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Touching greatness

I first saw John Wooden at court side in 1963.  My neighbors had an extra ticket for the L.A. Basketball Classic, an invitational college basketball tourney hosted jointly by USC and UCLA, which at the time shared the L.A. Sports Arena as their home court (until two years later when UCLA opened Pauley Pavilion on campus).

They said, "We're going to see Michigan with Cazzy Russel."  "Who they playing?" I asked. "UCLA."  It was the semi-finals.  As a football honk, I paid scant attention to anything basketball but the Lakers and knew nothing about UCLA.

That night I fell in love with college basketball, UCLA, and Coach John Wooden.

They were surgeons. They were artists.  The were mechanics. They took Michigan apart like they were junking a beat up old car.  Michigan, who had been the consensual favorite to win the national championship.  It was UCLA's third win on their way to a 30-0 record (one of Wooden's 4 undefeated teams in his career) and their 1st NCAA National Championship.  During his tenure, UCLA would win 9 more.

Ten national championships, seven in a row!  Now team in college history, nor the legendary coaches, gets close to that.  And this was back in the day when you had to WIN your conference to get in.  No 2nd place teams or third place teams.  In 1963 only 22 teams were invited to the tournament. In 1975 it settled at 32 for a while, and it wasn't until 1985 you get 64 like we have had up to last year.  You had to be the best in your conference to even get a bid.

Wooden was a gentleman.  I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing him speak on many occasions, and the honor of speaking to him a couple of times.  He was soft spoken, with a glint in his eyes, a ready smile and a lovely sense of humor.  Unlike the other coaches of his era who would scream and turn apoplectic, shout obscenities, rail at the officials, Wooden would sit quietly in his seat, a rolled up program in one hand, and the harshest thing I ever heard him say at court side, as his team was getting physically handled by a bigger Oregon team, and the refs weren't making calls, was him saying in a loud voice to the ref, "This isn't the pro game!  These aren't pros!"

There's an documentary out there I've seen on HBO, and if you get a chance watch it.  He shaped lives.  More than his winning, which is unmatched at any level in the sports, listen to the players talk about him and the influence in their lives.  Greg Holland, especially, who was a bit of a rebel on the team and chafed under the strict team discipline especially sang his praises, saying he hated the old guy when he left UCLA but by ten years later he figured out what the old man was trying to teach; he went back to see him, and over the balance of his life became one of Wooden's dearest friends among ex-players.

He won with big teams and small teams, quick teams, and patent teams.  He won with superstars and with no stars.

He NEVER had a losing season. His worst year at UCLA was 1959 when his team went 14-12.  In 11 years of coaching high school, his record was 218-42. For two seasons at Indiana State he was 47-14.

His record at UCLA was an incredible 620-147.  They still hold the NCAA record for consecutive wins at 88!  At Pauley Pavilion, from it's open in 1965 to his retirement in 1975, he lost two games.  Again, ten National Championships, seven in a row!

No coach at any level of the game gets close to his level of achievement.

His accolades were endless, many times Coach of the Year, first person to go into the College Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, Sports Illustrated Man of the Year, and many others.

His "Pyramid of Success" model of life says, "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."  The Pyramid shows a foundation labled Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation, Enthusiasm, upon which rests other qualities of being and ends at the top with Competitive Greatness.  Coaches around the world use this to teach his philosophy.

Once in a while there is someone in your life, no mater how tangentially or indirectly, that shows you something.  What John Wooden showed me is that you can be a human being of profound integrity and honor who can be successful.  You hear the term "beloved mentor," and that was Wooden.  There are many great athletes, from Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Gail Goodrich, all agreed on something Wooden was found of saying, "Love is the most powerful four letter word in the English Language."  To quote Bill Walton, "He didn't teach basketball.  He taught life."

99 years is a long haul and in this case a great one.  We will never see this man's like again in sports.

Copyright 5th June 2010 by Raymond E. Feist.
No reproduction without permission.