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UCLA’s John Wooden Leaves a Legacy of Love and Faith

On June 4th, John Wooden, arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time, went to be with his maker at the age of 99. In Jim Tunney’s Chicken Soup for the Sportsman’s Soul, I wrote about the Wizard of Westwood’s greatest legacy. It had nothing to do with his records as an all-American basketball player at Purdue or as a coach at UCLA.

As a UCLA student, I was there to see two of John Wooden’s great years with UCLA basketball. I watched and cheered as the dynasty took off and soared for over a decade in the 60s and 70s. Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton called him “Coach.” The sports media affectionately called him the “Wizard of Westwood” and honored him as “the architect of the greatest college basketball program in the history of the game.” His UCLA teams hold records few expect ever to be broken. Wooden led the Bruins to 10 national titles in a 12-year span. He won a record seven straight NCAA championships from 1966-1973. From 1971-73, his teams won a record 88 games in a row. Coach Wooden remains the only college coach to steer his teams through four undefeated seasons. As a coach, he never had a losing season.

The man remains an authentic legend. I dare say every college basketball fan in America over 15 years-of-age knows of Wooden’s amazing success and his lasting impact on the game. Few of these same fans know anything about the private side of the man or of the loving woman who was his support through 52 years of marriage. Those who watched this humble man coach did know he was a man of values and a man of consistency. Every game, Wooden would role his program up to give him something to hold in his hand, and, before tipoff, he would turn his gaze to the stands for an approving smile and a wave from his wife, Nell, who always sat in the same seat. There was love in their eyes that, even as a student, was comforting to see. For those who knew him, there was something more important than winning basketball games to the Wizard of Westwood, and her name was Nell Wooden.

Years later, I conducted a series of programs at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles, California. While discussing the importance of values in leadership, I mentioned some insights about Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success that was the cornerstone of his coaching philosophy at UCLA. Two nurse supervisors who were attending the program approached me during the break. They confided they knew little about UCLA basketball, but they did know a lot about John Wooden, the man.

Nell Wooden had been in an extended coma as a result of a heart attack she suffered while undergoing a hip-replacement operation in 1982. The nurses had seen John Wooden day after day as he came to Nell’s bedside. He would spend ten-hour days just holding her hand. Other times he would be in prayer next to her bed. The doctors had told him to talk to her because her subconscious might be able to hear him. After three months in a coma he squeezed her hand and felt a squeeze back. Nell was back! In a few short months she was again at death’s door after having her gall-bladder removed. Yet against the odds, Nell recovered enough to enjoy a few more months of life with family and friends. Through it all, Coach Wooden was by her side just as she had always been with him. His attitude, his courtesy, his faith and his enduring love for his wife showed to the end. On the first day of spring March 21, 1985, his sweetheart of 60 years, Nell Wooden, passed away. The girl that had been with him most of his life would no longer be at his side.

Hearing about John Wooden’s strength of character and gracious love didn’t surprise me. It was but another testimony to the integrity of the man who always led by example. After all, as he used to say, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

In 1998, I saw Coach Wooden at a UCLA basketball game. I went over to where he was seated and told him what the nurses at St. Vincent’s had said. His eyes welled with tears, and he said, “That’s the kindest compliment I’ve ever been given.”

As I wrote in The Optimism Advantage, faith is the grounding that provides perspective and strength to the optimism and hope of many believers. When asked about his Christian faith, John Wooden said, “If I were ever put on trial for my faith, I would hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” There are few men in or outside of sports who have lived their faith and values so effectively and so publicly. When asked in a CNN interview at the age of 98 to identify the quote he would want to be remembered for, he quoted Nell’s favorite prayer, “Oh Lord, make be beautiful within.” John Wooden truly was beautiful within. Good friend and famous Laker coach Bill Sharman visited coach Wooden in his last days. When informed of his passing, he said, “John wanted to see Nelly.”

National championship trophies can lose their luster, but legacies of love and faith have a way of enduring as memories that call us to do the same.

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