Still Missing Wooden
He would have been 100 on Thursday.
I have been unable to stop thinking about John Wooden all week, maybe because I didn’t want to stop thinking about him, even while on vacation.
The most unforgettable man I’ve ever met in sports, or in life, died on June 4, just a few months short of making it to 100. He had been sick for a while, so when the end came, it wasn’t a shock. But my own emotional reaction didn’t arrive until I attended his beautiful memorial at Pauley Pavilion a bit later.
Then I broke down and cried like a baby. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Wooden was not only that much of a towering figure but a wonderful friend.
I was luckier than most. I had the opportunity to spend countless hours in his condo, both as a columnist and then later for the book he was kind enough to approve: John Wooden, An American Treasure.
I will cherish that time for the rest of my life. There were so many priceless moments, so many quotes and reactions I wish I could have saved on tape. From breaking down in tears talking about Nell, the late wife he adored, to raving about his grandchildren and great grandchildren to laughing harder than I’ve ever seen him laugh telling old Abe Lemon stories and listening to some of the former coach/humorist’s tapes.
I started covering Wooden in the mid-1960s as a rookie sports writer and continued throughout his coaching career and into his retirement. I never tired of making that long drive from Orange County to Encino, because I always knew the hours spent with him would be memorable. And I was never disappointed.
At the end of those sessions, he would insist on walking you to the tiny elevator outside his door, even though he needed a cane to go that far. Then he’d smile, bend over slightly and allow you to give him a warm hug. Once outside his complex, you’d look up at the second floor, and he’d be standing by his sliding glass door, waving good bye.
Of all the many stories following his death, the best lead was written
by my friend, Kevin Modesti of the L.A. Daily News. He wrote: “John Wooden died too young yesterday. He was 99 years old.”
You nailed that one, Kevin. It can’t be said any better than that.
PICKS OF THE WEEK — It was as if the football gods finally looked down and said: “So you think this picking games stuff is easy, huh?” I never thought it was easy. I understand how difficult it is picking winners, let along trying to do it against the spread. But just in case I’d forgotten, I received a jolting reminder last week, losing with both Alabama and the New Orleans Saints straight up, not withstanding the points. It was my first 0-2 week so far. Somewhat discouraged, I intend to carry on, however, giving it my best shot through the rest of the season.
LAST WEEK’S RECORD: 0-2 OVERALL RECORD: 5-4-1
THIS WEEK’S PICKS:
OREGON STATE (Even) AT WASHINGTON — My reason is simple. I happen to think the Beavers are merely the better team, even after losing All-Pac-10 receiver James Rodgers for the season. I know it’s homecoming for the Huskies, but Mike Riley’s kids, who always improve as the season progresses, are coming off a big victory against highly-rated Arizona. The momentum should carry on here.
PITTSBURGH (minus-13) VS. CLEVELAND — Thirteen points is a lot, but the Steelers have the single most dominant unit in the NFL with that suffocating defense. And this is Big Ben Roethlisberger’s welcome back party. Pittsburgh has gone 3-1 with a dormant pass offense that should immediately perk up with their No. 1 quarterback returning. With the home crowd roaring, expect the Steelers to overwhelm Colt McCoy or whomever is playing quarterback for the Browns.
— STEVE BISHEFF