Basketball Coaching Legend Wooden Dies at 99
INDIANAPOLIS - John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA championships and 88 straight games as coach at UCLA, earning the nickname "The Wizard of Westwood," died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 99.
Wooden died of natural causes at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, according to the university.
Wooden personified small-town Indiana values for a half-century after moving to Los Angeles and becoming one of the greatest basketball coaches ever.
He is one of three people elected as a player and coach to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
A 5-foot-10, 185-pound guard, Wooden was all-state at Martinsville, Ind., High School and All-America at Purdue University at a time when there was a center jump after each basket and long before the advent of the NBA and the NCAA Tournament.
Wooden and Martinsville won the 1927 state championship and also lost in the title game in 1926 and '28.
Wooden's 1932 team at Purdue was the consensus national champion in an era of media voting. He was also national player of the year.
Wooden is survived by his daughter Nancy and son Jim, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
In his later years, as college basketball's popularity exploded, with coaches making millions and television paying billions for the NCAA Tournament, media and coaches still sought Wooden's down-home wisdom.
Often, he decried the modern, television-spawned basketball star, whose acrobatics Wooden felt detracted from crisp team play. During Butler's run to the NCAA title game in April, Wooden expressed admiration for the Bulldogs' team-oriented style.
In 1988 Wooden said, "Give me five real good players and you take five superstars, and I would like to play you."
When President George W. Bush awarded Wooden the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, he said, "(Wooden) was the man who taught generations of basketball players the fundamentals of hard work and discipline, patience and teamwork."
Bush added that Wooden was "an example of what a good man should be."
Wooden, who never made more than $32,500 a year from UCLA, was a devout Christian and family man whose harshest curse was reportedly "goodness gracious sakes alive."
The "Pyramid of Success," Wooden's principles of life, is often cited decades after he created it. He read and wrote poetry. His enduring significance shows in at least 15 books by and about Wooden published after he reached age 90. They include children's books.
Wooden, however, was not beyond charges of hypocrisy. Although the coach denied knowledge of NCAA rules violations by UCLA booster Sam Gilbert, his critics used them to denigrate his accomplishments.
"John has never been a runaway favorite among his colleagues, some of whom have described him as a pious fraud, others as a prude, still others as a genius born of superior material," a Los Angeles newspaper columnist wrote upon Wooden's retirement from coaching in 1975. "When a guy makes a fool of his competitors for as long as Wooden did, there is no way they are going to jump the net, pump his hand and applaud his work."
Thrived at Martinsville
John Robert Wooden was born on Oct. 14, 1910. There is recently discovered evidence that Wooden was born in Martinsville, where his parents lived for the first three years of his life, not Hall, Ind., as is often reported.
In the past year, Wooden and his family said they were uncertain about his birthplace. He was the second of six children.
Wooden's father Joshua was a farmer and later worked at a sanitarium.
Wooden thrived in Martinsville and was sought by schools such as Kansas, Indiana and Notre Dame for college. But he chose Purdue, which had the Big Ten Conference's top team and used the fast-paced offense Wooden favored as a player and later as a coach.
He saved $909.05 from barnstorming games after his senior season in anticipation of his marriage to high school sweetheart Nellie Riley. But two days before the ceremony, the bank where Wooden had placed his money closed.
The money was lost, but he accepted a loan and got married as planned Aug. 8, 1932, at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.
The couple was married 52 years before Nell's death. She often provided the outgoing counterpoint to Wooden's reserved personality.
"I've known a lot of married people, and I've always said what they had was rare," Wooden's daughter, Nan, said after Nell's death. "It's like they were one person, totally devoted to each other and the family."
Wooden began coaching at Dayton, Ky., High School in 1932-33, when he had his only losing season as a basketball coach. After the following season, he moved to South Bend, Ind., Central High School.
He coached there nine seasons, with his tenure interrupted near the end by three years as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II.
In 1946, he took his first college coaching job, at Indiana State. In his second season, he finished second in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament. Wooden's team included the first black player ever to compete in the NAIB or NCAA tournaments, Clarence Walker.
