I want to add my voice and discuss the life and enduring legacy of Johnny Wooden. This great UCLA basketball coach, teacher and family man left us on June 4 at the age of 99, and I cannot think of anyone who better exemplified the way a life should be lived. One of his mottos was to “Make each day your masterpiece,” and that is what he did.
When I was a freshman at UCLA in 1963, I happened to have a basketball class at the men’s gym that ended at 3 p.m., which was the time the men’s varsity team began its practices. I stayed so frequently to watch that later, when they closed the practices to the public, they still allowed me to remain.
The 1963-64 academic year was when UCLA won its first national basketball championship, with 30 wins and no losses, and if you think Walt Hazzard made some great plays during the games, you should have seen what he did during the practices. But the thing that really got my attention was the meticulous planning that obviously went into each practice session.
At the practices, Coach Wooden carried with him a small piece of paper that seemed to have everything organized down to the minute. In fact, he put into operation his motto that “Practice doesn’t make perfect – only perfect practice makes perfect.”
Coach Wooden would always be teaching during the practices, with such comments as “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” There was also a time in which one player made a good pass to a teammate for a layup, and Coach stopped the practice and observed that the player who received the pass had not acknowledged or thanked the one who had fed him the ball.
Then he said: “You cannot win a basketball game without cooperation. So thank your teammate when you receive it.”
Coach Wooden did not particularly prepare his team to play against any specific opponent. Instead he prepared his players to play their own game as best they could, and let their opponents prepare for them. And never once did I hear Coach mention winning. Instead, he spoke about doing the best they could, and that would be good enough. Those were some of the great lessons in life that I learned from Coach Wooden.
His personal lifestyle reflected his teachings. John Wooden was one of the most celebrated coaches of all time, but he lived in a modest condominium in Encino. He won 10 national basketball championships, but before he kept any championship ring for himself, he made sure that each of his children and grandchildren had one. Throughout his career, which obviously included many pressure-filled moments, he was never heard to utter language stronger than “goodness gracious sakes alive!” (But that happened frequently, and his players knew they were in trouble when they heard it.)
About 10 years ago I sent a letter to Coach Wooden that explained my truly modest connection to the 1963-64 championship team, and asked him to diagram his famous and successful full court press and send it back to me so that I could put it on the wall in my chambers. Almost by return mail he did as I requested, and also sent along a signed picture, as well as a copy of his pivotally instructive “Pyramid of Success,” which was his teaching system based upon such things as cooperation and personal responsibility. I framed those three mementos, and they will always have a position of prominence in my life.
Coach Wooden’s devotion to his wife Nell, who was his high school sweetheart, was legendary, it has been reported. She died in 1985 after being married to the coach for 52 years, and Coach Wooden made no secret of his desire to rejoin her after his own death. Before each game he would look up to her in the stands and blow her a kiss. Many years later when he was asked if he would allow the UCLA basketball floor at Pauley Pavilion to be dedicated to him, he said yes, but only if it would be dedicated jointly to him and to Nell, and that her name should come first. That is the way it is to this day.
John Wooden was a competitor and is only one of three people to be selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and as a coach. (The other two are Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman.) In addition, Wooden made 134 consecutive free throws over a 45-game stretch while playing for Purdue, which shows his own individual attention to perfection.
But none of those achievements are as strong as his legacy of being a great teacher.
As he said: “There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than watching his students make his lessons their own.” In his teachings, Coach Wooden had many mottos that set forth his direction, such as “Learn as if you were to live forever, live as if you were to die tomorrow;” “Make friendship a fine art;” “Drink deeply from good books;” and “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.” His life set forth the results of putting those mottos into practice.
Honestly, with the passing of Coach John Wooden, my life will never be quite the same.
As he once said, “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
In various ways, he has taught and given correction to hundreds of thousands of people, including myself, and I don’t think there is a resentment anywhere to be found. Just like when I lost my wonderful parents, my father just short of his 80th birthday, and my mother at age 84, I have no complaints.
My parents lived good, useful and full lives, but I simply miss them. And I feel the same way about Johnny Wooden. Thank you coach. Your life was truly a masterpiece, and I will miss you.
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)