Saturday, June 05, 2010

Coach Wooden

When I think of John Wooden I think of that Joan Osbourne song – What If God Were One of Us? The most impressive man I’ve ever met was often spotted in Du-Pars’ coffee shop in the valley. Hardly a church; they filmed scenes from BOOGIE NIGHTS there. I had the honor of spending a morning with him once. He lived alone in a condo complex in Encino on a busy street near noisy Ventura Blvd. Not exactly the Sistine Chapel.

When I was a student at UCLA from 68-72 and the Bruins were racking up National Championships every year, a few friends and I had a ritual after games in Pauley Pavilion. We’d go to Dolores’ coffee shop on Santa Monica Blvd. This was a grungy 50s style diner, one of those 24 hour joints that catered to kids, seedy street people, and lonely souls. But ten minutes after we sat down, there would be Coach Wooden with his wife and another couple coming through the door. That’s how he celebrated big wins – eating pie at Dolores’. We always congratulated him. He was always gracious. We were always thrilled just to be ordering off the same crappy menu as him.

But that was John Wooden. Humble, accessible, without any pretense. Everywhere you turn today you will find a tribute to this extraordinary man. They’re all going to make him sound too good to be true but in fact he was. No sense in just echoing them. So I’m just going to concentrate on the coffee shops and neighborhood markets and a two-bedroom condominium that looked out over a parking lot.

I accompanied a journalist friend who was doing a magazine profile on Coach Wooden. This was maybe five/six years ago. Coach let us in himself (he preferred to be called “Coach”. He hated “Mr. Wooden”). He then asked if he could make us some coffee? It was a modest two-bedroom unit. But it could have been a museum. Every inch of wall space was covered with team pictures, awards, medals, proclamations, framed programs, and commendations. I don’t know how he ever found the light switches.

He led us into the second bedroom, which he used as a den. And as Coach Wooden started answering questions a shiver went down my spine. Listening to him share his views on life and various other sundry topics in such an eloquent and yet casual manner I thought to myself, “I am truly in the presence of GREATNESS”. It’s one thing to preach a life of virtue and integrity and it’s another to actually live it. And that's what he did... every day for 99 years.

On the one hand this was the Sermon on the Mount on the other a garbage truck outside the window was picking up the complex’s trash.

After the interview he signed copies of his “Pyramid of Success” for me and my son and thanked US for coming. One of the great mornings of my life and he thanked me. Then he checked his watch. Would we please excuse him? He was meeting someone for lunch… at Du-Pars’.

I will always cherish him and strive to achieve the standards that he set.


DJ said...

It's been a long last 25 years since his wife Nell died. He wrote a letter to her every month since her death and laid it on her pillow.

Schmaltzy as it may read, I take solace in the hope that he is finally at home with his Lord and his Nell.

scottmc said...

Thank you-that was wonderful. In an era where coaches often leave a school for another without looking back there is the story that Coach Wooden accepted the UCLA job when he thought the job he really wanted fell through. But it hadn't-and he could have taken that one but he'd already given his word to UCLA.

A. Buck Short said...


Ian said...

He sounds like a great guy, but - sheesh - the comparisons to God are a bit too much. No, WAY too much. Maybe the reason Wooden lived so modestly was that he understood that he was a coach - an uncommonly gifted one, but still a coach. Not second freakin' coming.
Honestly (and yes, I know I'm in the minority here), I don't understand why people get so worked up over sports. I can certainly appreciate the skills displayed by an athlete performing at the peak of his or her sport. But in the end, we're talking about playing a game, which is to say putting the ball through a hoop, or carrying it across a goal line, or making it to home plate (don't even get me started on golf).
Somehow millions of people are so enthralled by these things that they actually support SEVERAL multi-billion dollar industries. And the players who make it to the top make more in a year than the average working stiff will make in a lifetime. Yeah, THAT'S fair. If one of these "great" players would just cure cancer, or invent cold fusion, or clean up the gulf oil spill, well, that I could get behind. Hell, I'd settle for a no-calorie cheesecake. But hitting a little ball into a hold in the ground? Not so impressive to me, however difficult it might be.
Not that I want to disparage Mr. Wooden. It sounds to me like he was one of the rare fellows who found something to do that he loved - a true calling - and that he poured his heart and soul into it. From what I know about him (and that includes your comments, Ken) it seems clear to me that for Wooden, success wasn't measured in dollars or endorsement deals, or by the number of women he could bang behind his wife's back. Bravo to that.
Go Lakers.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Hirsch
I remember him giving a speech for UCLA athletes in 83 and just being mesmerized by the simplistic yet life altering magnitude of what he was saying. I like others, thought it was a little to old school for me. But, as I got older and came to understand he was not talking about sports but life, did I truly appreciate his greatness. I wont say he will be missed, as I look at my wallet sized pyramid, as he will grow in death. An even greater Ayn Rand if you will.
Bye Coach...

Rob Dribble said...

I think God is able to do what He does without a rich booster backing Him to the hilt.

John Wooden coached UCLA for 15 years without winning a title . Then, Sam Gilbert showed up. Then, 10 titles in 12 years.

On the 11th and 12th years, God rested.

Jonathan said...

Coach Wooden started his coaching career in Terre Haute at what is now Indiana State University. In 1947, the l team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and received an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) National Tournament in Kansas City. Wooden refused the invitation, citing the NAIB's policy banning African American players. Integrity and class all the way.

Dave Creek said...

Ian, I'm with you on sports and the inordinate attention it draws. My alma mater, the University of Louisville, has cheesed me off by building an addition to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium while making students (mostly commuters) buy an unneeded meal plan and pay for increased tuition.

Their excuse is that it's different budgets. But I maintain it should't be -- and that it's inexcusable they found a way to fund the arena but not the help their educational "product" needs.

That said, I think the sports world needs many more people like Coach Wooden -- those with integrity and a sense of what's truly important.

Tim W. said...

I was born during Wooden's heyday, so I have no memory of Wooden the actual coach, but as a basketball fan, I've heard enough about him over the years to have a great respect for him. Even thought I knew he was 99 years old, for some reason, his death came as somewhat of a shock. He'd been around so long, I started to feel he always would be.

And Ian, even though I'm a basketball fan, I've never put sports above where it should be. It's fun to watch and play, but just because you're good at sports, doesn't mean you're a better person. That said, what was most impressive about Wooden was not his achievements in basketball, but for helping shape the minds and futures of so many young men. He taught basketball, but above all, he taught his players respect for themselves and others. If there were more coaches like him, I'm sure more professional athletes would have better heads on their shoulders than many of them do.

l.a.guy said...

Nice post Ken. If I'd known he frequented Du Pars' I would have eaten there more often. (They do have great French Toast)

Wooden was more remarkable for how he conducted his life off the court than for what he did on it. That's what makes his life celebrating.

Roger Owen Green said...

So what IS the correct way of putting on socks and tying your shoes? I recall Alcindor, among many others, getting annoyed by this ritual, but then he GOT it.

Paul Duca said...

I previously posted about an HBO special on Wooden and the championship years, that even a non-sports fan like myself found fascinating (Beau Bridges played for Wooden pre-dynasty, believe it or not).

Anonymous said...

Another amazing feat: he was inducted into the Baskeball Hall of Fame as a player a dozen years before being inducted as a coach, the first person to do so.

Mike Barer said...

Great coaches--Vince Lombardi, Red Aurbach, John Wooden!