Today: A personal memory of Coach John Wooden.
On Friday June 4th, John Wooden passed away at the age of 99 at the UCLA Medical Center. People across America and around the world mourned the loss of this extraordinary man, some of them with tears running down their cheeks. Why?
To sports fans, no other college basketball coach has ever achieved what Coach Wooden did at UCLA, winning 10 national championships, seven of them in a row, winning 88 straight games at one stage, dominating college basketball from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s.
But today’s story is not about big-time sports but about a remarkable man who lived his values.
In his personal life, Coach Wooden met his future wife, Nell Riley at a carnival when he was 15 and she was 14 in 1926. They became high school sweethearts and she was the only girl friend he ever had. They planned to marry in 1932 after he graduated from Purdue University.
But this was during the Great Depression and the day before they were to be wed, the bank went bust wiping out his life savings. John Wooden was broke but he wed his beautiful Nell anyway in a small ceremony.
Ever the devoted family man, he and Nell were blessed with a son and a daughter, both of whom remained close to their parents for the rest of their lives. But on March 21st, 1985 his beloved Nell died from cancer, passing away after nearly 53 years of marriage.
Coach Wooden never got over her loss and on the 21st of each month; he would visit her grave and write a love letter to her. He would then take the love letter, seal it in an envelope and add it the others he kept tied in a yellow ribbon and tucked under the pillow she had long slept on. For 25 years, he wrote those love letters, about 300 of them in all.
A man of deep faith, a devout Christian, Coach Wooden regularly read his bible and felt that if he was ever to be prosecuted for his religious believes, he should be found guilty as charged.
After he retired at the age of 64 in 1975, he had no plans other than to continue his five mile daily walks at UCLA. But in the years that followed, Coach Wooden would write or co-write one popular book after another and was inundated with requests to give inspirational speeches, attend sports events in his honor and offer sports commentaries to the media.
As a writer, Coach Wooden was most famous for his “Pyramid of Success.” While teaching high school English and coaching in the 1930’s, he started creating this Pyramid to uplift his students whatever their grades, telling them they could be successful by using the knowledge contained in the Pyramid, which he kept evolving until 1948, when it took its final form.
To see this Pyramid, please click on www.coachwooden.com.
That inspiring Pyramid hangs on walls all over the world. But Coach Wooden never copyrighted it for he wanted to spread the message without making money from it.
Now as promised, I’d like to share with you a personal memory of Coach Wooden. It is 1979, just four years after he retired as one of the greatest coaches in sports history.
In August, my 12 year old son Kyle enrolled for a week in the John Wooden Basketball Camp located in the gym and dorms of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA, where the daytime temperature that week was close to 100 degrees.
Commonly then as today, a sports celebrity endorses a camp named for him or her and profits by it, but often has little or no time to devote to it. But this was not Coach Wooden. A camp with his name would have his personal involvement and it would meet his high standards.
All these years later, I recall a hot summer day and a packed gym. The kids were laughing and shouting out to one another as basketballs bounced on hard wood flooring, the noise echoing to the rafters and reverberating throughout the building in a deafening explosion of sound.
And then everything fell silent as the word spread, Coach Wooden is coming. And with no fanfare this man of such quiet, but powerful presence walked into the room. When he reached the center of the facility he calmly greeted us and spoke so graciously about us, not about himself, that this famous man made us feel like the most important people in the room.
To help you picture him as he looked then, he stood about 5 foot 9, medium/trim build, and black graying close cropped hair, parted on the left side. This stately, dignified man wore dark rimmed glasses and appeared to be a college professor.
Coach Wooden explained to the 200 kids and their parents, family and friends, the benefits of the program, which included learning basketball skills and having fun. But he would also instill good sportsmanship and the values of his Pyramid of Success, for he felt that self-esteem, compassion and being good citizens were essential.
He even spoke of the importance of wearing clean, quality sweat socks, carefully fitted. It seemed like an odd topic until he explained that by doing so, it is not only cleanly, but blisters are avoided. To this day, I practice that lesson.
For the rest of that week, Coach Wooden actively participated with the coaches he had helped to select, offering the children and the staff words of encouragement. The kids were as young as 3rd grade and ranged in age well into high school.
They were organized by age and put on teams with just a few players so each would have plenty of court time and a lot of personalized instruction. The coaches did most of the teaching but there he was, a wise old grandfather who offered the wisdom of his many years of experience.
With a whistle and a calm voice, as the master teacher he was, he motivated each child with advice administered with a smile and a sparkle in his eyes. It had such a marvelous effect, that Kyle and his friends and many other kids repeatedly enrolled in subsequent years.
But basketball aside, there is something else that is special I’d like to share with you about Coach Wooden. Because of his fame, for the rest of his life, letters poured in for him care of UCLA or to his home, for he wasn’t secretive about where he lived.
When those letters reached him, he wrote back. In most cases, they thoughtfully provided a self-addressed stamped envelope. But when they didn’t, he still replied, even at his own expense.
It is for reasons like these that so many people mourned Coach Wooden’s passing for we had all lost someone very special, but who had lived a life well worth celebrating. Perhaps today he even touched your life as well.
Success Tip of the Week:
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite John Wooden quotes, “What is the most powerful word in the English language? Love.”
In the next KazanToday:
A high school dropout who co-created one of the most popular board games of all time.