E-Ticket: Forever Coach
The greatest coach in the history of college basketball has a tiny place. John Wooden's Encino, Calif., condominium couldn't be more than 700 square feet, and almost every inch of it is occupied. Piles of books -- volumes of poetry, biographies of Abraham Lincoln, several bibles -- line the hallways. The dining room table is cluttered with Pyramids of Success waiting to be signed and sent to fans. And dozens of photographs and plaques, commemorating 43 years of coaching and 95 years of life, hang on the walls of every room.
"I have a lot of memories to think about," Wooden says softly, sitting up straight in a curved-back wooden chair in his living room, and turning his eyes to a stack of framed photographs on the floor.
An All-American captaincy at Purdue; an 88-game winning streak and 10 national championships as head coach at UCLA; hundreds of student-athletes graduated; a double- induction (as both player and coach) into the Basketball Hall of Fame; 53 years of marriage to his beloved wife, Nellie (who died in 1985); and the birth of two children, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren who know him not as "Coach," but as "Papa."
It has been a remarkably full life, the kind a man sits with in his den in the afternoon and reflects on at night before he lies down in bed, tasting love and loss all over again, reaching back across the years to the people and places he's touched and been touched by. "I've been blessed in so many ways," Wooden says. "I like to spend time in the past, with the things that have been important to me."
Not what you expect to hear from a man whose work ethic and philosophy are deeply rooted in a Zen-like devotion to the present moment. "Today is the only day," he so often says. "Yesterday is gone." But as you listen to him recite the opening lines of Longfellow's "Hiawatha," just as his father recited them to him by kerosene lamplight nearly a century ago, past and present blur. "He doesn't wallow," says Andy Hill, who played for Wooden in the early '70s and now is a close friend. "He's a child of the Depression. He endures. He keys on happy moments that feed him and inspire him in what he does today."
The objects Wooden keeps open like windows, like portals between then and now.
In his wallet, you'll find a seven-point creed his father gave him when he graduated the eighth grade. It's one of many copies he had printed after the original wore to shreds. "Be true to yourself," it says. "Make each day your masterpiece, help others, drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible, make friendship a fine art, build a shelter against a rainy day, pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day." His bowed, arthritic fingers shake a little as he shows it to you, but he remembers the words by heart and says them aloud. "I was built up from my dad more than anyone else," he says. "I tried to live by this and I tried to teach by it. I haven't always been perfect, but I've tried."
Somewhere buried under the correspondence and the photographs in his den, tucked away in the corner of a desk drawer or maybe slipped between the pages of a book, is a poem written by the student manager of the 1942 Central High School basketball team Wooden coached in South Bend, Ind. "The paper is crippled, but I still have it," says Wooden, who enlisted in the service in 1942 and never returned to high school coaching. "I loved high school teaching. Had I not enlisted, I don't think I would have ever left. That's where the real teaching is done."
And on the left side of their bed, below carved wooden letters that spell out her name on the wall, Wooden keeps a shrine to Nellie -- her nightgown, a photo of the two of them together, flashing the "hang loose" sign at a Hawaiian luau, the personalized license plate from her car. "It makes me feel better," he says. "I know she's there. I talk to her every day." He whispers this, the words half-swallowed. She overwhelms him 20 years after her passing, cuts through his love of poetry and his flair for maxims to some inarticulate well of feeling.
In this tiny place, surrounded by these personal artifacts, you notice an embroidered pillow on the sofa in the den. It's a quote from Mother Teresa, one of Wooden's heroes, that reads: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Reading it, you realize the greatest coach in the history of college basketball, the man who fashioned success into a pyramid, the man whose rolled-up program and horn-rimmed glasses were for many years the very definition of competitive intensity, the man whose winning percentage is the stuff of legend and whose meticulously planned practices were Exhibit A in the triumph of rationalism over uncertainty, is, at heart, a sentimentalist.
And you don't mean this as a slight. You mean it as high praise. You mean he feels deeply. He loves. He honors. Across time and distance, he connects and stays connected to the people in his life. "Once you're on his team, you're on his team forever," says former UCLA All-American Bill Walton. "He's your coach for life."
* * *
Wednesday morning, 8 a.m., and the pale light of the sun comes pouring through the plate-glass windows of VIPs, a coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard, just as Walton comes busting through the front door tooting on a noise maker and singing the most god-awful rendition of "Happy Birthday" you've ever heard in your life. He's carrying paper party hats, balloons and a banner, and Coach Wooden, sitting at a booth in the back, cringes a bit at the sight of him. "You've gone too far, Bill," he says.
