With so much being said about John Wooden’s passing and his contributions to society, there is not much more I can add other than to describe my chance encounter with him exactly two years ago.
As a member of our local school board, my wife was invited to a public school named after the legendary coach and teacher, for the unveiling of a mural based on Wooden’s renowned pyramid of success.
Not only did a I graduate from UCLA, I was born at UCLA Medical Center during Wooden’s reign as an unbeatable coach. Growing up adjacent to Westwood, I spent many days of my youth on UCLA’s campus attending performances, community events and playing volleyball in the John Wooden Center.
Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to meet Coach Wooden, or rather I insisted on accompanying my wife to the program.
As it happened, our local teachers union planned a walkout on that same morning, and with the shortage of available teachers, the administrators decided to assemble the students to watch TV in the auditorium.
As a passionate UCLA sports fan, I made the responsible decision to take my kindergartener and his younger brother out of school that morning to meet Coach Wooden.
We arrived a few minutes early with my kids dressed in their UCLA shirts with an understanding that they were there to meet someone whom my wife and I admire greatly.
Coach Wooden and some of his family arrived shortly thereafter and assumed his spot near the covered mural where the ceremony would take place. He acknowledged everyone along the path from his daughter’s car to the program area with a smile, polite wave and soft hello from his wheelchair.
At that point, I could not contain myself and I took my kids over to introduce ourselves to this living legend.
Following a couple awkward salutations, I began to pepper Coach Wooden with questions as if he were an oracle atop a Greek mountain. Our conversation went something like this as he patiently answered my questions:
Q. Are you pleased with Ben Howland’s success at UCLA?
A. Very much so. Ben is a terrific coach. I wish his players would stay for four years and keep learning from him.
Q. What do you like to read?
A. I’ve always enjoyed poetry.
Q. Do you think Kobe Bryant would have benefited from going to college?
A. Of course. I think he would have ended up at Duke, which is a wonderful program and has a marvelous coach.
Q. Have you spoken to Bill Walton lately? Do you think he’ll be back on the air soon? (At the time, Walton was facing some serious health issues that had forced him to leave his job as a sports commentator.)
A. Yes, we spoke this week, and he sounds like he’s feeling better.
Q. Did you ever recruit players out of my school?
A. Well, yes. My son played for me. (His son was standing right there listening to our conversation as I blushed with embarrassment; since the Woodens lived in my neighborhood, his kids all went to my high school, which I knew. He then began to rattle off about four or five names of obscure players the way I could name the five Laker starters without even thinking about it.)
As his caretaker began to hover, I took his cue and thanked Coach Wooden for speaking with me and for sharing his thoughts.
We took a group photo with my family, and he made a point to shake my kids’ hands and smile warmly as good grandparents do.
During the program, he made brief remarks and commended the students and teachers for dedicating themselves to the school and being good citizens.
On the way back to school, I had a short conversation with my kids about who Coach Wooden was. Yes, he was the most successful coach of all time in college athletics, but what was more impressive was that he was an amazing teacher.
I could tell my kids were more impressed with the 10 championships he won as I wrote a note to my older son’s teacher explaining why he was late to school. A huge basketball fan himself, the teacher was impressed and a tad envious that we got to meet John Wooden while he was picketing outside of our school.
In between Simers’ unfunny and half-obnoxious interruptions, Scully and Wooden were fantastic.
My older son happened to walk by the set and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s the UCLA coach we met today!”
Two years later, both my sons are older and play organized basketball with passion. They both aspire to play at UCLA just as I did when I was their age.
For people my age, we missed most of UCLA’s glory years as undisputed basketball kings but nearly everyone who grew up in L.A., even the most loyal of USC fans, shares an admiration for John Wooden as the consummate winner and ultimate gentleman.
It was interesting to see my boys’ reactions to Wooden’s passing in the newspapers, and it will be more interesting to see them grow and how much of Wooden’s life lessons wear off on them.
In a household with two degrees, two alumni association cards, a birth certificate and countless articles of clothing from UCLA, the odds are that John Wooden’s name and legacy as a teacher will come up frequently in their lives. I hope so!