If he were just a basketball coach, John Wooden’s death still would have made headlines in the sports pages. But the stories would not be replete with testimony to the profundity of his character. His passing would not be felt so pungently by so many people.
Gary Cunningham, UCSB’s retired athletic director, maintained a 50-year friendship with Wooden. He visited his 99-year-old mentor at the UCLA hospital last Thursday. “He opened his eyes, and I told him I loved him and thanked him for everything he did for me,” Cunningham said. “He very quietly said, ‘I love you.’ I kissed him and hugged him. Twenty-four hours later, he passed away.
“He was much more than just a basketball coach. He was a teacher. He wrote poetry. There was so much depth to the man. I’d spend three or four hours with him, and we wouldn’t talk about basketball at all. I’d go see him if I had a tough decision to make. He was a father figure. I have a friend who was crying over the phone after he died.”
Wooden carved out a unique place among the sports and entertainment celebrities in Southern California. He was known for his humility and his Midwestern piety.
“I never, never heard him use a swear word,” Cunningham said. “Instead, he would say, ‘Gracious sakes alive.’ If he said, ‘Goodness gracious sakes alive,’ you were really in trouble.”
Wooden’s UCLA teams compiled a phenomenal record of championships and winning streaks without his ever using the “W” word. “I was with him for four years as a player and 10 as a coach, and he never talked about winning,” Cunningham said. “What he always came back to was his definition of success.”
Wooden devised his famous “Pyramid of Success” early in his coaching career. He defined success as “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”
With the teams led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, and Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes, of course, the Bruins succeeded in living up to their capabilities. But some of Wooden’s 10 NCAA championship teams, including his last in 1975, achieved heights beyond their apparent talent.
Cunningham was on the bench with Wooden throughout the last 10 years of his run, which included eight titles. The assistant became Bruins’ head coach two years after Wooden retired, but after two winning seasons he decided to go into athletic administration. He retired in 2008 after 13 years at UCSB. Wooden, meanwhile, spent his last 34 years dispensing wit and wisdom.
Wooden made several appearances at fund-raisers for UCSB and the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table at Cunningham’s request. He also opened the doors of his Encino condominium to some UCSB teams. Former Gaucho women’s basketball coach Mark French recalled his favorite Wooden story.
“He was talking to our team when his phone rang,” French said. “The call was from Roone Arledge, who was the president of ABC Sports. Wooden said, ‘I’ll let that go through to my voice mail.’ Later, he got another call. It was from his granddaughter or great-granddaughter. He said, ‘Pardon me. I need to take this call.’ He went into another room and spent some time on the phone.
“That was a case of great role-modeling. He taught us all what was really and truly important.”
Wooden’s devotion to his family — in particular, his late, beloved wife Nell — overshadowed everything he ever accomplished in basketball. And he accomplished almost everything. Just the other day, Cunningham found out something he didn’t know about the coach. As a professional player for the Indianapolis Kautskys, following his All-American career at Purdue, Wooden made 134 consecutive free throws over a 46-game stretch.
He made an impact on his own players that deepened as the years went on. Among those visiting him in his last days was Santa Barbara High graduate Jamaal Wilkes, whose name Wooden memorably invoked when asked to describe the perfect player. “He was always the boss. He always knew what to say,” Wilkes told the Associated Press. “Even in the heyday of winning and losing, you could almost discuss anything with him. He always had that composure and wit about him.”
Every basketball coach has been influenced by Wooden, as impossible as it is to live up to his legacy. Ben Howland was a teenager in Goleta when UCLA was winning seven consecutive NCAA titles, and he became a student of Wooden’s ways. Howland is now the head coach of the Bruins.
“The best of my coaching and teaching goes back to John Wooden,” said Westmont College coach John Moore, who spent time with the legendary coach when his brother-in-law, Steve Lavin, was on the UCLA staff.
“He’s the greatest coach of all time, in any sport,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said. “But he’s more highly thought of for the type of man he was. What more can you say about a man?”