In my near 20 years of life I’ve seen the passing of countless celebrities – Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Steve Irwin, and who knows how many others. And while I’ve never been happy to hear about the death of any celebrity, I don’t think I’ve ever been personally touched deeply by one. Until now.
On June 4th, 2010, John Wooden passed away at the UCLA hospital at the age of 99. You can expect to hear about his death in the coming days, but you absolutely can’t ignore just how important this news is.
John Wooden won ten national championships as the coach of the UCLA Bruins, was named to three straight All-American teams as a player at Purdue University in the early ’30s, and led his Bruins squad to an unprecedented 88 winning streak, a record that will probably stand for as long as NCAA basketball is around. Now, I can sit here and recite tangible stats all day long, and whip across the point that Wooden is without a doubt the greatest coach in college basketball history, and probably the best coach in any sport this country has ever seen.
But that’s the stuff you’re going to hear. I was to discuss exactly why I’m so touched by John Wooden’s death.
ESPN ran a tremendous segment over Wooden about a year back, and it wasn’t until that segment that I learned much about him. After all, I’m only 19, so I never got to see John Wooden in his work. However, after ESPN ran that segment, I gained an incredible amount of respect for the man known as “The Wizard of Westwood”.
John Wooden values by which he lived his life can largely be attributed to his upbringing in America’s heartland, deep in the cornfields of Indiana. They say you can take the man out of a small-town, but you can’t take the small-town out of a man. John Wooden may be the best example of that in history. He attributed his hard work and discipline to working on his parent’s farm in Indiana. That discipline and hard work he learned would be two of the values by which his life was defined.
First let me start off by saying what Wooden did on the court will never be surpassed. But it was his actions on and off the court that won me over. We can talk about the little things he did: He didn’t cuss. Whether you were a small college’s news correspondent or a Los Angeles Times reporter (as said by J.A. Adande), he treated you with the same high level of respect. Wooden’s ‘Pyramid of Success’, which consists of fifteen components, is used not only in basketball, but in businesses and schools to this day.
While none of those things are “small” by any stretch of the imagination, they pale in comparison to his bigger accomplishments in life. One of the most respectable qualities I discovered about the late John Wooden was his committed and unwavering love for his wife (covered in this video by Rick Reilly) is one of THE very best pieces of journalism I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. But the story itself is tenfold better. On the 21st of every month, Wooden would write a letter to his wife of 53 years, Nellie, telling her how much he misses her, loves her, and can’t wait to see her again. The stack of letters continued to pile up on her pillow, tied by a yellow ribbon.
I can’t make a story that good up. I don’t think Hollywood can make a story that good. And this was real life.
The other quality I most respect from John Wooden was his untiring faith. He read his Bible daily, and his faith strongly influenced his wife. He kept his idols in order – God being first, never letting his coaching duties or the game of basketball eclipse the Almighty and his Savior. Maybe my favorite quote from Wooden (and that’s definitely saying a lot) reads, “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”
As for my personal thought on John Wooden, I really don’t know if I could adequately put them into words without doing an injustice. This man was someone by which people should strive to live like. The more I read about him, the more I discover and the deeper I respect him. As I said earlier, I’m too young to remember any of Wooden’s coaching but I can only admire his life off the court.
As an aspiring teacher and basketball coach someday (from a small town I might add), I can only strive to be what this man exemplified. His Pyramid of Success, which includes such values as loyalty, self-control, and poise, is the near-perfect model by which to coach, play, and live. Even watching him coach on old videos commands my respect and admiration, and I can only hope to become half of the coach this man was. He didn’t want to just win; he wanted to do it with respect. He didn’t want to just coach; he wanted to be a life coach. He didn’t want to just be leader; he wanted to be a father to his players.
There’s really not much else I can say about Wooden, so instead I’ll leave you with some quotes from the Wizard of Westwood himself.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
“Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.”
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
And finally, one of my favorite (if not my favorite) quote from John Wooden —
“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
Everyone who’s spoken about Wooden on ESPN has held him in the highest regards. I don’t think there’s a soul who has a bad thing to say about John Wooden. Wooden will always be a true champion, and one of the very few people who left the world a better place.
John Wooden, rest in peace. You deserve it.