Walton kicks it up a notch. "Come on!" he says. "You only turn 95 once." It's a party. In addition to Wooden and Walton, Hill is there, along with former players Kenny Washington (Class of '66), Lynn Shackelford (Class of '69), Jamaal Wilkes (Class of '74) and Marques Johnson (Class of '77).
Washington and Walton hang the banner on the brick wall above the booth, Hill blows a horn, Shackelford tries to decode the mysteries of something called a "musical candle," and, in a particularly delicious theater-of-the-absurd bit, Wilkes struggles -- "This is the hole, isn't it?!?" -- to blow up a metallic SpongeBob Squarepants balloon. Everyone but Coach has strapped on a goofy hat, and the quips are flying fast and furious. It's a table full of Shriners, it's the poker game in "The Odd Couple." Except at this table, everyone has shaved within the hour -- "You've gotta shave for Coach," Johnson says. "You've got to."
"Happy Birthday!" Walton shouts. "Coach, you made it. You're now of age. Congratulations!"
"I appreciate the thoughtfulness," Wooden says. "I just wish you meant it."
"You know, Coach, now that I've learned to speak, you can't get me to shut up," Walton says, referring to the stutter that plagued him for most of his life.
"That's what your mother said," Wooden shoots back, showing no mercy.
That's right. The Wizard of Westwood, the coach of the century who has lived almost a century himself, is doing the dozens, going "Yo' Mama" on The Big Redhead, over breakfast. "The rest of us can only hope we're half as sharp at 95 as he is," Hill says. "Heck, most of us would settle for being half as sharp now."
But make no mistake, Walton and company give as good as they get here.
Could they ever have imagined they'd be sitting here with Wooden now, celebrating his 95th birthday?
"I thought he was dead when we played for him," Walton says.
"That's true," Shackelford chimes in. "You know, I think he looks better now than he did then."
They reminisce about practices, and about how and when they first came to UCLA. Washington tells of coming out on the bus from South Carolina and being afraid to get off of it when he arrived. Wooden mimics Wilkes' inimitable, elliptical jump shot. Hill, who rode a lot of pine, proudly claims his two points a game made him a Jewish All-American, once upon a time. Walton and Johnson compare notes on where each man was taken for his recruiting dinner (Johnson got a steak at Chasen's, Walton recalls "maybe a bowl of dry cereal"). Shackelford tells you Coach would prefer it if their wives had come, "because they're much better looking than we are." And they all laugh about pantomiming their way through Wooden's infamous imaginary shooting and rebounding drills. "I still start my day every single morning with that," Walton says. "I go out in the backyard, put the imaginary ball up in the air, and yank it down, arrgghh, elbows out."
It's a special scene, full of warmth and wit. A handful of VIPs customers who've stumbled upon it can't believe what they're seeing. Wooden, Walton, Wilkes -- this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
Only here's the thing: It happens all the time.
Wooden is a regular at VIPs, has been for 12 years. "I only go six or seven mornings a week, that's all," he says with a sly grin. He's met at the door each morning by Paul Ma, the proprietor, and before he sits down to his usual (egg scrambled, bacon brittle, English muffin and fruit), Wooden makes the rounds, slowly walking with his cane, greeting folks at the swivel-stool counter and in the sea-green vinyl booths. "Good morning, Coach," they all say, shaking his hand, putting an arm lightly around his waist, maybe offering the sports section from the morning's Los Angeles Times.
"Ed and Margaret are always in the next booth," he says. "And Millie is always in the next one, and then at the counter right across is always Lois, and Barbara is next, Mike is next, Scotty is next, Jerry is next, and Jack is next. It's just family. All the waitresses you know by name, and you know something about their families. It's a home place."
For years now, Wooden's former players, his "boys," have been part of this home place. The birthday bunch is only a sample; Mike Warren, Keith Erickson, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Bob Webb, Larry Hollifield, Swen Nater and many others regularly dine at VIPs with Coach. And when they can't come, they call. Daily. He keeps a hand-written calendar that would make diplomats and doctors half his age feel like no-account slackers. Sit with him in the den for an hour and the phone will ring half-a-dozen times. He lets it go to the machine, and picks up when he recognizes the voice. Ring. "That's Bob and Larry." Ring. "He played on my first team at UCLA in 1948." Ring. "This will probably be Bill."
