John Wooden and what’s important

A man of great Christian faith and a great American passed in June of 2010, a few months shy of turning 100. The Christian in me was happy for his Judgment Day and much anticipated reunion wife his wife of 53 years, Nellie. Just how anticipated was that reunion? He had written her a love letter [see video – no really, please see this 4 minute video] every 21st of the month, the date she passed, which remain unopened literally on her side of the bed — for the last 25 years.

In a November 2004 Science of Mind article by Mitch Horowitz, Wooden describes how their relationship got started:

I was baptized with the young woman who was to be my wife later on, the only girl I ever dated, in 1927. We were juniors in high school and she was the only girl I ever went with and we had a relationship and she suggested that we join at the same time. I don’t want to say that I accepted Christ at that particular time because of the fact that I did this primarily because she wanted me to. But my acceptance came gradually as time went by.

Also in the Horowitz article, Wooden’s religious faith is discussed:

Wooden took great solace from the Bible, a copy of which sits in each room of his home today. His favorite passage, 1 Corinthians 13, reads in part: “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” It is yet another theme that marks his life: “I do believe that adversity makes you stronger,” he says, “And I do believe in many ways, perhaps not in financial ways, that adversity from hard work does make you able to accept the more difficult things as they would come along later in your life.”



In a January 2009 Sporting News interview interview, Wooden was asked about his greatest day:

WOODEN: The day I married Nellie. That’s the greatest day. She said, “I do.”

SN: What was that day like?

WOODEN: We were married on a Sunday. On Saturday, I went to the bank—I had saved up, played a little pro basketball; I had $900 and a nickel—but the bank was closed. We were going to have difficulty getting married on Sunday. I got a call from a fellow by the name of Snyder; Nellie’s closest friend was his daughter. He asked me to come see him, and I did. He said, “What are you and Nellie gonna do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, Mr. Snyder, but something will work out.” He said, “Pay me back whenever you can, but you and Nellie go ahead,” and he gave me $200. So the next day, my brother and his girlfriend, who had a car, drove us to Indianapolis, and we were married by a pastor that had married Nellie’s older brother and older sister. My brother and his girlfriend stood up, along with the minister’s wife, and after we married we went to eat at the Bamboo Inn on the Circle in Indianapolis. And from there we went to the theater where the Mills Brothers made their very first appearance in Indianapolis. They’ve always been my favorites.

SN: Why have you lived this good, long life?

WOODEN: That’s very hard to say. I honestly feel that one of the reasons could be that I’ve practiced moderation in almost everything. I never used alcohol in any way. Does that have anything to do with it? I don’t know. George Burns had a lot of it every day, and he lived to be over 100. I smoked a little bit when I was in the Navy, but that’s all. Did that have anything to do with it? I don’t know. But I do know this: I am very much at peace with myself. I’m not afraid of death. I’m at peace. Certainly as I get older, it’s hard to … (long pause) I’m ready. I wish it would happen now. But I’m not going to try to hurry it. I’m not afraid of death. I’m not going to intentionally hurry it up, but I’m not afraid. I’ve been so blessed in my life. I’m thankful for so many things. My children, my 13 great-grandchildren, all live within an hour or less, and I see them all regularly. How many times does that happen? Within an hour or two, I can see the ocean, I can be in the mountains, I can be in the desert, I can be at Disneyland, I can be at an athletic event. There are so many things. I have been so blessed. And out yonder, I’ll be with Nellie again.

SN: She’s waiting for you?

WOODEN: Oh, yes, I believe so. Sven Nater has written me maybe 100 poems. A few years ago, he wrote me one poem just from hearing me say that one word, yonder. It says:

Once I was afraid of dying, terrified of ever-lying, petrified of leaving family, home and friends. Thoughts of absence from my dear ones, brought a melancholy tear once, and a dreadful fear of when life ends. But those days are long behind me, fear of leaving does not bind me, and departure does not hold a single care. Peace does comfort as I ponder, a reunion in the yonder, with my dearest one who is waiting for me there.

SN: “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t test me so much.” Do you know whose words they are?

WOODEN: They are Mother Teresa’s.

SN: How often do you speak or think them?

WOODEN:Almost daily. Do you see those words over there (pointing to a daily calendar of sayings on his dining room table)? “I pray thee, O God, that I may be beautiful within.” On the last day before Nellie went to the hospital and passed away, that’s what she turned to. I never changed it. (Long pause.) She was beautiful within. And this is important.