Settling in at UCLA
Wooden's quick success brought interest from other schools, including Minnesota and UCLA. Wooden preferred Minnesota for its facilities, but when a snow storm prevented the school's athletic director from calling at an agreed-upon time, Wooden accepted UCLA's offer.
The Woodens settled in Culver City, Calif., trying to get over culture shock.
"In many respects, to be quite honest with you, we were a little frightened out here," Wooden said in the book "The Wizard of Westwood."
Wooden had immediate success on the basketball court, though, taking a team that went 12-13 the year before he arrived and surprising fans by going 22-7.
But aside from a regional consolation game, Wooden's first NCAA Tournament victory didn't come until 1962, when he was 51 years old.
Wooden put relatively little stock in scouting opponents. Sitting on the bench during games with a rolled up program in his hand, Wooden felt most of his work had been done in practice.
UCLA went 30-0 in 1963-64, Wooden's first NCAA title. He won another in 1965 and then entered the fray for high school center Lew Alcindor - later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Abdul-Jabbar said in his autobiography "Giant Steps" that when he visited UCLA, he was impressed with the way Wooden addressed him.
"He called me Lewis, and that endeared him to me even more; it was at once formal, my full name, and respectful. I was no baby Lewie. Lewis. I liked that," Abdul-Jabbar wrote.
UCLA lost only twice during Alcindor's career. One of the losses, on Jan. 20, 1968, provided a glimpse at the future of college basketball - hoops in a dome with a huge TV audience.
Before 52,000 at the Astrodome in Houston, with millions more watching on television, the University of Houston's Elvin Hayes outplayed Alcindor, giving the Cougars a 71-69 victory and ending UCLA's 47-game winning streak.
"It's hard to imagine that a basketball game would ever be played in surroundings like these," said Wooden, who as a child played on a dirt court at his elementary school in Centerton.
UCLA won the national title that season, trouncing Houston in the semifinals.
88-game winning streak
Soon, another dominating center arrived: Bill Walton, a rebel playing for a conservative coach in a turbulent era. In college, Walton was arrested during a protest against the Vietnam War.
Decades later, Walton often explained why he grew to revere Wooden.
"We thought he was nuts," Walton said. "But in all his preachings and teachings, everything he told us turned out to be true."
Because of Wooden's success, two losses in 1974 became benchmarks of his career. On Jan. 19, 1974, UCLA's 88-game winning streak ended at Notre Dame with a 71-70 loss.
On March 23, the Bruins' string of seven straight NCAA titles ended as well, with UCLA losing in double overtime to North Carolina State in the national semifinals.
There was much speculation the following season that Wooden would retire. He confirmed the speculation after UCLA's last-second overtime victory over Louisville in the national semifinals.
Two days later, UCLA defeated Kentucky for Wooden's 10th national championship.
In retirement, Wooden watched as a parade of coaches at UCLA tried to duplicate his success.
In the first 13 seasons after Wooden retired, five coaches came and went at the school.
"I'm disappointed and displeased the way you fellows (media) keep writing me up as a ghost who haunts other coaches at UCLA," Wooden said at the time. "I wasn't a wizard and I'm not a ghost."
Not until 1995 did UCLA win another national championship in men's basketball.
In 1991, after hip replacement surgery, Wooden had to virtually learn how to walk again.
"I used to teach patience; now I'm having to practice it," Wooden said.
Several years past age 90, Wooden remained easily accessible to fans wanting autographs and media wanting interviews.
But with their father nearing age 100, UCLA and Wooden's children asked fans to stop lining up for his autograph at Pauley Pavilion and to stop sending him items in the mail to autograph.
Until at least age 97, Wooden lived alone in his condominium in Encino, Calif., attended to by his family and a UCLA trainer.
His daughter Nan gave The Star a copy of a poem Wooden wrote, signed and dated September 18, 1939. He was coaching high school basketball in South Bend at the time.
"Before eternity takes me,
My fondest hope is but to see
And know that something I have done
Has made for some a brighter sun."