"When it's me," Walton says, "he lets me go and go and go until I fill up the machine." But for all the joking, and all of the casual conversation that flows between them, the players come and call because they feel an enduring bond with him; three decades or more after they played for him, he remains a fixture in their lives. "Outside of my mother and father, Coach is the single most important person in my life," Walton says. "My love for him grows every day."
You can't get a word in edgewise at the birthday table. Walton's riffing on how Wilkes never passed him the ball, and Shackelford's taking a beating for finally getting the musical candle to work. The infield chatter is relentless.
But Washington, who goes to church every Sunday with Wooden, puts a halt to it. "I want to get this out," he says firmly, like he's laying it down for the Congressional Record, like he needs to say it. "To me, Coach has been like a foster parent to us. He's been very important. We were all lucky to have a great, great parent in him, someone who cared about us as people, as human beings."
Coach smiles with pink cheeks. The other players nod and look his way. The moment doesn't last. It isn't long before Hill is accusing Wooden of loving the 3-on-2 drill simply because, "You were standing there watching while we ran," and so on. But a while later, as plates are being cleared and someone is deciding what to do with the cake Paul brought out, Wooden seems to answer back to Washington, not just for today, but for every day.
"It's very nice to be with you," he says, running his thumb over the rounded edge of a table knife and averting his eyes just a bit. "I love you all very much."
* * *
You have to catch Bill Walton between speeches. He's on the road constantly, preaching the Wooden wisdom, lessons from the Pyramid of Success to the Four Laws of Learning (Demonstration, Imitation, Correction and Repetition), and everything in between.
His fascination with Wooden began as a boy in San Diego, the night he went to a neighbor's house (he had no television at home) to watch UCLA defeat a much bigger, stronger Michigan team for the national title in 1965. "The Bruins were just the littlest, skinniest guys in the world," he says. "I thought they'd get pounded. And instead, they ran a clinic that night -- the fast break, the press, the ball movement, the teamwork. I knew instantly. That was it. That was what I wanted to do with my life: move like that, think like that, be like that."
That was 1965. By the early '70s, Walton wanted to be a free spirit, too, complete with long hair and bushy 'burns, protests against the war in Vietnam and devotion to Dylan and The Dead. Meanwhile, his coach at UCLA was the same Indiana farm boy he'd always been, committed to the simple things: hard work, humility, and a pair of socks put on properly, with nary a wrinkle. Needless to say, they clashed from time to time. "He didn't think I had the right to tell him he couldn't wear his hair long," Wooden recalls. "And I said: 'You're right, Bill. I don't have that right. I just have the right to determine who is going to play -- and we're going to miss you,' and that shaped him up."
For all their differences, Wooden's discipline and structure -- practice began precisely at 3:30, profanity was not allowed, players criticizing other players was not tolerated -- resonated with Walton. As he had in lively dinner-table discussions back home, he thrived on the give-and-take with Coach, and as had been the case with his father's rules and regimens, Wooden's limitations were something he could both question and lean on. "I was always in his office," Walton says. "I would always ask him 'Why?' I challenged him on everything."
But Wooden was neither father nor friend to him in Walton's playing days. He was a fierce competitor who drove his "boys" hard (no chairs, no towels, no breaks during practice, and only salt water to drink) and a principled teacher who peppered them with maxims ("Failing to prepare is preparing to fail," "Be quick, but don't hurry," "Never mistake activity for achievement," "Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out," "Always try to be better today than you were yesterday") they often found confusing and sometimes found comical.
"We thought he was crazy," Walton says, laughing. "We thought he was a walking antique. We were waiting for the next Dylan song, and here was this guy out there talking to us about making each day our masterpiece and putting our socks on the right way. We thought he was hopelessly out of touch."
Of course, in a way, it didn't matter what Wooden said or what they thought of him, because the Bruins were winning big in those years. They racked up two national titles, two 30-0 seasons, and 88 victories in a row with Big Bill as the three-time All-American center at the heart of it all.
It wasn't until Walton moved on to Portland and the pros, and struggled to cope with severe injuries and overwhelming disappointment, that Wooden truly started to come alive for him. "The worse things got for me," Walton says, "the more important he became to me. I started to understand all the things he'd been talking about, about how to deal with adversity, about how to stay positive about the outcome of today."
The story's the same for Marques Johnson, whose daughter drowned several years ago: "A lot of that stuff from Coach was buried down deep inside, but it came back to the surface when I didn't know if I could come back."
