The passing of John Wooden this past Friday has generated an unprecedented outpouring of praise . From President Obama to his former players to anyone who came in contact with him to those who watched him on TV and even to the ordinary man in the street , ” Coach ” represented everything that is decent and good and honorable. As effusive as the tributes were, they barely do justice to an extraordinary human being. His accomplishments as the basketball coach at UCLA are unrivalled but it is the manner in which he conducted himself throughout his life that is and will continue to be an example and an inspiration to all of us. Great as his coaching records are , it is his humility, his integrity , his unselfishness, his desire to be of service to one and all is what sets him apart from everyone else.
To tell the truth, I don’t remember noticing him during his years at UCLA . I was new to the country then and more interested in the pro game and the Lakers . I remember watching the “Game of the Century” when the Elvin Hayes- led Houston Cougars held off Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins 71-69 . I remember I rooted forthe underrdogs Houston because Lew Alcindor with his towering 7-2 frame seemed to have an unfair advantage over the other players. I didn’t pay much attention to Wooden then nor, six years later, when an undermanned UCLA team fought back to defeat Kentucky 92-85 in what was John Wooden’s last game as a coach. I remember being thrilled at how Dave Myers and Richard Washington played heroically to stun the Wildcats. It was only this week , that I read how UCLA was behind at the half when Wooden came into the lockerroom and announced that he would be retiring after the game. Now I understand why the Bruins who played only six men played themselves to exhaustion so that their beloved coach could go out a winner.I also went back and saw the UTube clip of that game and noticed with admiration Wooden’s behavior on the sidelines during the game and afterwards when he was interviewed courtside. Amazingly calm and unruffled during the game, he was a model of humility and modesty in the post game interview. ( Check it out yourself on UTube).
I have been reading with deep appreciation the details of his life and the exemplary manner in which he conducted himself. His tender relationship with his wife Nell, his rock-ribbed integrity in turning down his dream job as the head coach at Minnesota because he had already committed to UCLA, his lfelong commitment to coaching not just basketball but a way of life that he himself lived, the principles embodied in his Pyramid of Success… it is all of these things that make us admire John Wooden the Man even more than John Wooden the Coach.It strikes me also that he truly followed the exhortation in Ecclesiasties ” To everything there is a season ..”. In his marriage, his striving as a coach , his retirement ( precisely at age 65) and his post retirement life in which he gave back to the world, he did everything exactly right and exactly when it should be done. What a role model he was !
In one of the TV interviews about him that I watched this week , one of his former players ( Jamaal Wilkes ? Marques Johnson ?) mentioned that John Wooden was not at all afraid of death and looked forward to being re-united with his beloved wife Nell. On his last day in hospital, he insisted on a shave so that he would be presentable when he met her again. Even as we mourn his passing, we can be happy that Nell and he are togteher again. Coach, thanks for the memories.