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Remembering John Wooden: Rise and shrine

He moved into the building with his wife on April 5, 1973, 10 days after his team had won its seventh consecutive national championship. One block from the 101 Freeway on a nondescript street in a nice-enough neighborhood, the condo is just as his wife left it when she died on March 21, 1985.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Daily News on Nov. 13, 2003.

He moved into the building with his wife on April 5, 1973, 10 days after his team had won its seventh consecutive national championship. One block from the 101 Freeway on a nondescript street in a nice-enough neighborhood, the condo is just as his wife left it when she died on March 21, 1985.

Head back east on 101 for a few miles, go south on the 405 for 7 miles and then east on Sunset Boulevard for a couple of miles and you run right into Pauley Pavilion, where his teams went 149-2 from 1966 through '75. Pauley might be just 11 miles from his home, but it has been 28 years since he last coached a game there.

When UCLA plays now, he is the mythic figure who sits quietly a few rows off the court, observing the game he has loved since his youth on an Indiana farm. John Wooden turned 93 on Oct. 14.

Wooden retired from coaching on March 31, 1975, the night his UCLA team beat Kentucky to win its 10th championship in 12 years. He did not, however, retire from life nor the game he loves.

After a greeting at the door, he leads the way into his den where he slowly sinks into a chair, surrounded by a virtual basketball museum.

"Everything on the wall in this room and any other room is what my wife wanted," Wooden says. "I haven't changed anything. I've had 11 great-grandchildren come along since I lost her and she didn't live to see any of them and I've got a lot of them all over. I didn't take anything down she did. "

He points to the 10 national championship team photos arranged in a pyramid, just like Wooden's "Pyramid of Success," the one laden with old-fashioned words such as patience, poise, confidence, cooperation and enthusiasm.

"I haven't changed a thing," he says. "I've added a few things, but everything has stayed just the way my wife left it. "

On this late October morning, the coach had already been out to breakfast with the eighth UCLA coach since 1975, Ben Howland. He had spoken with a reporter from a national magazine. He was making plans to go out for lunch. Every 30 seconds or so, his phone rang. Sometimes, he looked at it with bemusement. Occasionally, he answered it.

"I think keeping busy is important," Wooden says. "I can't do as many physical things. I do my exercise in the morning and I have a therapist that comes 3 days a week and works on me. I've got a stationary bike. "

His condo is so crammed with magazines, books, photos and memorabilia of all kinds that you imagine this must be what basketball heaven looks like.

Any list of the greatest coaches in any sport includes John Wooden. One could make a very strong case that, in his final 12 years, nobody has ever helped a team play a sport any better. And helping is what Wooden says he did. It was, he always says, about the players.

His once brown hair has passed gray and gone on to white. His mind hasn't changed.

Born in 1910, during the presidential administration of William Howard Taft, Wooden asks what brought me to California. When he is told I am there to cover the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, he makes reference to the races.


With little prompting, he morphs into a story about Adolph Rupp, Ken Loeffler, Tom Gola, and horses in Kentucky.

"Rupp had it pretty well set," Wooden says, remembering a 1953 pre-Christmas tournament in Kentucky that included La Salle, UCLA, Duke and Kentucky.

The coach starts drawing an imaginary basketball court, showing how the bench of Kentucky's opponent was down on the baseline while Kentucky's was right next to the scorer's table.

La Salle had beaten Wooden's UCLA team and Kentucky had beaten Duke in the first round. Wooden's UCLA team was sitting behind the La Salle bench during the championship game.

"Kenny Loeffler was quite a character," Wooden says of the La Salle coach. "The game's not going very well for him. It didn't for anybody when you played at Kentucky. Kenny got up, with his back to the game, and stood in front of his players. He was walking around. He stops in front of every player and says, 'God, you're no good, not you. ' I think he went through every player. The game's going on. He's not paying any attention.

"Finally, he stops and he says, 'Get in there for so and so. God knows you're no good, but you can't be any worse than he is. ' "

Three months later, that La Salle team beat Bradley to win the 1954 NCAA championship. But there was no way it was going to beat Kentucky in Kentucky.

All four teams visited famed Calumet Farm to see some of the world's best horseflesh.

