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Wooden’s Stature Never Waned

LOS ANGELES - The Wizard is dead. We can't follow that with "long live the Wizard," because there isn't another one. There will never be another one.

John Wooden lived 99 years, but somehow, his aura never grew old. In a society with an attention span that can be measured by website hits, where 10 years ago might as well be ancient Rome, his stature never faded. Not by an inch, not by an ounce.

It has been 35 years since he last coached a basketball game for UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, just up the street three blocks from the hospital where he died Friday night. That's plenty of time to be forgotten, to become irrelevant, to fall out of fashion.

John Wooden forgotten?


Out of fashion?

Not to the day he died.

We grow tired of success stories, if they stay too long. It is the cynicism of the age. But we never grew tired of his.

"He's one of the reasons I went to UCLA, and put on the uniform," Jordan Farmar of the Los Angeles Lakers was saying this week. Farmar wasn't even born the last time Wooden worked the sidelines.

"His coaching has been an inspiration," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. Jackson, the man with 10 NBA titles, more than any other. But look who inspired who.

Turns out, Wooden had two remarkable careers. The first as a coach with 10 national championships in 12 years - and you can put that one down as a mountain no one else will ever, ever, ever climb.

Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Bob Knight. They don't even get past the base camp on Mount Wooden. And you could only feel some sympathy for the long line of coaches who followed him at UCLA but never replaced him.

The second career was as an icon. Nothing suggested magic in college basketball more than the simple sight of John Wooden. That was as true the last year of his life as it was the last season of his career.

Either way, you got the same Wooden. Unassuming, dignified, stately, the small town boy from Indiana, who moved to the bright lights of southern California and never changed.

The world moved in some unsavory directions during his life. He didn't.

The language grew bluer. Put a microphone on many coaches during a game, and it becomes a symphony of bleeps.

But the ultimate in Wooden cursing was the famous, "Goodness gracious sakes alive!"

American family life grew more unstable.

But the woman named Nellie he met at a carnival was his wife for 53 years. After she died, there was never another companion. In the first months after she left him in 1985, Wooden apparently withdrew, and I remember discussing that with Lynn Shackelford, one of the Bruins from the threepeat years of 1967-69.

"He did the one thing he told us never to do," Shackelford said. "He quit."

But Wooden lived on for 25 years, a mortal former coach with eternal influence.

"When he opens his mouth, you want to listen because he has a lot to say," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre mentioned Friday, three hours before word came of Wooden's death.

"His philosophy I've used many, many times to get points across."

Torre said he was nearly awestruck when Wooden showed up in his manager's office one day and introduced himself. And also later, when Torre was driving and his cell phone rang, and Wooden was on the line.

Torre won four World Series for the Yankees and once had New York City at his feat. But he understood, when it came to presence, he was no match for the farm boy from the Midwest.

"It just startles me," he said. "He's such an enormous person."

It is rare to stay a giant, once the games stop. But the last 35 years of his life, all anyone asked of him was to be John Wooden. That was enough. How special is that?

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