And for Jamaal Wilkes, who went through a painful divorce: "He told me I had to love in order to live. It was what I needed to hear."
Wooden's quaint phrases had waited on them, had anticipated their hardships.
"They were a gift I didn't open until years later," Walton says. "I didn't realize. I was a kid. Now that I'm a parent, now that I've been through what I've been through [including dozens of surgeries on his ankles and many years of work to overcome his speech impediment], I see that they're not just phrases, they're a philosophy of life, and I can't imagine my life without them."
Andy Hill doesn't have to imagine. He spent 25 years away from Wooden.
A Westwood boy born and raised, Hill always wanted to be a Bruin. He would hum the UCLA fight song shooting hoops in his back yard. He would travel all over the city to see them play in the days before Pauley Pavilion was built. The chance to come to UCLA, to play for Wooden, was his dream come true.
Until he got there.
After a promising year as the leading scorer of the freshman team, it was all downhill. On the court, Wooden felt he had better guards in Kenny Booker and Henry Bibby, so Hill almost never played (he took just 99 shots in three years on the varsity). Off the court, he and Wooden butted heads over politics and the program's treatment of reserve players. At one point, Wooden even encouraged him to transfer.
While Walton thrived in the interplay between himself and Wooden, Hill felt neglected, misunderstood, disillusioned. "Things weren't good with me and my dad," he says. "I think I came to UCLA looking for a father, and I think Coach was just looking for a point guard." The disconnect left him hurt and lost. "For the first time in my life, basketball wasn't fun," he says. "And I was sure this man who I'd idolized just really didn't like me."
So he played out the string, ran through the drills in practice and steamed on the bench in games, ambivalent, after a while, about even getting in. "People used to call Andy 'The man who starts five thousand cars,'" Walton jokes, "because you knew when he got in the game it was over." It was embarrassing, and when graduation came in the summer of '72, Hill couldn't get out of Dodge fast enough. "The day I left school," he says, "I was sure that was the last time I'd ever see Coach."
On a golf course 25 years later, Wooden came back to him. "Before a difficult 2-iron shot, my playing partner told me, 'Don't hurry, get your balance,'" Hill, then a CBS television executive, says. "It was like he was channeling Coach, encapsulating what he taught us. And in that instant, I realized, though I thought I'd put him away, he'd always been with me, his principles had guided my life and my career." In a moment of clarity and calm, Hill knocked the shot stiff, and decided he had to call Wooden and thank him when he got off the course.
"Coach, it's Andy Hill."
"Andy? Where are you? Can you come over?"
Eight years later, Hill, who visits Wooden at least a couple of times a week now, helps Coach into the passenger seat of Walton's car in the parking lot out behind VIPs. He offers his left arm, bent at the elbow, and Wooden reaches out his right hand and grabs on. They pause there for a second ("Don't hurry, get your balance"), leaning on each other, before Wooden settles down into the seat. "That phone call was the best decision I've ever made," Hill says. "It changed my life. Once we were away from basketball, from my thinking I should play more, I could see he did care about me. And what we have now goes way beyond the father-son relationship I used to hope for. What we have now is that plus a friendship."
* * *
"Don't call me Wizard," Wooden says. "I'm no wizard." If he were more theatrical, the line would come with a "Harumph!," but instead he just grimaces. He doesn't think there's anything remarkable about him at all. He's just a kid from Martinsville whose daddy told him to do right and do his best. He's no better than you or me. He's a schoolteacher who's been lucky enough to have some exceptional students over the years, end of story. He's kept his nose to the grindstone and he's kept his eyes on the prize, but he ain't special.
Ask him to explain that chock-full calendar of his, ask him why it is that he and so many of his boys have stayed so close for so long, and he'll tell you it's just an extension of what all coaches and players share. "You deal with each other in so many different ways," he says. "You deal with each other physically, emotionally and mentally, and through times of stress, and I think you just get to know each other better."
The boys aren't buying such a mundane explanation. They know he's one of a kind.
They speak of him in hushed tones, with wide smiles on their faces. They gush. Do they risk deifying him? They don't care. They know what they know. Wilkes tells you how moved he was, how much he learned, by Coach's absolute devotion to Nellie. Washington speaks of Wooden's unflinching support of Kareem at a time when the center was marginalized by race, size, politics. Shackelford marvels still at his steady habits of study and preparation. Hill raves about his memory, of names, faces and lines of poetry he loves. Walton, who unabashedly calls Wooden "an enduring flame of hope," says it's all these and more: "It's the totality with Coach. It's the example he sets by the way he does all the little things and all the big things in his life."