How the secular world explains a John Wooden

The only direct mention of faith or religion in John Wooden’s 2,091 word obituary in the New York Times was to note that:

Wooden was a religious man whose strongest exclamation was “Goodness gracious sakes alive!” Still, many opposing coaches thought he was not always a saint.

Rich ain’t it. The one direct mention of religion was tied to a disparaging ‘he’s no saint’ reminder. The secular world is naturally at odds with the world of faith, but are more effective when they pretend to ignore the conflict. To paraphrase a Bob Seger, deadlines and commitments are often blamed for even the most obvious attacks, which often come in the form of slights. But obituaries, especially for older persons of distinction, are written long in advance. No plausible excuse exists in cases like that of a John Wooden.

The secular world should be free to do battle in this way. But those of us who don’t share their disbelief, have a duty to note their lack of generosity in their attempts to sanitize the part of history they are uncomfortable with. Its important to document because I believe there is intent behind the omissions, slights and, as a last resort, direct attacks.

I noticed the same effort to diminish the role of faith with the New York Times obituary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when he passed in 2008.

Which brings up a politically incorrect question. Where are the secular world’s version of a John Wooden, a person we admire, in our own lives.  Are they much more apt to be persons of faith? My answer to the last question is yes.  Whatever your answer is, do you believe there is a reason for any disparity in the results?  In my case, its the belief that Grace is too a critical factor in the makeup of the type of persons I admire.

Finally, an example of great sports writing. Jim Murray on John Wooden from August 1972:

John Wooden is American Gothic to the collar button. You meet him and you’re tempted to say, ” All right, what did you do with the pitchfork, John?” You can smell the hay if you close your eyes. Players might call other coaches “The Baron” or “The Bear” but they call John “The Reverend.”

His walls are awash with homilies, exhortations of the spirit, words-to-live-by. He’s as homespun as calico, as small-town as a volunteer fire department. He doesn’t juggle oil wells or cattle deals or tax shelters. He doesn’t even own his own house. He has turned down $100,000 contracts to coach the pros.

He looks like the kind of guy you could get to guess which walnut has the pea under it. The eyes are a kind of a guileless blue, and the conversation is sprinkled with “Oh, my goodness!” and “Gracious!” and you bet he could never figure out how they sawed the lady in half, or got the rabbit into the hat. They run carnivals for guys like this, you feel sure. He’d buy a watch from an 8th Avenue auctioneer, or a vegetable slicer from a sidewalk pitchman.

It is a conceit of our times that kids are supposed to be manageable only by their peer groups, that they are in headlong rebellion from any other authority and, the postulate has it, there is no way a street kid from Philadelphia or a blacktop player from Lexington Avenue could relate to a Bible reader from Indiana who coaches by wall motto. In a time when training table mutinies are as commonplace as any other forms of campus unrest, Wooden has managed to put together title teams from elements as diverse as a Democratic ticket. People thought the playground players would take one look at Coach Wooden and say, “Is that a name or a description?” and take the next bus back to where the words on the walls aren’t out of Edgar A. Guest.


Please click on image above to enlarge or print
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Click here to see Bill Walton’s web site and tribute to John Wooden.

Click here to see John Wooden’s web site.

The Sporting News interview is copied in full at end of post.
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John Wooden: ‘I’m not afraid of death’– The legendary UCLA basketball coach tells SN’s Steve Greenberg he’s at peace with himself

Sporting News [This story first appeared in the Jan. 5, 2009, edition of Sporting News magazine].

The little condo on Margate Street in Encino, Calif., wouldn’t pass many eyeball tests, not that the old man who has lived there since 1972 has any intention to sell it. If you want it, you’re simply going to have to wait for John Wooden to die.

Sadly — and beautifully — you wouldn’t be the only one. Wooden, perhaps the greatest American coach in any sport, never thought he’d live to the age of 98. And he never thought living without his beloved wife, Nell, whom he lost in 1985, would be so hard for so long. Of all the love in his heart — for the three generations of family who surround him and the dozens of former players who keep him as close as ever — most of it still belongs to her. All he wants is to see his Nellie again.

Meanwhile, Wooden’s loved ones want for him. Tony Spino, the UCLA trainer who has looked after him for years, sleeps at the condo five nights a week. Jim Wooden, 72, the coach’s only son, sleeps there on Thursdays and Fridays. Wooden’s granddaughter Caryn Bernstein, 48, shows up at 7 a.m. almost daily. Caryn’s 74-year-old mother, Nan Wooden, who is Wooden’s only daughter, is a regular factor in an equation of constant companionship and care.

