Wooden: A Treasure For Us All
The feelings came rushing at me early Friday night, almost like one of those withering fast breaks John Wooden used to teach at UCLA.
Hearing that he had died at age 99, the first feeling was one of deep sadness. This wasn’t just the greatest coach of all time. This was one of the greatest men of this, or any, generation.
But as sad as I was, I also felt something else. I felt fortunate. I had the rare opportunity to cover him longer and closer than any other journalist in the country. He gave me his approval to write the first biography of him in 40 years, and I was lucky enough to spend hours in that tiny condominium in Encino that was more like a basketball museum. I was there, covering his first game at Pauley Pavilion and the last game of his career in the NCAA Finals in San Diego. I was with him in so many different venues, under so many varied circumstances. I saw him in the glare of the public light and in the shadows of his private moments. Surrounded by the hungry media and lovingly encircled by his wonderful family.
Rather than recount all his records and achievements that are by now almost redundant, allow me to share some of those personal memories with you:
* * * *
Sitting in the den in his condo, relaxed in a large, cushy chair, surrounded by pictures and plaques and momentos, Wooden would smile and always bring up his beloved Nellie, the love of his life, sometimes telling stories of the two of them, his eyes twinkling like a teenager talking about his first girl friend. Other times, he would fight back tears, talking about how much he missed her and how difficult it was for him to go on after she died in 1985.
By now, the stories of how he kept her picture and her clothes on his bed, how he wrote her letters every month, have become legendary, but when he took you in there, and you saw it, the reality couldn’t help but make you emotional.
“I honestly am not afraid of dying,” he would say more than once. “Because when I do, I know I’ll be reuniting with Nellie.”
This was more than just a great relationship. This was a love story for the ages.
* * * *
Going to breakfast with Wooden was always a treat, because there was only one place he loved to eat.
It is called VIPS, and it is a tiny coffee shop on Ventura Blvd., just a few quick dribbles away from his condo. As soon as you walk in, you understand why Wooden loves it. It is a throwback, in style and atmosphere, to the restaurants where he grew up in tiny Martinsville, Ind.
You know the old Cheers’ theme song, “Where Everyone Knows Your Name”? Well, in this place, everyone really does. Wooden calls them all by first name, and they all smile and call him “Coach.”
As for the food, well, even that is a throwback. “Try the No. 2 Special,” Wooden would advise you. “It’s two eggs, two slices of bacon, toast and coffee. It’s very reasonable at $2.95.”
Wooden would eat and everybody would look over at him and smile. Even the owner was there to personally open the door and hang pictures of Wooden on every available patch of wall space.
I would imagine VIPS will be a very somber place this Saturday morning.
* * * *
The one thing Wooden never received enough credit for was helping to break the color barrier in college basketball.
Long before Don Haskins won the National Championship at Texas Western with five black starters, Wooden, who grew up in an area familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, was introducing great African American athletes to America.
Willie Naulls, Morris Taft and Walt Hazzard were just three of the great black players who proceeded the greatest of them all, Lew Alcindor
“My mother wanted me to have an equal opportunity, to be given a fair chance,” Naulls told me at a dinner one afteroon honoring Wooden. “Coach gave me that. It was a big thing for diversity. Coach started raising the diversity level in Westwood.” Not just in Westwood, but across the country.
Quietly, Wooden was very proud of that, and it probably helps explain one of his favorite stories. After he retired, he began attending one particular church in the San Fernando Valley. Several of his former players liked to join him for services, so one week it was Kenny Washington, then Mike Warren, followed by Jamaal Wilkes. Finally, when Wooden showed up by himself one Sunday, the gentleman behind him tapped him on the shoulder.
“Coach,” he said, “do you mind if I ask you a question?” Wooden said no, of course not.
“No offense or anything,” the man said, “but do you have any white friends?”
When Wooden would tell that story in his condo, his whole body would shake with laughter.
* * * *
On many of my visits to the condo, Wooden would allow me to bring family and friends. My wife, my son, some of my best friends and even Angels manager Mike Scioscia, after he won the 2002 World Series, joined me in Encino.
The thing everyone would remark on afterward was the special aura that seemed to surround him. The feeling of warmth just filled up the room. Dick Enberg, who used to broadcast Wooden’s games at UCLA, said: “You know you’re not just close to greatness, you’re close to goodness.” Scisocia described it as almost a religious experience.
Through it all, though, what struck you is that Wooden was genuine. It was not put on. His critics used to sneer and say nobody could be that perfect. He wasn’t perfect. But what you saw was what he was.
He had morals that were as strong as steel girders.
I think my perceptive wife, Marsha, put it best. “It’s kind of like the Wizard Of Oz. You know when they pull back the curtain and someone else is there? Well, with John Wooden, you’d pull it back and it was really him there.”
He hated the Wizard of Westwood label, but you couldn’t get away from it. There was something truly magical about the man.
I’ve always said that if everyone could spend 30 minutes with him in that condo, the world would be a much better place.
* * *
His final game in 1975 seemed so shocking at the time. Now it seems so perfect.
For him to walk away on top, after winning the 10th and maybe the most precious National Championship of them all, was such a fitting way to go out.
Nobody but those close to him knew that he had suffered some health problems and Nellie was not well. Instead of being able to cherish the unparalleled success he enjoyed at UCLA, the pressure had grown to ridiculous proportions.
He once looked at me, and with that engaging smile of his, said: “You know, I honestly think I could have been happy staying in Indiana and coaching high school basketball.”
In many ways, I think he could have. He was never an L.A. guy. He was Midwest all the way. When interviewing him for the book, he confided in me that he’d been offered the Indiana job before Bobby Knight was hired. Deep down, I think he probably would have liked to have gone, but his family was all here and family was always more important than anything to him.
Just think how history would have changed. John Wooden back in Indiana.
Amid all the bittersweet feelings, let’s all be happy that never happened.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Wooden used to say.
No, it is those of us he taught and entertained and truly touched for all these years who are fortunate today.
Very sad, but very, very fortunate.
— Steve Bisheff