John Wooden (1910 – 2010)


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I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews over my 18 years in this business. Whether across a desk or over the phone, I tend to get butterflies before each conversation, and I’ve come to consider this healthy. Means I’m focused, attentive . . . the least I can offer someone willing to open up his or her life to my line of questioning.

Only twice, though, have I been nervous during an interview. I mean palm-sweating, knee-trembling nervous. Both of these were over the phone. The first time was a chat with rock star Gene Simmons in April 2000. That was simply the boy in me hearing the “God of Thunder” instead of an enterprising musician and businessman. The second nerve-tickling interview came on December 5, 2002. It was with John Wooden.

Five months shy of his 100th birthday, Wooden died in Los Angeles on Friday. The coach of 10 national champions -- over a 12-year period, mind you -- at UCLA, Wooden embodied class, grace, and perspective in a sports world that tends to lose its grip on all three. It wasn’t for more than 15 minutes, but Coach Wooden -- no, Mr. Wooden -- gave me a small slice of his life. For that, I’ll be grateful the rest of my days.

I was putting together a story on the 1973 Memphis State Tigers for Memphis magazine. That fabled team -- led by Larry Finch, they reached the NCAA championship game before falling to mighty UCLA -- was on the verge of its 30th anniversary, and I was searching for perspective from the significant players and coaches who made Memphis sports history.

A media-relations rep at UCLA surprised me by giving me Mr. Wooden’s home phone number. I knew this kind of drill: place the call, leave a message on a machine, and cross your fingers that the subject returns the call. No need to call twice.

I dialed the number . . . and the greatest coach college basketball has ever known picked up the phone. My voice cracking, I asked Mr. Wooden if he had time to discuss the 1973 championship game, and his response was concise, on target, and rather funny: “If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”

Thankfully, Mr. Wooden filled any silence with intelligent reflection. He fondly recalled Tiger coach Gene Bartow and Larry Finch (“an outstanding player”). He expressed regret about the recent stroke Finch had suffered, a development that had to be difficult for a man 41 years older than Finch to accept. The quote I like the most: “If [my team] executed to their own level of competency, we’d do all right. Now, the other team might be better and do the same thing, but that’s all right. That’s the message I tried to get across.” Such could be in the first chapter of Lessons on Life.

Exactly a month after my interview with Mr. Wooden, I interviewed Bill Walton, the UCLA star who scored a record 44 points in that championship game against Memphis State. (Palms not as sweaty this time.) And Walton absolutely gushed affection for his college coach.

“In the locker room before every game,” said Walton, “we’d be just raging, ready to explode. Coach Wooden would come in -- we’d be doing our pushups, slap-fights, playing pepper with the ball -- a caged tiger with that rolled-up program. He’d look at us and say, ‘Men, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to you. When that ball goes up, don’t look over at the sideline, because when that game is played, I can’t do anything.’

“He was the master of poise, composure,” Walton continued. “His game-time demeanor was that of a church parson. Practice was a totally different story. Up and down the sideline, pushing guys, challenging them, demanding that we do it faster and better, to the point we were doing it perfectly every time.

“We always thought it was about the winning. We didn’t understand what he was talking about. . . . We thought this guy was the squarest stiff in the world. It wasn’t until we started losing that all the lessons he was teaching came home. . . . He never really talked about basketball; there was no strategy, no plays. He was a teacher, and basketball happened to be his medium.”

John Wooden stressed what he called “the four laws of learning”: explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition. Here’s hoping the lesson he personified over nearly a century of life will continue to be taught.

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