They wish he would sell the place — packed with decades-old furniture, books, photographs, and other mementos — and move somewhere nicer.

“We try to tell him, ‘Daddy, Mother would not like this,’ ” Nan says.

But he won’t.

John Wooden will be here until the end — a happy man at peace with dying, whenever that moment comes. He spent a morning with Sporting News’ Steve Greenberg at the place lovingly referred to by UCLA great Bill Walton as The Wooden Mansion on Margate.

SN: You’ve certainly not been abandoned in your old age.

WOODEN: There’s always someone here. They don’t want me to be alone because of the falls that I’ve taken. I think it’s ridiculous, but I know why they don’t think it’s so ridiculous. My worst one, I fell and broke my arm, my collarbone and a wrist, and I lay on the floor from 9 o’clock in the evening until 7 o’clock in the morning until Tony got here. I can’t get up when I fall down. I like to think maybe I could get along by myself if I tried it, but I guess I’d better not. But I have a wonderful family. I’ve been blessed so much. So much.

SN: There is much love in this house, isn’t there?

WOODEN:Yes, there is. My late wife, the only girl I ever dated, the only girl I ever went with, picked it out to be closer to our daughter. Every picture on the wall, every room, my late wife picked out. And now they want me to sell it. But I wouldn’t leave here, because it’s her. And that means a lot to me.

SN: Many things here are just so: the books, the photographs. And also many things that belonged to Nell—even the little things, like her lipstick. Are you holding on to her still?

WOODEN:Yes. All the things that she used, like her makeup. And her side of the bed. Her gown is stretched out on her side of the bed since I lost her. And once the sheets are changed, then we put everything back the same way. So I wouldn’t want to leave here.

SN: Your family speaks with emotion about the letters you write to Nell every month, a simple act that is profoundly touching and romantic. How does it make you feel when you write to her?

WOODEN: It makes me feel closer to her. It brings back many feelings … (long pause) … that we had between us. It makes me feel better.

SN: Will your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren read them someday? Or are they just for you and Nell?

WOODEN: They are between us.

SN: You had that frightful fall in February, and there have been others. Are you in much pain?

WOODEN:No, I’m not. The worst pain I have is in my knees. (Doctors) won’t do anything about it. Both of them have to be replaced, but I’m too old. Those other things healed very well, all except the wrist. But otherwise, no pain.

SN: All that night and through the early morning after you fell, what were you thinking as you lay on the floor? Were you afraid for your life?

WOODEN: No, I never thought about that at all. I knew in the night I couldn’t get up. I was cold. In that time, I was between laughing and crying, but that was all. I was just going into the bathroom before going to bed, and going in I got my walker stuck on the rug and I fell over. I tried to catch myself, but I couldn’t. For a few minutes, I was kind of in shock. I had pain from the breaks. I was awake the whole time. More than anything else, I got cold. I couldn’t crawl and get to a blanket or anything. I just had to stay there.

SN: Would you ever leave this home for anything?

WOODEN: No. My children would like for me to. I’d like for my daughter to sell her home and live with me. She’s been alone for a few years. She’s a breast cancer survivor, she has artificial knees, artificial hips, an artificial shoulder, and she’s going to have to have the other shoulder replaced.

SN: Do you worry for her?

WOODEN: Yes, of course I do.

SN: She’s still your little girl?

WOODEN: Yes, she is. (Pausing to control his emotions.) I would like for her to live with me, but it would be a chore for her. She wants me to live with her.

SN: We should talk about happier things. What do you love about basketball these days?

WOODEN:Well, more than anything else today, it’s the fact that at the place where I have breakfast almost every morning, one of my ex-players will show up. Mike Warren, Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes; Bill Walton drives up from San Diego, and that’s nice. I love my memories about the time that I taught these players. I think about it. And I like the game now, but I don’t like the game as much. I have never cared for the showmanship, and I think there is too much showmanship in the game today. While I think the players today are just unbelievable—their athleticism—I don’t think team play is as good as it used to be.

SN: What’s it like for you to watch UCLA play?

WOODEN: The interest that I have had over the years is still there. When I retired, I was so concerned about the players who had played for me that I really couldn’t enjoy the game as much. But when they were all gone, then I could enjoy it a little bit more. UCLA is doing well. I’m impressed with the coach that we have now (Ben Howland). The last three years, he’s been in the Final Four, and not many have done that. He’s an extremely impressive defensive coach.

SN: So many of your players love you dearly. How wonderful does that make you feel?

