Maybe Vince Lombardi was more majestic and Red Auerbach a more colorful figure. Perhaps Bear Bryant was more revered. But John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach who died at 99 in Los Angeles on June 4, could lay claim to his own honorific. No great coach in history was more beloved, and no beloved coach greater, than the Wizard of Westwood.
At UCLA, Wooden won 10 national basketball championships, a run that included seven straight titles from 1967 to 1973. During one stretch, Wooden's team won 88 straight games, a record that will never be matched. But it says mountains about the man that despite the outlandish numbers, Wooden's character transcended his accomplishments. "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are," Wooden once said, "while your reputation is merely what others think you are." Wooden lived up to his own exhortations, as he was, through the end of his life, a dignified man whose selflessness and pure affection for his players shaped the lives of so many people he encountered.
Despite his legendary status, Wooden lived in a modest condo in Encino, Calif., where he would write monthly love letters to his wife of 53 years, Nellie, a childhood sweetheart who passed away in 1985. His wife's death was his greatest loss, and it served as the clearest window into his character. To honor her memory, Wooden would sleep only on his half of the bed and on only his pillow. "Every picture on the walls are the ones Nellie chose, the one she wanted up," Wooden said. "I've changed nothing except add pictures of the great-grandchildren she never had a chance to see."
Wooden grew up in basketball-crazed Martinsville, Ind., a town of 4,800 people whose high school basketball gym housed 5,200. He was an All-American at Purdue University and the National Player of the Year in 1932. After spending 11 seasons coaching high school basketball in Kentucky and Indiana, Wooden enlisted in the Navy, where he attained the rank of lieutenant during World War II. After a two-year stint as the basketball and baseball coach at Indiana State Teachers College, now Indiana State University, Wooden moved west to UCLA in 1948.
There, the Wizard of Westwood sat calmly on the sideline, his program wrapped perfectly in his hand, and coached some of the greatest college basketball talents of all time. Players like Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Gail Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes and Bill Walton thrived under his patient presence. He offered succinct, spot-on pearls of wisdom "be quick, but don't hurry" was one of his favorites and demonstrated to the thousands of coaches who idolized him the importance of an organized, purposeful practice. "I don't think I was a fine game coach," Wooden told UCLA Magazine in 2000. "I don't think I was a great strategy guy. I think I was a good practice coach. I could tell you right now what we did every practice I had at UCLA every day, every minute. It's all on paper."
Wooden coached the Bruins for 28 years, retiring in 1975 after winning his 10th title. "What changed my life was going to UCLA for four years and living with John Wooden," Walton once said. "At practice, he was a tiger, always on edge, always barking at us, pacing, pacing. By the time the game came around, we couldn't wait to play. He was a masterful psychologist." In 1948 Wooden completed his famous "pyramid of success," which detailed the building blocks traits like industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm that he felt were necessary to reach the top block, competitive greatness. "Your heart must be in your work," Wooden wrote. "Stimulate others." Wooden was the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
Even as he longed for his departed wife, Wooden embraced the twilight of his remarkable life. "Fear of leaving does not bind me," Wooden told ESPN in a 2009 interview, reciting a poem written by one of his former players, Swen Nater. "And departure does not hold a single care. Peace does comfort as I ponder a reunion in the yonder with my dearest one who's waiting for me there." Rest in peace, Coach. Your greatest teammate awaits.