Death of a Wizard

The legendary story about John Wooden, who died late tonight , was that he started the opening practice of each season by explaining to his players, “Gentlemen, we are going to learn how to put on our socks.” He would then instruct them how to go about pulling the sock over the toe, up the arch of the foot, around the heel and up the ankle. In a retrospective on UCLA’s championship dynasty, grown men in their 50s and 60s could not only recall how to do it properly, but were willing to demonstrate it for the camera.

Wooden was nothing, if not meticulous. He had his practices scripted down to the minute. Players did the same thing each day at each specific time segment, regardless of if it was the first day of the season or the last. The players who helped break in his system in the 1950s, those who brought him to fame in the 1960s and those who helped bring him to the end of his brilliant career in the 1970s could have easily practiced together because they were all taught exactly the same.

Even in his final hours, Wooden was meticulous. A story that surfaced prior to his death noted that the coach requested that a nurse give him a shave. He explained he wanted to look good for his wife, who died decades earlier.

Wooden was a winner in every stage of life. He led his high school team to a state championship. He won the college player of the year during his time at Purdue. He won two Indiana Collegiate Conference titles while at Indiana State. And, of course, it was his leadership of the UCLA juggernaut that made him famous. He won 10 national championships, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. to put that in perspective, Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski would have to double the number of championships he’s already won and then win two more, just to tie Wooden.

However, it was in life that he was the biggest winner. When the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball invited his Indiana State team to its national tournament, Wooden declined the invitation. The reason? His team had black player on it and NAIB prohibited the use of black players. The next year, the tournament changed its rule.

Wooden taught his players his “pyramid of success,” which had maxims, rules and thoughts meant to help his kids become not just better players, but better men. He told them to worry more about their character than their reputation, because one was who you are, the other was what other people think you are.

The best thing about him, however, was what other people thought of him. A conservative small-town Indianan by birth, he managed to reach social
radicals like Bill Walton, Islamic converts like Jamaal Wilkes and
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and wild college kids like Henry Bibby. The Wizard of Westwood managed to not only win with a broad array of personalities, but also give them a sense of self. He kept them well-shaven, well-dressed and well-coiffed, something to be considered miraculous, given the conventions of the 1960s and 1970s. The young men who played for him loved him and continued to look upon him as a guiding force years after their time on campus.

The death of John Wooden marks the loss of a giant, not just in terms of glory attained, but in respect earned. Perhaps the secret lies in one of his simplest maxims:

“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die

4 thoughts on “Death of a Wizard

  1. Not being a fan of basketball, even I knew of Wooden’s earned mythology in the pantheon of American sports heros and superstars. 99 is a most excellent run. And you wrote a most excellent eulogy.
    So vaya con Dios John Wooden, and kudos to Doc.

  2. One of the hardest things to deal with as we get old is all of our heros passing. It’s part of life’s journey, but it’s sad just the same. May he rest in peace knowing that he touched and inspired many people, most of which he never met.

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