WOODEN:You may have heard the story of Andy Hill. He played for me and won two national championships for me, but he didn’t get to play a lot. He didn’t like me. And after he graduated, a very bright youngster, he didn’t speak to me; he would actually avoid me, for 25 years. And the whole thing was because he didn’t get to play much; he thought I didn’t like him. But I had a lot of respect for him. After he graduated, he produced Touched By An Angel, Walker, Texas Ranger, Caroline in the City and some others, and finally, he said he thought this on the golf course: “Well, I’ve been successful, and Coach Wooden taught me things that have served me very well.” So he called me and said he’d like to see me. Now I’m probably as close with Andy as I am with any of my players. He’s a regular for breakfast. He is very special to me. Forgiveness sets you free.

SN: Eighty-one years ago, you won a high school state championship as a player in Indiana. Do you still remember that team, and that championship game, well?

WOODEN: The year before that, we had lost to the championship team. The center of that team—it was Marion High School—was Charles “Stretch” Murphy. He was 6-6, and there was no question he was easily the best player. We both went to Purdue. He was a senior when I was a sophomore, but we got to play together and that was a great thrill for me. The next year, we won the championship against Muncie High School. They were always strong. I remember that game very well.

SN: You were a Navy lieutenant during World War II. How did that experience help to shape your life?

WOODEN:Well, that’s difficult to say. I was blessed in many ways. I was at North Carolina—I’m a 90-day wonder; they make you a gentleman, an officer, in 90 days—and then I was sent to Iowa Pre-flight, and I was there for about a year. I had orders to support the USS Franklin, and on my way to report to the Franklin in the South Pacific, I got very sick; I was in a lot of pain in my stomach. They checked me and my appendix had burst, so my orders were canceled. And the fella who took my place on the Franklin was a fraternity brother and a friend of mine. He was killed by a kamikaze. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I probably would have been in the same place that he was.

SN: A lifetime later, in 2003, President Bush awarded you the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Where does that rank among your countless honors and achievements?

WOODEN: Maybe No. 2. When I graduated from Purdue, I received the Big Ten academic medal for graduating with a high grade-point average. That’s the one thing I earned. A lot of the other things, the championships, they were earned by teams. If you don’t have outstanding players, you can’t do it, I don’t care who you are. You have to be honest with yourself. I could name so many people who truly deserved the Medal of Freedom far more than I did.

SN: Your home has photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa. Are they heroes of yours?

WOODEN: Abraham Lincoln is my favorite American, and I have many, many books and pictures of him. And the person who has lived in my lifetime for whom I have the most admiration and respect is Mother Teresa, and I have a lot of pictures and books of her, too. I just missed seeing her. I had received the Medal the year after she did, and she was going to come back and be the presenter to me, but she wasn’t able to make it. I would have loved to meet her.

SN: What about Lincoln moves you?

WOODEN: I’ve been called by some a common man. Lincoln was a common man. He had love for everybody. He had as much sympathy for the Southerners who had lost their lives as for the Northerners who had lost their lives. And his Gettysburg address is one of the greatest things ever written. And I think his second inaugural address—”With malice toward none, with charity for all”—was really something. At the end of the terrible war, when they were discussing reparations to the South, the Secretary of State, who was critical of Mr. Lincoln, said, “You’re supposed to destroy your enemies, not make friends of them.” And his answer was, “Am I not destroying the enemy when I make a friend of him?” That’s a statement.

SN: Did you ever believe you would live to see the election of America’s first black president?

WOODEN: No, I never thought I’d live this long under any circumstances.

SN: If you could give advice to Barack Obama, what would it be?

WOODEN: Be like Lincoln.

SN: And what if you could give advice to a young basketball coach who is struggling to make his mark?

WOODEN: Well, I think one of the most important things of all is patience. You have to be patient. Good things take time. Don’t expect too much too soon. And then try not to make things too complicated. Basketball is not a complicated game, it’s a simple game. Get the players in good condition, and teach them how to keep balance—floor balance, physical balance, mental balance, moral balance. Very simple things.

SN: Speaking of young coaches, Joe Paterno is only 83. Do you marvel at his longevity?

WOODEN:Yes, very definitely. We both gave commencement addresses at our alma maters. He had done it before me, and I talked to him about it. He sent me a copy of his address, which I got good thoughts from.

SN: Is there a part of you that wishes you hadn’t retired, rather abruptly, after winning the national championship in 1975, or wonders what would have happened had you coached longer?

