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Wooden was humble, a man of grace

June 7, 2010

"I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion." - John Wooden

John Wooden was a kind, humble man who loved God.

He is now sitting in heaven after passing away Friday at 99.

I was a 5-year-old boy in San Diego and my dad allowed me to stay up and watch UCLA games if I was good.

I made sure I was good.

I got into my fair share of mischief, but not on the days when UCLA played.

I loved UCLA basketball.

I loved the way it was played.

I loved the uniforms.

I loved the 88-game winning streak and hated that it came to an end at South Bend. I am a Notre Dame football fan, but not an Irish basketball fan and was no fan of Digger Phelps.

I loved watching Lew Alcindor make sky hook after sky hook.

I loved watching Bill Walton put the ball through the hoop with two hands because dunking was not allowed in college basketball (wow, imagine that).

The story is since freshmen were not allowed to play back in the Alcindor and Walton years, UCLA's freshmen teams were better than their varsity teams those years.

I loved watching UCLA play at home with those weird basketball nets where the ball would not simply swish through them.

I loved watching the Bruins' full-court press. They just buried teams.

I loved when Gail Goodrich made a baseline jumper.

I loved when Greg Lee would hit a bank shot (can anyone do that now but Tim Duncan?)

I was 13-years-old when I was allowed to go to Wooden's basketball camp at Point Loma Nazarene University.

He never raised his voice.

He talked to use in a group much like a father would to his son.

I couldn't tell you who the other coaches were at the camp, but I can tell you that I met coach John Wooden and got my picture taken with him, as did all the other boys in the camp.

I can tell you that I learned the bank shot from him.

I had known of the shot, but he simply said, "Son, it's an easy shot."

That's all I needed.

He was gentle. He was kind.

He had something that then I didn't know what it was - but now I know, he had grace.

He had a presence about him which you know he was around.

And, he rarely said a word.

He just walked and watched.

Wooden quotes:

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

"The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success."

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

"Focus on effort, not winning."

"The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team."

"Ability is a poor man's wealth."

"A great leader cannot worry about being well-liked."

"Great leaders give credit to others but accept the blame themselves."

"Practice doesn't make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect."

"Don't give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you."

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

"If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."

"Never mistake activity for achievement."

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."

"Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."

"You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."

Bill Walton: "John Wooden represents the conquest of substance over hype, the triumph of achievement over erratic flailing, the conquest of discipline over gambling, and the triumph of executing an organized plan over hoping that you'll be lucky, hot or in the zone.

"John Wooden also represents the conquest of sacrifice, hard work and commitment to achievement over the pipe dream that someone will just give you something, or that you can take a pill or turn a key to get what you want.

"The joy and happiness in Coach Wooden's life came from the success and accomplishments of others. He never let us forget what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa, "that a life not lived for others is not a life."

Gail Goodrich: "Nobody was more beloved than Coach. He loved people, and had this tremendous gift to communicate with everyone, regardless of age or background. He always considered himself a teacher, and a teacher he was. When I played for him, he taught me the game of basketball.

"Later I came to realize, he really taught me the valuable aspects of life. As competitive as he was both as a player and a coach, he was incorruptible. He lived and taught with a simple philosophy that building a winning team or a successful life can be accomplished without breaking the rules or sacrificing personal values."

Former assistant coach Gary Cunningham and Wooden's successor: "He was humble and reserved. I learned a lot from him. He never talked of winning in the 14 years I was with him. If you get to the top of the Pyramid (of Success) and did the best you can there was nothing more he could ask. He'd say 'Do your best and only you know if you've done your best.'"

"He didn't want 'yes' men. If you disagreed with him, you told him. Then he'd challenge you and you'd go back and forth. It was almost like you were defending your doctoral proposal. If you convinced him, he'd put it in."

Wooden never made more than $35,000 in a season, and early in his career he worked two jobs to make ends meet.

''My first four years at UCLA, I worked in the mornings at a dairy from six to noon then I'd come into UCLA,'' he told The Associated Press in 1995. ''Why did I do it? Because I needed the money. I was a dispatcher of trucks in the San Fernando Valley and was a troubleshooter. After all the trucks made their deliveries and came back, I would call in the next day's orders, sweep out the place and head over the hill to UCLA.''

He spent the first part of every season teaching his players how to wear their socks and tie their shoelaces to avoid blisters. Every season. The players had short hair and a clean-shaven face.

The players learned the Pyramid of Success. At the top of the pyramid was competitive greatness.

"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are,'' Wooden would tell them.

He kept notes detailing every minute of every practice.

He did not allow his players to dunk.

His practices were tougher than games. He demanded of his teams more than anyone else at the time.

By the time his players got to a game, the game was easy.

"That was one of the secrets to our success," said Greg Lee, a three-year starter during the Bruins' 88-game win streak. "For a little more than a decade, we had the best basketball players, the hardest practices and a phenomenal coach, and we were tough to beat."

Former UCLA standout Marques Johnson recalled a story about Wooden to Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports.

Johnson was at the pool hall one day during his sophomore year when Wooden spotted him, walked through the door in his usual blue sweater and gray slacks and proceeded to take the pool cue from his star player's hands. Wooden then proceeded to run off eight balls in a row before exiting the room without a word, leaving Johnson in slack-jawed disbelief.

Wooden didn't drink or swear or carouse with other coaches on the road.

"Dadburn it, you saw him double-dribble down there!'' went a typical Wooden complaint to an official. "Goodness gracious sakes alive!''

Asked in a 2008 interview the secret to his long life, Wooden replied: "Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valleys. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.''

Asked what he would like God to say when he arrived at the pearly gates, Wooden replied, ''Well done.''

Even with his staggering accomplishments, he remained humble and gracious. He said he tried to live by advice from his father: "Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books - especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.''

Wooden's wife, Nell, died in 1985 after 53 years of marriage. On the 21st of each month, Wooden had written a letter to his wife.

He's back together with her now.

(Mathison, a Weirton resident, is the sports editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times and can be contacted at

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