Posted by: mdegeorge | June 5, 2010

Goodness gracious sakes alive: Remembering the great John Wooden

There aren’t enough words to describe John Wooden.

He was a teacher, motivator, and mentor of young men first and foremost; these men just happened to play basketball.

He was a sage, dispensing wisdom to players that helped them excel on the court and in the game of life.

He was the pioneer who bridges the gap between Naismith and Jordan better than any other.

He was the greatest coach in the history of college basketball and American sports.

He was one of the greatest men of his century. Period.

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Wooden’s greatness had the rare quality of transcending his sport, and sports in general. He was one of the few men whose position at the summit of his craft is unquestioned and who renders doubting a comical and futile exercise.

There was sadness at the loss of Red Auerbach. They’ll have to invent a new word to categorize the feeling of millions who were introduced to the game of basketball by the bespectacled coach with the rolled up program in his hands.He was a genius, a motivator of men almost wasted on a game like basketball, though Wooden would never see it like that. Because for the Wizard of Westwood, whatever task you are presented with—be it geopolitics or a geography bee or, as his players famously recall, putting on socks—deserves your full self.

Wooden’s maxims are timeless, in basketball and in life.

“Competitive Greatness: Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.”

“Industriousness: Success travels in the company of hard work. There is no trick, no easy way.”

“Loyalty: Be true to yourself. Be true to those you lead.”

It’s the reason why my father kept a copy of his Pyramid of Success near his desk at whatever job he was at until his death in 2007. And it’s why I will always do the same.

And yet through it all, Wooden was never been anything but the nicest man you’ll ever meet, accessible to throngs of fans and well-wishers into his 90s. Even though the illness and death of his beloved wife, Nell, he was always there in the stands of Pauley Pavilion, sitting right next to the average fan like he was no more important than them.

In 1997, my father and I, both diehard Bruins’ fans, made the trip across the country for a weekend pair of games. While my father stood next to David Myers, the former UCLA great, he sent me to get a copy of “They Call Me Coach” signed by the author himself, sitting in stands in his dress slacks and collared shirt. Without batting an eyelid at his umpteenth request of the day, the man already well into his late 80s extended his hand, asked the name of the sheepish, star struck eight-year-old in front of him, and signed the book.

The statistics are well known: 620 wins, 10 National Championships in a decades and change of dominance unmatched in sports much less college basketball, zero losing seasons in 29 on the bench, the first player elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach and a player. But his true legacy is revealed by the respect, admiration, and true love his former players to a man feel for him.

There’s no more telling an account of Wooden’s greatness than that of Bill Walton. In the Vietnam-era culture of rebellion sweeping Southern California, the gangly seven-footer didn’t want to be told what to do by anyone. And with his skills on the basketball court, he could have been good without someone constantly nagging him.

But he let Wooden, a man two generations away from a world that Walton thoroughly detested, into his life as a coach and a father.

Even Andy Hill, a high school standout who found opportunities to play at UCLA hard to come by and often butted heads with Wooden, later came to appreciate him, living and teaching his maxims as a motivational speaker.

Wooden showed the world the value of collegiate basketball. Before his UCLA teams rose to prominence in the early 1960s, the college basketball landscape was dominated largely by small private, largely Catholic school in urban centers where basketball was the sport of choice for its limited demands on space and resources. Very few state universities had entered the fray as perennial contenders for National Championships (Kentucky, Indiana, and Kansas are obvious exceptions). Wooden’s work with a large state school not only magnified the profile of college basketball throughout the nation, but also gave state institutions the blueprint and impetus to build programs of their own.

Two personal stories to finish my own mourning and one to encapsulate the man himself:

I said a prayer last night before bed for Wooden. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that in my life (the Haitian earthquake, when my father was ill, September 11). That’s where the loss of Wooden ranks in my life.

When I found out of his passing, I searched through my iPod for a song that would due the Wizard justice. I found “Terry’s Song”, written by Bruce Springsteen for his late personal assistant, Terry Magovern. One lyric holds true for Wooden: “That attitude’s a power stronger than death, alive and burning her stone cold. When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.”

I’ll finish with this anecdote, because I could sing the praises of Wooden forever. Wooden was once asked what he wanted God to say to him to him when he arrived at the pearly gates. Wooden’s response was simple yet profound: “Well done.”

If he doesn’t hear those words, then no one ever will.



  1. One thing to say for this remembrance of a great coach and an even greater man … “Well done!”

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