What a privilege my wife Shirley and I had a few days ago!
A dear mutual friend asked us if we’d like to have breakfast with the winningest coach in all sports history — John Wooden. And after 10 seconds of stunned deliberation, we enthusiastically declared we would. Who in their right minds wouldn’t?
This friend, our mutual editor at Regal Books, has become close to the coach and has breakfast with him occasionally in a classic little diner out in the San Fernando Valley; Coach Wooden himself eats there every morning.
In a recent conversation, my name came up, and the coach said something nice about me, prompting the breakfast invitation. I asked if Shirley could join us, and the date was set: 8:15 on Thursday morning. That’s a little later than normal for the coach, but he was considerate of our age (he’ll be a young 97 this October).
There was some traffic, so we walked in about 8:20, met the genial owner of the diner who led us to a back table for four where the smiling legend was sitting alone, welcoming us like we were old friends. We chatted briefly and looked at the laminated menus. The coach said, “I’m ordering the hotcakes; they’re the best I ever ate.” Figuring he was about the best judge of anything, I ordered the hotcakes with sausage, and Shirl had her usual oatmeal and brown sugar. “And raisins,” said the coach, and Shirley repeated that to the owner, who was happily waiting on us himself.
The coach was right. They were the best hotcakes I ever ate, too. I never even added syrup, just butter, and I practically licked the plate.
But by far, the best part of this unforgettable morning was the hour or so when we shared a little piece of Coach John Wooden’s life. We actually didn’t talk much about basketball. The names of Gale Goodrich and Bill Walton and Ralph Drollinger came up, and I told him about the fun I had in a gym one morning — a little one-on-one with a 7 foot 2 inch beanpole from New York named Lew Alcindor, before he enrolled at UCLA. Before Lew became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. But we didn’t talk about that.
I did tell him about trying to keep my “father authority” with equally stratospheric Ralph Drollinger when he briefly dated my daughter Cherry. My account of trying to keep up with Ralph when I invited myself to accompany him and Cherry on a hike up in Idlewild above Palm Springs — he’d seemed to be wearing seven league boots, covering five yards with every stride, while I’d huffed and puffed to keep up — brought a chuckle from the coach.
But we mainly discussed family and marriage and things that become more important when you’ve clearly lived the majority of your whole life. He spoke softly of his wife of 53 years, Nell, and his pale blue eyes moistened. They had married in 1932, shortly after he graduated from Purdue University with scholastic honors. Oh, and he’d also been a basketball All-American at guard for three years, and excelled at baseball too!
Settling into what they both thought would be a settled, bucolic life, John Wooden taught English at South Bend Central High and did a little coaching too. After 11 years, his prep school won/loss record was a very impressive 218-42. But then World War II interrupted, and the young teacher/coach served as a full lieutenant in the Navy from 1943 through ’46. Following his discharge in 1946, he went to Indiana Teachers College where he served as athletic director, and as basketball and baseball coach for two triumphant winning years . . . until he was recruited by UCLA.
The rest, of course, is history — and what a history! Under Coach Wooden, UCLA won an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, including the seven consecutive from 1966 through 1973! This included one of the most amazing streaks in all sports history, 38 straight NCAA tournament victories. 38 straight! That’s truly unbelievable. But even that is overshadowed by the 88 straight wins, including four consecutive 30-0 seasons. UCLA, during the Wooden years at Pauley Pavilion, won 149 out of 151 games. I remember that time so well — living just a short distance from the campus, always assuming that the Bruins would naturally win every game they played. And as long as this diminutive, soft spoken, but authoritative gentleman was there, they practically did. John Wooden is the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach. And it clearly wasn't due to physical size or bombastic approach or temper tantrums or even sly, uncanny recruiting methods. No, it was due to a combination of integrity, quiet hard work, devotion to details and fundamentals, and faith. Faith in himself, his teammates and players, and in God.
He made others believe they could do more than they’d ever thought, and then he trusted them to do it. He bid a quiet farewell to his beloved Nell in 1985 after 53 years of marriage, knowing they’d meet again in a little while. He’s very proud of his son James Hugh and his daughter Nancy Anne, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, even more it seems than all his coaching accomplishments. In fact, his gentle good humor and kindliness make all his success seem even more unbelievable, as if it must belong to some other guy named Wooden.
But both Woodens are one and the same. And as we were about to end our breakfast meeting, he happened to mention that he enjoys poetry, and sort of bashfully admitted he’s written some himself. When we asked for a sample, he shyly recited a good night prayer he says softly each night as he drifts off to sleep:
The years have left their imprint
On my hands and on my face
Erect no longer is my walk
And slower is my pace
But there is no fear within my heart
Because I’m growing old
I only wish I had more time
To better serve my Lord
When I’ve gone to Him in prayer
He has brought me inner peace
And soon my cares and worries
And other problems will cease
He has helped me in so many ways
He has never let me down
Why should I fear the future
When soon I could be near His crown
Though I know down here my time is short
There is endless time up there
And He will forgive and keep me
Ever in His loving care
— John Wooden
I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the Lord looks forward to that nightly recitation. After all — from one mentor, one immortal coach to another — there could be no better game-winning call.
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