Tribute to a Legend: John A. Wooden-Teacher in a class by himself

When the Encino, California, door slid open, and suddenly, there he was. The most accomplished and respected coach of any millennium was dressed conservatively in a blue cardigan sweater and gray slacks.

Instantly, he appeared precisely like that mental photograph of him that we carried with us: owlish and dignified, with buttery-soft pale skin and sky-blue eyes that danced contentedly behind silver-rimmed glasses. We’re talking a 2005 interview and this article is a tribute to the famed coach-teacher. Let’s go back a few years…

John R. Wooden, basketball coach emeritus, emerges from the elevator behind a walker, a concession to hip replacement, arthritic knees and his 91 years. Yet his gait is purposeful, determined. He moves quickly but without hurrying. “Hello, nice to see you,” he says politely, surveying the hirsute visage of his visitor.

I squeak out something like, “My pleasure, Coach.” Other than feeling, for a moment, like Bill Walton without a red bandana or a post-up game, I am in total awe. And what a rare feeling it is. Wooden hasn’t coached in a quarter of a century, and college athletics is worse off in these days of self-serving, player-pimping, media-hustling millionaire coaches. A Hoosier raised during the Depression, Wooden hasn’t changed; the world has.

We head to a bookstore in the San Fernando Valley with co-author Andy Hill and Hill’s wife, Janice. Be Quick — But Don’t Hurry! shares lessons in career and life management Hill had unconsciously internalized while playing for the icon more than 30 years ago.

Hill was a part of three UCLA national championship teams that won 87 of 90 games. “Actually,” he says, “played might be an exaggeration. I sat and watched a lot of basketball.

He had been an all-city high school player in Los Angeles, later sharing Bruins freshman MVP honors with backcourt mate Henry Bibby. But the man whom Hill had idolized, and idealized, as a coaching father-figure left him wanting because of the player’s own naiveté. The rabble-rouser in Hill wrongly interpreted Wooden as provincial, anachronistic.

As a sophomore in 1969, Hill wanted to call off the season’s first practice in support of a national student moratorium to protest the Vietnam War. Wooden told him one thing: “Andy, you don’t have to come to practice . . . you don’t ever have to come to practice.”

As his playing time dwindled, Hill moped. By the time he graduated, he was bitter about his UCLA days.

What he didn’t realize until years later, as president of CBS Productions, was that he had been all along implementing Wooden’s teachings, the bedrock of which is the legend’s famous Pyramid of Success. The building blocks are familiar to Wooden disciples: enthusiasm, cooperation, loyalty, friendship, industriousness, intentness, initiative, alertness, self-control, team spirit, skill, condition, confidence, poise and, at the very tip of the triangle, competitive greatness.

“The championships,” Hill says, “were merely a byproduct.”

Wooden defines competitive greatness as being at your best when your best is needed, enjoying a difficult challenge. On this night, he must do just that, particularly after finding out that his lone sibling, brother Bill, is dying from cancer in La Porte, Ind.

“It makes me sad,” he quietly tells Janice.

In the bookstore, he amiably chats with those of varied backgrounds eager to brush up against this man of letters. One couple has decided to spend part of their 23rd wedding anniversary evening in Wooden’s company. A man who used to chair the psychology program at Indiana State roars down nostalgia road. Then a middle-aged woman with concern scrawled on her face approaches Wooden.

“What do you do with a child beaten down by a coach who acts like Bobby Knight?” she asks. Don’t sympathize too much, Wooden tells her, but make sure to have empathy. In so many words, he says: Count your blessings. (Not that he defends those of Knight’s ilk. He later says, “He’s a good coach, but I wouldn’t want anyone dear to me to play for him.”)

The woman looks unsatisfied. Wooden elaborates.

“There’s tremendous strength in everything Mother Teresa said: ‘Forgiveness sets you free, and life not lived for others is not a life.’ The longer you have resentment, even though you are right, it only hurts you. Think of the good things.”

This humble, genteel man reminds us that the best teachers never retire. They only find new students.