Friday, June 4, 2010
I CALLED HIM 'COACH'
I called him "Coach."
So did anybody who ever met John Wooden, who died Friday. The Wizard of Westwood was 99 years old.
He also holds a big place in my book of memories of a career spent as a journalist.
He was an honorable man.
That can't be said for many sporting figures nowadays, in this time of doping and cheating, looking the other way. His attitude was in contrast to the legendary Vince Lombardi. For "Coach," winning wasn't the only thing. Of course he did that mighty well. In 27 years, he won 620 games.
His UCLA Bruins made speed and agility on the basketball court look easy as they won 10 NCAA championships, including seven in a row from 1967-73.
But through it all, the young men came first. I know that, because for one day I was the young man he ladled his attention and affection upon.
There will be much eulogizing over this fine man, the likes of whom have disappeared from the basketball courts in the age of $5 million coaching contracts and one-and-done NBA "minor leaguers" who have tarnished the integrity of programs from coast to coast.
No, Coach wasn't perfect. but look at the guys who played for him: Alcindor (Kareem before Kareem was cool) and Bill Walton.
The style of play, feeding those big, elegantly moving guys, changed the college and NBA game.
But "Coach" told his players that while winning was good, "What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player."
Ah, but back to my day as the young man on whom he focused his attention.
Early in my journalism career, I had the opportunity to spend a day with then recently retired UCLA Coach John Wooden. He was visiting a business conference to talk about his Pyramid of Success.
I attended the conference and I spent the day sitting with him, chatting with him. He took some time to offer asides about philosophy and even offered little lectures to me alone about living right and playing fair.
His easy attitude toward this young journalist was more grandfatherly and warm than that I have ever received in my career.
At the day's end, as I said goodbye, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a copy of his book "They Call Me Coach." Of course, he was selling these at the conference, but he gave it to me. "I want you to have it," he said. "You've been good company" (or something like that, my mind grows dim sometimes... these were warm memories but they happened so long ago).
When I read that he had died tonight, I had to dig through my piles of books -- displaced by the flood and now residing in piles in my living room.
There, wedged between a book by Brooks Robinson and another about Roberto Clemente and Bob Dylan's "Tarantula" was that old Bantam paperback Coach Wooden gave me that day.
I opened it up, scanned through the words, looked at the pictures. Then I got to the title page.
"Thanks Tim for your interest in this coach. I hope you enjoy the story. Best wishes, John Wooden 12/20/76."
"Thanks, Coach," I said, after he offered that inscription. I added that I had enjoyed that wondrous day with a man who reminded me of my Grandpa Champ. And I meant it.
Then I added it was my pleasure to call him ''Coach."
It still is.
Rest in Peace, Coach.