John Wooden’s death at age 100 and his remarkable achievements as a coach pale to his loyalty as a man and husband.
Rick Reilly wrote…
The awful thing about knowing John Wooden was that when you left him, you realized how weak you were as a man.
Every time I left his little 700-square-foot condo in Encino, Calif., full of books and learning and morals, it would hit me how far short of him I fell.
He made me want to be more principled. This is a man who once turned down the Purdue head-coaching job because he felt the university was treating the fired coach “terribly. I wouldn’t stand for it.”
He once turned down the Minnesota job he and his wife, Nell, wanted — and accepted the UCLA one instead — because Minnesota hadn’t called with its offer by the 6 p.m. deadline he’d set. Turns out a storm had knocked down the phone lines. Didn’t matter. He went to UCLA and won the Bruins 10 NCAA titles. No other coach has even won four. He abhorred stardom and showmanship. He was against jerseys being retired at UCLA, even the one worn by Lewis Alcindor (later: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) “What about the youngster who wore that number before Lewis? Didn’t he contribute to the team?”
Last fall, I asked him, “How many championships do you think Kobe can win?”
“None,” he said, flatly.
“Kobe doesn’t win championships. The Lakers win championships.”
He made me want to be more humble. In the most self-obsessed city in the world — Hollywood — he was selfless. It only made him stand out even more, like a priest at a Chippendale’s convention. He would hardly even get out of his chair during games. He and his blue eyes and his farm-boy haircut would just sit there and watch his toy spin. I asked him once what he thought about coaches in their Armani suits strutting up and down the entire game, coaching every dribble. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “What do they do in practice?”
He made me want to be more courageous. For instance, I’m terrified of dying. He used to laugh about it.
One of his favorite stories was about the time he took his great-granddaughter to get her ears pierced. She was 11. They drove home from the mall in his old 1989 Taurus — “greatest car I ever had,” he always said — and she was practically unraveling with joy.
“Oh, Papa,” she said. “I hope you live five more years so you can take me to get my license!”
He liked to kid about my occasional visits. “Last time I saw you [at 98], I was walking. This year, I’m in a wheelchair. At 100, I’ll probably be on a stretcher.” If only.
He made me wish I read more, thought more, listened more.
I started noticing something on my visits. The TV was never on. He was always reading. Poetry, history, the Bible. Never sports. Never novels. He knew hundreds of classic poems by heart. Yet when he found himself coaching a bookish 7-footer named Alcindor in 1966, he memorized the poems of Langston Hughes, the black modern poet. It didn’t go unnoticed.
Wooden made me wish I read more, thought more, listened more. I started noticing something on my visits. The TV was never on. He was always reading. Poetry, history, the Bible.
Read the rest of Rick Reilly’s article here.
Then watch this video, produced for ESPN.
Thanks, coach, for teaching young – and older men – until the very end.