WOODEN:No. I don’t know why, but it was the right time. It came upon me extremely suddenly, I’d say 10 seconds before I decided to do it. Ten seconds before, I thought it would be two or three more years. Suddenly, it just came upon me as I was going into the media room, and for the first time ever—I won’t say I enjoyed it, but I didn’t mind it—but this time I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want the same questions asked over and over; I just didn’t want to do it. And just to myself, I said, “If you feel like this, it’s time to get out.” Instead of going into the media room, I went into the dressing room, got my boys, who were getting into the shower, and called them all together. I told them how proud I was of them that particular (semifinal) game against Louisville, which I thought was one of the great games I ever saw two teams play. And I said, “I don’t know how we’ll do Monday night against Kentucky. I think we’ll do all right because I know we’re quicker, and you know how I feel about quickness, and I think we have enough size to contend against their unusual size. But regardless of how the game comes out on Monday night, I want you to know that I’ve never had a team of whom I’ve been more proud. You never gave me any trouble, any one of you, on or off the floor, all year long, and that’s a pretty nice thing to be able to say about the last team you’ll ever teach.” And then there was dead silence. Nobody knew. I’ve heard other people say they knew I was going to retire. I don’t know how they knew it. My wife didn’t even know. I didn’t even know.

SN: If you could relive any one day of your life, feel those feelings again, which would it be?

WOODEN: The day I married Nellie. That’s the greatest day. She said, “I do.”

SN: What was that day like?

WOODEN: We were married on a Sunday. On Saturday, I went to the bank—I had saved up, played a little pro basketball; I had $900 and a nickel—but the bank was closed. We were going to have difficulty getting married on Sunday. I got a call from a fellow by the name of Snyder; Nellie’s closest friend was his daughter. He asked me to come see him, and I did. He said, “What are you and Nellie gonna do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, Mr. Snyder, but something will work out.” He said, “Pay me back whenever you can, but you and Nellie go ahead,” and he gave me $200. So the next day, my brother and his girlfriend, who had a car, drove us to Indianapolis, and we were married by a pastor that had married Nellie’s older brother and older sister. My brother and his girlfriend stood up, along with the minister’s wife, and after we married we went to eat at the Bamboo Inn on the Circle in Indianapolis. And from there we went to the theater where the Mills Brothers made their very first appearance in Indianapolis. They’ve always been my favorites.

SN: Why have you lived this good, long life?

WOODEN: That’s very hard to say. I honestly feel that one of the reasons could be that I’ve practiced moderation in almost everything. I never used alcohol in any way. Does that have anything to do with it? I don’t know. George Burns had a lot of it every day, and he lived to be over 100. I smoked a little bit when I was in the Navy, but that’s all. Did that have anything to do with it? I don’t know. But I do know this: I am very much at peace with myself. I’m not afraid of death. I’m at peace. Certainly as I get older, it’s hard to … (long pause) I’m ready. I wish it would happen now. But I’m not going to try to hurry it. I’m not afraid of death. I’m not going to intentionally hurry it up, but I’m not afraid. I’ve been so blessed in my life. I’m thankful for so many things. My children, my 13 great-grandchildren, all live within an hour or less, and I see them all regularly. How many times does that happen? Within an hour or two, I can see the ocean, I can be in the mountains, I can be in the desert, I can be at Disneyland, I can be at an athletic event. There are so many things. I have been so blessed. And out yonder, I’ll be with Nellie again.

SN: She’s waiting for you?

WOODEN: Oh, yes, I believe so. Sven Nader has written me maybe 100 poems. A few years ago, he wrote me one poem just from hearing me say that one word, yonder. It says: “Once I was afraid of dying, terrified of ever-lying, petrified of leaving family, home and friends. Thoughts of absence from my dear ones, brought a melancholy tear once, and a dreadful fear of when life ends. But those days are long behind me, fear of leaving does not bind me, and departure does not hold a single care. Peace does comfort as I ponder, a reunion in the yonder, with my dearest one who is waiting for me there.”

SN: “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t test me so much.” Do you know whose words they are?

WOODEN: They are Mother Teresa’s.

SN: How often do you speak or think them?

WOODEN: Almost daily. Do you see those words over there (pointing to a daily calendar of sayings on his dining room table)? “I pray thee, O God, that I may be beautiful within.” On the last day before Nellie went to the hospital and passed away, that’s what she turned to. I never changed it. (Long pause.) She was beautiful within. And this is important.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
This entry was posted in Catholic Faith & Inspiration, RIP and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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