"They had things set up for these city players to see something they had never seen before," Wooden says. "They saw the whole works, the colts, the yearlings. They set up to have a teaser stallion breed a mare to show how they really go through it. "

Wooden remembers seeing the legendary Calumet stallion Bull Lea, "one of the great breeders of all time. "

"I think he sired Citation and Coaltown both," Wooden says.

Of course he did.

Wooden cites what he thinks the stud fees were for Citation and Coaltown at the time, $15,000 and $10,000.

"We went out there with the La Salle team," Wooden says. "Kenny is sitting right across from me. He's mumbling, $15,000 for that kind of work, $10,000 for that kind of work. Then, he turned around and said, 'Gola, I've got an idea. You and I could get wealthy. I couldn't get a dime for the rest of you guys. ' "

That was 50 years ago. For a man with Wooden's memory, it might as well have been yesterday.

The coach knew that the great Gola had fallen and suffered a very serious injury this summer. When he was told that Gola was now recovering at home, Wooden was thankful.

"Gola, he was great," Wooden says. "I liked him so much. He could play any position. He reminded me many years later of Grant Hill. He might have played every position at one time or another and he might have done it in one game. At that time, I placed Tom as being as good a player as I had seen. "

Wooden has seen all the great players. He coached some of them. He was one of them.

One of only two people, along with Lenny Wilkens, to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, Wooden won an Indiana state championship with Martinsville High in 1927. His team was runner-up in 1926, and again in 1928 when it lost 13-12 on a buzzer-beating floater that Wooden can describe like he has watched it on videotape. He was an All-America at Purdue in the early 1930s. He graduated in 1932 with the Big Ten Conference medal for outstanding merit and proficiency in scholarship and athletics.

Not long after graduating from college, Wooden married Nellie Riley, his high school sweetheart.

The Woodens went off to Dayton High in Kentucky, where he taught and coached for 2 years. He moved on to South Bend Central in Indiana, where he taught and coached for 9 years. His high school teams were 218-42.

Wooden served as a full lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After his discharge, he was named basketball and baseball coach as well as athletic director at what was then called Indiana State Teachers' College and is now Indiana State University.

He stayed 2 years and was 47-14 before being summoned west to UCLA in 1948. UCLA was a basketball wasteland. In the previous 17 seasons, the Bruins had gone 160-233. They had seasons of 4-20 and 6-20. They went 46-14 in Wooden's first two seasons.

It was not until his 16th season that UCLA won its first NCAA championship. For the longest time, Wooden didn't dare use his 2-2-1 zone press that would eventually revolutionize the game.

"I first started using that in high school," Wooden says. "When I came out here, I got away from it. My fault. I wasn't patient with it. "

His first 15 UCLA teams scored 100 points only six times. In 1963-64, Wooden finally had the right mix of players. With star guards Walt Hazzard, from Overbook High, and Gail Goodrich and not a single player over 6-5, UCLA went 30-0 and won the championship. The Bruins won another championship the next year. They scored 100 points 12 times in those two seasons.

Four decades later, tapes of those teams still resonate. The press suffocated opponents. UCLA's fast break devastated them. Its offense was perfect patterns run at high speed.

Those championships and the opening of Pauley Pavilion in 1965 attracted the most celebrated high school player since Wilt Chamberlain. With New York's Lew Alcindor, UCLA went 88-2 and won three more titles in 1967, 1968 and 1969.

If freshmen had been eligible in 1965-66, there is every reason to think Texas Western might never have won its title. Alcindor's freshman team crushed the defending national championship UCLA varsity in a scrimmage.

UCLA won its next two titles with 6-8 Sidney Wicks and 6-7 Curtis Rowe, proving once again that Wooden did not need a dominating big man to win. The Wicks and Rowe teams began the 88-game winning streak that Bill Walton's teams carried into his senior year.

To this day, Walton talks more about the 1974 national semifinal that his team lost to North Carolina State than the two 30-0 seasons that preceded it. He never got over it.

Wooden did. With perhaps his least talented team of the championship era, Wooden and UCLA came from behind to beat Louisville and his former assistant Denny Crum in the 1975 national semifinals. After that game, the coach announced that he would retire following the championship game. There was no way UCLA was going to lose. And it didn't.