Fidelity. The man is simply, steadily faithful, to his God, to his principles, to his family and his friends, to the creed in his pocket, the poem in his den and the shrine on his bed. He knows himself. It's a simple thing but a rare one, against the social grain. "There's a line I like from Socrates," he says. "When he was unjustly imprisoned and facing imminent death, the jailers asked, 'Why aren't you preparing for death?' And Socrates said, 'I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've lead.'"
For Wooden, planning the jump and jumping the plan means a kind of serenity. "I have peace with myself," he says.
For his players, his uncommon consistency serves, now, as a measure for their own lives, half challenge and half inspiration, as it was in their playing days. "No one's perfect, and of all people, I know he's not," says Hill. "But he's closer than anyone else I know, and by that I mean he really does live in congruence with the philosophy he espouses."
It's not that they agree with everything he thinks or believes. It's not that the points on his creed must be their own. It's that he was there, doggedly holding on to his principles at a time when Walton, Johnson and Wilkes needed something to believe in. It's that, if nothing else, they believed in his believing. It's that he and one of his favorite lines from Mother Teresa -- "Forgiveness sets you free," -- were there, 25 years later, when Hill needed to hear them on the other end of the line. "Love is giving," Wooden says. If his boys give him, especially in the years since Nellie passed, a home place, he gives his boys himself. Every time. That's why they come and call, so often and for so long now. That's why they love him like they do.
Well, that and the way he slices and dices Walton over scrambled eggs and bacon.
* * *
It's Wednesday afternoon now, in a conference room in the athletic complex at UCLA, and Wooden is at a long table, surrounded by some 300 leather basketballs. He's got a Sharpie, and every ball needs his signature for some alumni fundraiser or other. An athletic department assistant is lining up the balls to his right; he's signing them with a ridiculously steady hand for a 95-year-old man and no-look flicking them to the floor at his left. "You know, you'd have probably benched yourself for that pass," you say, knowing he doesn't go in for the fancy stuff. He laughs. "I could use the rest," he says. He's kidding. The balls keep coming and keep getting flicked away. You're amazed at his energy, and you find yourself wondering how long he can keep it up. It's no great leap from that thought to thoughts of mortality, to hoping there are many more signatures and breakfasts to come. "I'm always struck by these incredibly dissonant emotions when I leave him, and he's standing there on the balcony of his condo, waving," Hill says. "I'm elated that I just got to spend time with my dear friend and the greatest coach of all time and at the same time there is the momentary dread of feeling how our time together is like sand running out of an hourglass."
Watching the signed balls go by, you think again of Wooden's mementos. In his pocket, to this day, he keeps a small steel cross, given to him by his minister when he enlisted in 1942. It has an alpha and an omega embossed on one side, and a heart and a monad (a symbol of unity) stamped on the other. Beginnings and endings, love and order. This cross has been with him for 63 years, through triumph and loss, through joy and sadness. You see how it's been worn smooth by his busy fingers, and you imagine how it's grounded him, provided him some measure of comfort and counsel, reminded him of who he is and what matters to him.
Walton keeps something, too. He opens his wallet and takes out a card. "Timeless wisdom from a godly father," he says. "Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don't whine, don't complain, don't make excuses." "Just do the best you can," Coach chimes in. They're Wooden's father's words. And you hear the two of them reciting from memory, it seems, and you think: This is the bridge. Not just the card but the impulse to keep it. Not just the card but the ideas printed on it. You realize in this moment that the vagaries of age and failings of the body notwithstanding, Wooden will live on.
"He'll always be with us," Hill says. "His lessons, his concepts, his philosophies are deeply ingrained in all of his former players." Breakfast at VIPs is a testimonial event, you think. It speaks to how deeply people can affect each other. Maybe it's a Frank Capra thought, maybe it's straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life," but you think it, you believe it, and you're intoxicated by it.
* * *
You drive Coach home at the end of the afternoon. You open the door on the passenger side, and hold your left arm out, bent at the elbow. He reaches out with his right hand, grabs on, and lifts himself to standing. You walk him to the gate and watch him head to the elevator in the parking garage. You wait. Hoping to see him appear behind the glass door at the balcony. The sunlight bouncing off the glass makes it hard to see inside. You wait. Finally, you see him moving behind the glass and you wave. You feel a twinge, a hint of that mix of joy and worry Hill must feel, and you turn to go, with your hands in your pockets, wishing you had some token.