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John Wooden left this Earthly plane on Friday, June 4, but the 99-year-old, 10-time national title winning former UCLA coach transcended the world of sports long ago.
A combination of the honest Abe Lincoln of hoops and the Dalai Lama of Los Angeles, the “Wizard of Westwood” was not just college basketball’s most accomplished coach, he was one of America’s wisest men and most respected elders at the time of his death.
Granted, Wooden’s achievements on the hardwood — as a player and a coach — are what most will remember him for. Not quite six-feet tall, Wooden was a three-time All-State selection and 1927 state champion at Martinsville (Ind.) High School before becoming a three-time All-American and unofficial 1932 national champ at Purdue.
After spending 11 years as a high school coach — two at Dayton (Ky.) HS and nine more at South Bend (Ind.) Central HS — Wooden coached two seasons at Indiana Teachers College (now known as Indiana State) before taking over for Wilbur Johns at UCLA in 1948. The rest is history.
Over 27 seasons as coach of the Bruins from 1948-75, Wooden led UCLA to an unprecedented 12 Final Four appearances, winning an NCAA-record 10 national titles (1964, ’65, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’75), including seven straight from 1967-73. At the pinnacle, Wooden’s Bruins won 88 consecutive games from Jan. 23, 1971 until the streak ended Jan. 19, 1974 — posting back-to-back undefeated 30–0 seasons in 1971-72 and ’72-73 during that remarkable run.
Wooden’s golden era was fueled largely by a pair of 7-foot superstars — New York City prodigy Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and red-headed San Diegan hippie Bill Walton, who would become the coach’s most public and devout follower.
In a piece entitled “Tribute to Coach” on Wooden’s official website, CoachWooden.com, Walton put his surprisingly poignant thoughts about the iconic leader on paper while he was still alive:
“It’s usually sad to say goodbye to those you love when it’s time to go. Not so with John Wooden. With him, it’s always about the next time, the next event, the next game. John Wooden still has the enthusiasm, energy, industriousness, initiative and love of life that allows him to get up every day, quite early I must add, even though the legs are now failing him, with the attitude of ‘We get to play basketball today. Let’s go.’
“I thank John Wooden every day for all his selfless gifts, his lessons, his time, his vision and especially his patience.
“This is why we call him coach.”
Although his 10 rings and 620 career wins at UCLA are incredible, they are only drops in the vast ocean of the teacher Wooden was. His “Pyramid of Success” philosophies and the love he had for his childhood sweetheart and wife of 53 years, Nell — even after she passed away in 1985, Wooden would write a love letter to her on the 21st of every month — speak volumes about a man whose life spanned a century but whose values never changed with the times.
Born on October 14, 1910 in Hall, Indiana, John Robert Wooden carried himself with a patient dignity and sincere humility that demanded respect and inspired awe in many until his death on June 4, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. However, Wooden has left behind a legacy of words to live by:
“Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
“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.”
“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
“Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.”
“The carrot is mightier than the stick.”
“Ability is a poor man’s wealth.”
“The worst thing you can do for someone is to do something for them they can and should do for themselves.”
“Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
“Don’t look at the scoreboard.”
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
“It’s not so important who starts the game, but who finishes it.”
“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail. The greatest failure of all is failure to act when action is needed.”
“It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.”
“Make each day your masterpiece.”