John Wooden’s death last week came just four months shy of his 100th birthday. The legendary UCLA basketball coach, affectionately nicknamed the “Wizard of Westwood” for his record setting 10 championships, had been officially retired for 35 years. Remarkably, he remained active into his late 90s, regularly attracting huge crowds wherever and whenever he showed up.
But why? What was his allure? Why did he remain so popular? In an age and culture that is so quickly and easily drawn to the cool and hip, what was it about John Robert Wooden, someone clearly not cool and hip, that remained so attractive and tantalizing to audiences all over the country?
To see Coach Wooden in action was to witness a gentle man of measure and moderation. Frank Litsky, writing in The New York Times, called him a “staid Midwesterner” and a “dignified, scholarly man who spoke with the precise language of the English teacher he once was.” I was fascinated to learn that all throughout his life he carried in his pocket a piece of paper with a creed penned by his father. It read:
“Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books daily, especially the Bible. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day.”
He was, of course, a product of a bygone era who found his way in a world so very different than today’s fast-paced, technology-driven society. He was born on an Indiana farm and lived in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. A family of little means, his mother made him his first basketball by stuffing a black cotton sock with rags. His first hoop? A tomato basket that his father handmade using the rings of a barrel.
Few remember that he was an accomplished player in his own right, starring and serving as team captain for Purdue University’s championship basketball team. In fact, in 1932 he was named the Player of the Year following Purdue’s one and only national title. And there was no scholarship; to pay the tuition he worked construction, pouring cement and hammering boards during the summers between school years.
John Wooden was a popular guest on the Focus on the Family radio program. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but growing up in Southern California during his historic ten-championship run and 88-game winning streak, I certainly remember watching the Bruins with amazement on television. Doug Birnie is a colleague of mine here at Focus who actually played on the junior varsity squad at UCLA during the tail end of Coach Wooden’s tenure. He has cherished memories of watching Coach Wooden’s genius up close.
“He was a model of discipline and excellence,” Doug recalled. “He was firm, exacting and demanding but fair and a gentleman who had impeccable character—and expected the same of you.”
Doug’s reflections mirror those of John Wooden’s former players. Interestingly, Doug suggests that the coach’s influence on his players grew more pronounced the further away from him and the court they got.
“At the time, so much of his wisdom was lost on most of his 20 or 21 year-old players,” Birnie noted. “It was certainly lost on me. It wasn’t until you graduated and maybe married and had children that you began to fully appreciate the wisdom of Coach Wooden. And, in fact, he saw himself more of a teacher than a coach. He never spoke of winning; he spoke about pursuing excellence and doing well whatever you were doing.”
After all, it was Wooden himself who once so aptly said: “Things work out best for the people who make the best of the way things work out.”
Such wisdom was not myopic or purely theoretical. The coach was a man who spoke from painful experience. In 1985, after 53 wonderful years with his beloved wife, Nellie, Coach Wooden lost his childhood sweetheart to cancer. He was forced to navigate his last 25 years without the love of his life by his side. To help cope with the loss, he made it a monthly ritual to visit her grave on the 21st of each month (she passed away March 21, 1985) and would then write her a love letter, stacking it atop the pillow she once used.
In his later years, Coach Wooden lived in a small condominium near UCLA. His number was listed in the phone book, and he’d gladly chat with whomever took the time to dial him up. He answered his own mail, responding to most requests and notes with a handwritten note.
In the early morning hours, he could be seen walking the track at UCLA, politely waving and nodding to anyone who caught his eye. He was a regular visitor at UCLA games, and would receive people while sitting in his seat, politely posing for pictures and signing autographs.
I’ve been heartened by the expression of universal appreciation for the late coach. Most of the reports mention that Coach Wooden was a “religious” man who didn’t swear and who kept his composure both on and off the court. In fact, “Goodness, gracious sakes alive!” was his worst exclamatory outburst. But he was more than just a religious man. He was even more than a “good man” or even a “moral man” who lived an upright life.
At the core, John Wooden was a Christian. He loved Jesus Christ and had long ago committed his life to Him. He read his Bible on a daily basis, viewing it as the playbook of a life well-lived. He was a man who had his priorities in order, never allowing himself to get too high or too low. He found joy whatever the circumstance.
“I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate,” he once said. “It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.”
Coach Wooden penned his autobiography in 1972. The runaway bestseller was aptly and simply titled, They Call Me Coach. Thirty-eight years have come and gone since its publication. Although several hundred men hold the privilege and distinction of remembering John Wooden as their coach, believers remember him as even more—a dear brother in Christ.
Some called him coach; we called him our brother. And now our Lord, who reigns above all things, has called him home.