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John Wooden, basketball coach

Matt Schudel

John Wooden, the longtime basketball coach at UCLA, who may well have been the greatest coach in any sport in American history, died Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 99.

In a span of 12 years, Wooden's UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in men's basketball -- a record no one else has come close to matching. He considered coaching to be a form of teaching and often spoke wistfully of his early career as a high school coach and English teacher.

The part of coaching he enjoyed most was practice, when he could not only teach the fundamentals of basketball but also instill the lessons he had learned about life. He began by teaching his players how to put on their socks and actually picked out the shoes each player would wear: Most players choose shoes that are too large, causing blisters. In basketball, where the players are constantly starting and stopping, the foot should not slip inside a shoe. One of the best players from his first NCAA championship team in 1964, Keith Erickson, mentions the socks and Wooden's practice sessions here.

Wooden was strict and would not allow profanity, long hair or facial hair, let alone the use of alcohol, but his players invariably came to love him.

One of his best players ever, 6-11 center Bill Walton, once challenged Wooden's authority by coming to practice with a beard and shaggy hair.
"That's good, Bill," Wooden responded. "I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. I really do. We're going to miss you."
Walton went to the locker room and shaved.

Years later, Walton recalled: "When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time, the quality of my life went down. That's how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA."

He carried in his wallet carried in his wallet a set of principles drawn up by his father: "Be true to yourself, help others, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books, make each day your masterpiece, build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live, and give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance very day."

Wooden tried to act by these old-fashioned by sturdy virtues every day of his life.

For a good flavor of Wooden's views of basketball and life, check out these three excellent interviews by Roy Firestone from the 1980s;
No. 1
No. 2
No. 3

I have to admit I have always felt a special kinship for John Wooden for several reasons. First of all, we share a birthday. And, second and probably more important, we came from similar circumstances. Wooden grew up on a farm in Indiana, and I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. He looked like any number of uncles, farmers and churchmen who were a part of my life in the rural Midwest.

Finally, here's a video from ESPN about Wooden's devotion to his wife, Nell, who died in 1985. Wooden was 99 years old when this interview took place. Make sure you have tissues nearby when you watch it.

By Matt Schudel  |  June 5, 2010; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Terrific obit, illuminating blog. Thanks, Matt.

Posted by: wapshot2003 | June 5, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Incidentally, did you see the paid obit in today's New York Times for radio producer Himan Brown, the genius behind CBS Radio Mystery Theater and dozens of other radio shows?

Posted by: Blurgle | June 6, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

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