By Frank James
Sports and basketball have lost a titan. Coach John Wooden has died at age 99.
For decades of basketball lovers, Wooden was the epitome of the coach as winner and champion. His UCLA men's basketball teams won ten national titles and still own the longest college basketball win streak -- 88 games.
But the man known as the Wizard of Westwood also epitomized the sports coach as teacher and moral exemplar, according to his players, some of whom became the biggest stars in the game, players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes.
Earlier this week, it became clear that Wooden was nearing the end of his long life when word came from Los Angeles that he had been admitted to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. His condition was described as grave.
While Wooden was not merely elderly but super elderly, many people who saw him either in person are on video in recent years were amazed at how acute his mind was for a man well past 90.
That was true even into his last days. An excerpt from an Associated Press story:
Former UCLA and Los Angeles Lakers star Jamaal Wilkes told The Associated Press that he visited Wooden in his hospital room twice this week and they chatted briefly.
Wilkes said Wooden recognized him and that the coach's mind remains "sharp as a tack," although he said the 99-year-old Wooden's body is "very, very frail."
During his second visit on Wednesday night, Wilkes asked Wooden if he recognized him.
"His glasses fogged up and he had to clean his glasses," Wilkes said. "He looked at me and said, 'I remember you, now go sit down.'"
Even into his 90s, Wooden was a presence at UCLA games, watching from a place of honor and, when asked, offering advice to Bruins players.
But it was as the basketball coach of the most dominant college basketball team in the nation that Wooden will be remembered by many who can see him, in their mind's eye, watching his players perform from his spot on the sidelines, his program rolled up.
Born in Indiana in 1910, Wooden maintained a studied, professorial exterior with old-fashioned Midwestern manners. What wasn't readily apparent to many fans, according to those who played for him, was that he had a keen sense of humor.
Many who appreciated him from a far also didn't know that, using his rolled up program as a megaphone, Wooden would often toss a few well-chosen words of rebuke at officials whose calls he disagreed with. The program kept TV viewers from reading his lips.
Wooden was not just about basketball, although he excelled at it, first as a player, becoming an All-American at Purdue, and then as a coach.
He was also about teaching. He taught high school English and had a master's degree in education. Of all things, he was truly passionate about poetry.
Wooden gave a TED talk in 2001 in which he explains how his view of success and his love for teaching.
Also, considering that he was raised in rural Indiana at a time when racism was prevalent in that state, Wooden was advanced for his time and place on the race issue.
In 1947, As a coach at Indiana Teachers College, which later became Indiana State University, Wooden's winning team was invited to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City which banned black players. Wooden refused to go.
From an article on the Indiana State web site:
"They wouldn't permit a colored boy to play in the tournament and I had one on my team -- Clarence Walker out of East Chicago," he recalled. "While he wasn't one that got to play very much at all, he still was a member of my team and I wouldn't take the team without him."
The next season, after finishing 27-7, the team was invited to the tournament again. Wooden refused the invitation. The NAIA relented and allowed Walker to come, but he couldn't stay in the hotel with the team. That concession didn't sit well with the coach either.
"Due to persuasion from the NAACP, Dr. Tirey and others who felt it would be a good thing to go, I said okay," Wooden said.
The team made the trip to Kansas City, where Walker stayed with an African-American minister and the team ate meals in a private dining room.
"We had no problems," he recalled, "We had more problems driving from Terre Haute to Kansas City where the tournament was played because we stopped at some places that wouldn't let him [Walker] come in, so I wouldn't let anybody go in."
As you'd expect, UCLA has a tribute web site to Wooden. It includes the following video:
Another good site for those wanting more on Wooden is sponsored by McDonald's.
There's an especially funny story by Walton who tells how the coach would instruct new recruits in how to put his socks and sneakers on. Apparently, Wooden took nothing for granted..
The Los Angeles Times has lengthy photo gallery of Wooden as a player, coach and in retirement.
While the debate over who is the greatest basketball player of all time will no doubt rage endlessly, to many minds the question of who was the greatest coach is more open and shut. It was Coach Wooden.