On Tuesday the best man I know will do what he always does on the
21st of the month. He'll sit down and pen a love letter to his
best girl. He'll say how much he misses her and loves her and
can't wait to see her again. Then he'll fold it once, slide it in
a little envelope and walk into his bedroom. He'll go to the
stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the
yellow ribbon, place the new one on top and tie the ribbon again.
The stack will be 180 letters high then, because Tuesday is 15
years to the day since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years,
died. In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only
on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between, with
just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.
There's never been a finer man in American sports than John
Wooden, or a finer coach. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships
at UCLA, the last in 1975. Nobody has ever come within six of
him. He won 88 straight games between Jan. 30, 1971, and Jan. 17,
1974. Nobody has come within 42 since.
So, sometimes, when the Madness of March gets to be too much--too
many players trying to make SportsCenter, too few players trying
to make assists, too many coaches trying to be homeys, too few
coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with
out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school
long enough to become men--I like to go see Coach Wooden. I visit
him in his little condo in Encino, 20 minutes northwest of L.A.,
and hear him say things like "Gracious sakes alive!" and tell
stories about teaching "Lewis" the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor,
that is. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
There has never been another coach like Wooden, quiet as an April
snow and square as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one
school, one way; walking around campus in his sensible shoes and
Jimmy Stewart morals. He'd spend a half hour the first day of
practice teaching his men how to put on a sock. "Wrinkles can
lead to blisters," he'd warn. These huge players would sneak
looks at one another and roll their eyes. Eventually, they'd do
it right. "Good," he'd say. "And now for the other foot."
Of the 180 players who played for him, Wooden knows the
whereabouts of 172. Of course, it's not hard when most of them
call, checking on his health, secretly hoping to hear some of his
simple life lessons so that they can write them on the lunch bags
of their kids, who will roll their eyes. "Discipline yourself,
and others won't need to," Coach would say. "Never lie, never
cheat, never steal," Coach would say. "Earn the right to be proud
You played for him, you played by his rules: Never score without
acknowledging a teammate. One word of profanity, and you're done
for the day. Treat your opponent with respect.
He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did
anything but win championships. No dribbling behind the back or
through the legs. "There's no need," he'd say. No UCLA basketball
number was retired under his watch. "What about the fellows who
wore that number before? Didn't they contribute to the team?"
he'd say. No long hair, no facial hair. "They take too long to
dry, and you could catch cold leaving the gym," he'd say.
That one drove his players bonkers. One day, All-America center
Bill Walton showed up with a full beard. "It's my right," he
insisted. Wooden asked if he believed that strongly. Walton said
he did. "That's good, Bill," Coach said. "I admire people who
have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We're going
to miss you." Walton shaved it right then and there. Now Walton
calls once a week to tell Coach he loves him.
It's always too soon when you have to leave the condo and go back
out into the real world, where the rules are so much grayer and
the teams so much worse. As Wooden shows you to the door, you
take one last look around. The framed report cards of the
great-grandkids. The boxes of jelly beans peeking out from under
the favorite wooden chair. The dozens of pictures of Nellie.
He's almost 90 now, you think. A little more hunched over than
last time. Steps a little smaller. You hope it's not the last
time you see him. He smiles. "I'm not afraid to die," he says.
"Death is my only chance to be with her again."
Problem is, we still need him here.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
The one and only Wooden was quiet as an April snow and square
as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one school, one way.