Justice Is Served

June 5, 2010 12:14 AM

Wizard of Westwood: R.I.P., Coach Wooden


Coach John Wooden died last night. His passing saddens me.

Not that I ever met Wooden face to face, because I never did. Our paths never crossed during my 25-year career as a sports journalist. So what I know about the legendary UCLA coach comes mostly from media accounts of others or through the fables that have made Wooden such an iconic figure in college basketball.

Oh, I do have one of those stories, a story that tells as much about the man as anything else I can think of.

Andrew Hemminger, a soon-to-be grad of Bowling Green University at the time, had an idea for a book. Andrew and his best friend wanted to travel the country in an old Honda and interview big-name coaches about basketball. The list of coaches the two road warriors sought and got an audience with looked like the "Who's Who" of the coaching profession. From Tubby Smith to Coach K to Rick Pitino to Jim Calhoun to Tom Izzo, nearly every coach of significance -- aside from Bob Knight -- agreed to talk.

Andrew had on his list a dream coach he and his friend hoped to include in their book. They wanted John Wooden, who seemed unreachable. The coach was well into his 90s, his 10 NCAA titles and his UCLA days long behind him; they couldn't expect Wooden to free his schedule and turn 20 minutes of his day over to strangers, could they?

To be sure, theirs was a long shot, but so was getting an audience with the coaches they had already landed.

Nothing from nothing left nothing, so what the heck, they thought to themselves. They would go for it.

Through contacts Andrew had made along the way, he got Wooden's phone number and called the coach one day. Well, he was shocked that Wooden himself answered. He told Wooden what he was trying to do. Impressed, the coach invited the two strangers to his home. Three of them had a nice talk, and they were able to include Wooden, the catch of catches, in their book: Destination Basketball: A Once in A Lifetime Adventure to Meet the Best Coaches in College Hoops.

What coach would have invited two strangers into his home? Knight? Jim Boeheim? Bill Self? Dean Smith?

I doubt Wooden saw his hospitality as anything more than "a teachable moment" for a coach who'd spent his adult life teaching. He must have realized that the young men had a wonderful project, and he had not choice but to help them succeed.

Isn't that what he'd done throughout his career?

Basketball, which earned Wooden his 15 minutes of fame, was what brought college-aged men into his world. I understand that, but basketball wasn't what made men who came into his world stick around for the long run.

Under Wooden's influence, those men were shaped into citizens of the world. The coach made all of them better and more complete people.  

While it's conjecture on my part, I think if one of his players had to stamp a label on John Wooden, "coach" wouldn't be the player's first choice. Rather, that first choice would be a word like "teacher" or, perhaps, "mentor."

Both, however, fit Wooden like a pair of custom-made loafers.

But all of those good men - champions in life and in basketball like Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- will be asked today to find words for their old coach, because others will want to know as much about the real Coach Wooden as they know about his myth. 

The myth can't possibly measure up to the reality.

Putting perspective to this reality will be what these men Wooden coached will be asked to talk about. People will want them to share those private moments that none of us were privy too.

We might be disappointed.

For we never earned the right to go much deeper into their relationship with Wooden, the "Wizard of Westwood." This is their time for reflection. This is their time to thank their old coach; this is their time to shed tears over his passing.

This is their time to mourn and to remember the lessons they learned from the best teacher of young men who ever lived. 

A Member Of