steve Lavin still calls Wooden a mentor and often jokes that he consumed the ex-coach’s favorite breakfast more often after coming to UCLA in hopes that it would make him more Wooden-like in all facets of life.

Brad Holland shares Lavin’s and Howland’s reverence for Wooden, but the former University of San Diego coach got to know him earlier in life.

The last player Wooden ever recruited to Westwood, Holland recalls feeling “awed and intimidated” when the legendary UCLA coach showed up at his home to offer him a scholarship during his senior year. Holland never played for Wooden because of his sudden retirement that year, but the two stayed in touch, often sharing breakfast at one of Wooden’s favorite spots near his Encino home.

“Every time I ever had the opportunity to talk to coach or hear him speak, I always felt like I went away a better person,” Holland said. “I always felt inspired. You felt good about yourself and about the world. You felt like you could sort of do anything after you spent time with him. He was that inspirational.”

Wooden is survived by his son James Hugh Wooden, daughter Nancy Anne Muehlhausen, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Also in mourning today are numerous former UCLA players who considered him family.

From Bill Walton, to Swen Nater, to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, many ex-Bruins regularly kept in touch with Wooden throughout the final years of his life, reliving old memories over the phone or over a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs. They’re saddened at the thought of losing him, yet uplifted by the notion that he didn’t fear death and often expressed hope it would reunited him with his late wife Nell, who died of cancer on March 21, 1985.

Health permitting, Wooden has paid homage to Nell on the 21st of every month, visiting her grave and then writing a love letter to her, placing it in an envelope and adding it to a stack of similar letters on the pillow where she once slept. Everything in Wooden’s condo – the photos on the wall, the pillows on the bed and even some of the clutter in the living room – is exactly how Nell left it a quarter-century ago.

“This is a tough time for everybody who loves coach Wooden, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that for him, in his spiritual belief, death means he’s reunited with his beloved Nell,” Johnson said. “I’m sure he’d take a considerable amount of solace in that.”

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