Saturday, June 5, 2010

Remembering Coach John Wooden 1910-2010

Allow me a point of personal privilege to say a few words about the passing of John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA, the architect of the greatest winning streak in all sports and more college basketball national championships than any coach of any time or era.

Much is being written today about Coach Wooden, and all of it is true. He was a fierce competitor, and a shaper of great players and young men. It was my privilege to be a student at UCLA from 1971-1976 during the great 88-game winning streak, and the era of Bill Walton.

Student tickets at the time were 25 cents a seat, and our seats were mid-court down low, the very best at Pauley Pavilion. On Fridays and Saturdays during basketball season, we would sit in line for hours to get in with our little orange two-bit tickets, and we would bring our books with us.

Right before the game began, Coach Wooden would take his seat. He would tap his legs with his hands, look behind him, and roll up his program. We would burst into cheers when his ritual was complete, certain we were in for another amazing victory.

Yet as great as the games were, my memory of Coach Wooden is much more than about sports. He was an accessible, friendly teacher. As he walked around campus, Coach Wooden would acknowledge every smile, every wave, every hello. And though we were students in a rebellious time, to us Coach Wooden was our coach. He taught not just his players, but all of us about character and integrity, hard work and humility. When he said things like "go to class, study hard, read your Bible," he was talking to all of us (and he really said those things). In later years his "Pyramid of Success" became popular in business motivational circles, but if you were a UCLA student when he was coach, you knew it cold before it was ever popularized.

It was my greatest honor as a student journalist to write the farewell editorial in the UCLA Daily Bruin when Coach Wooden retired in 1975. It was the end of an era -- it is hard now to describe what a shock his retirement meant to students in an era when nothing else seemed certain. Yet he stayed at UCLA engaged with the university community. The basketball teams waxed and waned, and yet there was always John Wooden, the biggest man on campus of all time, a light of integrity and character gracing the hills of Westwood.

Here is a very touching tribute to Coach Wooden produced by UCLA. Please enjoy, you are in the company of greatness:

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