In its 10 championship seasons, UCLA was 291-10. The Bruins, during one stage, won 38 consecutive NCAA Tournament games. It is a period of excellence unequaled in the history of major team sports.


Even with all that and maybe because of all that, Wooden knew when it was time to go.

"I can't tell you why," Wooden says. "I knew it was time and I never regretted it. "

Still, how did he do it? How did his teams do it?

It was, he will tell you, fundamental basketball. It was that and it was incredible attention to detail, every detail.

Every year, he demonstrated to his players how they should smooth their socks out before they put them on. Why? He wanted no creases because creases could lead to blisters.

UCLA players came out for warmups with the traditional warmup jackets and long warmup pants. Quickly, the jackets would disappear and UCLA players would be wearing long pants and their game jerseys during warmups.

"If the jacket was on, your rhythm might be different," Wooden says. "If just the shirt was on, it was how it would be during the game. That was my theory. Ah, I'm crazy. I had a lot of crazy ideas. If you can get your players thinking one thing, whether it's right or not, it's pretty good. "

UCLA players always shot bank shots when the correct angle presented itself. It has been a lost art for about 28 years. Wooden's shooting drills all emphasized use of the backboard. In some of the competitive drills, if the player didn't use the board, the shot did not count.

"Always the board," Wooden says. "I like Tim Duncan. He uses the board more than any of the pros that I've seen. I don't see many pro games because I don't care for the pro game, but I sure like Tim Duncan. "

Why don't people use the board?

"You'd have to ask the people who don't use it," Wooden says.

That, of course, would be just about everybody.

"I thought there was an advantage," Wooden says. "I started doing that when I was in high school. My assistant was a math teacher. We worked on angles out on the floor. It helped you two ways. We felt it increased the percentage a little of making it. I thought it also gave the offense a little better opportunity if it was missed to get it back. "

So simple, so smart.

Wooden says he thinks he scouted his opposition less than almost any of his peers.

"I didn't want to take away from my own," Wooden says. "Let's develop ourselves. I don't care who we're playing. I know something. I know who they are, where they came from. I know whether they're zoning or breaking or strong on the boards. I know who's scoring for them. "

Somehow, John Wooden always just knew.

He got two technicals in 40 years of coaching.

"I tried to teach my players if they lose control, they are going to be outplayed and I wanted to set that example for them," Wooden says. "I've always believed in examples. I tried to do that. I think they'd have every right to be upset at me if I lose control on the bench. That's why seldom if ever did you ever see me off the bench while the clock was running. Timeouts, that's different. "

What you saw was the man with a rolled-up program in his hand watching an imperfect game often played to near perfection.

"Television has made showmen out of ," Wooden says. "They want to be seen. I didn't want to be seen. I wanted my players and their play to be what people see, not me. "

Wooden almost never went on the road to recruit. He thinks he visited maybe a dozen kids in his 27 years at UCLA. Players contacted him because they wanted to play for him.

"Build a better mousetrap and they'll come to you," Wooden says.

Overbrook's Andre McCarter, who played on Wooden's final team, started a letter-writing campaign to get Wooden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given a U.S. citizen. It took some time, but, on July 23, President Bush awarded the medal to Wooden at the White House.

What did the award mean?

"Not nearly as much as the academic medal that I received after I graduated from Purdue because I earned that," Wooden says. "The Medal of Freedom? I'm very proud of it, but I know that I am not responsible. So many others are responsible. Maybe I had a little bit to do with it. How many championships did I win? I didn't win any. My players won several. I hope I helped them and I think I did have a part. But where would I have been without those players? "

And where would they have been without him?

On Dec. 20, the basketball floor at Pauley will be dedicated the "Nell and John Wooden Court. " The Edwin W. Pauley Pavilion sits right across the way from the John Wooden Center on the UCLA campus. Pauley's donors are listed across the bottom of a plaque outside the building. Fifth from the bottom under Founders Donors is the name John R. Wooden.

The coach is always there. You just have to search a bit to find him, just the way he has always wanted it.