Faith, Love and Basketball

Nan Wooden shares inspiring memories of her legendary dad, John Wooden.

Posted in , Feb 18, 2011

Nan Wooden, in her father's office at UCLA

Most of the world knows John Wooden as the legendary coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team and developer of the Pyramid of Success, a program that builds success by building character.

Not long ago my brother, Jim, and I said goodbye to the man we knew as Dad.

We took him to UCLA Medical Center 10 days before he died. He was a few months shy of his hundredth birthday. He didn’t really want to go, but he’d become dehydrated at home and he was hardly eating. I knew he was thinking, I want to be with Nell.

Mom had been gone for 25 years, the toughest loss Dad had ever faced, infinitely worse than anything on the basketball court. “Death holds no fear for me,” he said frequently. “When it comes I’ll be with my sweetheart again.”

We checked him in under an alias. This was UCLA, after all, where he’d coached from 1948 through 1975, leading the Bruins to 10 national championships—still a record. The athletic center has his name on it, the business school awards an honor in his name, the basketball court at Pauley Pavilion is called the Nell and John Wooden Court (Mom’s name was included at Dad’s insistence). We didn’t want to attract attention.

That first day a young nurse came in and looked at Dad’s wristband. “You’re Gary Adams,” she said brightly.

“No,” he said, a bit perplexed, “I’m John Wooden.”

“Okay, Mr. Wooden,” she said as though she were playing along. Jim and I had a good laugh about that. It was just the sort of thing Dad loved, being the butt of a joke. Trust me, he was never that impressed by his own fame.

It was by accident that he ended up at UCLA. He’d been coaching at Indiana State University in Terre Haute for a couple of years, but was looking to move up, preferably to a Big Ten school. His first choice was Minnesota, although UCLA (in what was then the Pacific-8 Conference) was also interested in him. The two schools were sup­posed to make their final offer by a set time. Unfortunately, the caller from Minnesota couldn’t get to a phone because of a blizzard—something Dad was unaware of. The UCLA caller got through and Dad accepted the Bruins’ offer. Minnesota called later that night but it was too late. Dad was a man of his word.

I was a starstruck teenager and thrilled to be moving to Hollywood. No sooner did I start attending games than I’d get a crush on some player. I even dated one of them for a while, Denny Miller. He went on to play Tarzan in the movies and later confessed, “I think Coach Wooden was happier sitting me on the bench than seeing me go out with his daughter.” No matter.

As a family we loved going to games. Jim and I sat in the stands with Mom waiting for Dad’s usual pregame ritual. He’d pull up his socks, tap his assistant coach on the knee and then turn to Mom to give her the “A-okay” sign, a gesture that went all the way back to their courting (as it were) days at Martinsville High in Indiana.

No doubt about it, Mom was the love of Daddy’s life. He was a shy boy who’d grown up on a farm with no electricity and no plumbing. They met at a town carnival freshman year and it took Dad a long time to muster up the courage to ask her out on a date after a Martinsville game. He wanted to get her attention before the center jump. He looked over at the band where she was playing cornet and caught her eye. She was the one to form an “O” with her thumb and index finger, wishing him good luck. He looked for that sign from her and gave it right back for the rest of their lives, even when it was almost impossible to find her in a packed arena. A game couldn’t begin without that “okay.”

“The most important thing a father can do for his children is love their mother,” Daddy often said, quoting Theodore Hesburgh. Mom was devoted to him and to us, cooking, cleaning, keeping the house spotless. Once I remember Daddy spilling some homemade orangeade on the kitchen floor. He mopped it up with a clean towel and then squeezed it back into the pitcher. “What are you doing, Dad?” I gasped.

“Don’t worry,” he said with a wink. “Your mother’s floors are so clean you can eat off them.”

Mom was very “old school.” She always made sure Dad looked great. She shined his shoes, got his clothes ready, even washed his hair! When I first got married, I asked my husband, Stan, “What night do you want me to wash your hair?”

“What?” Stan said, bewildered. That must’ve been the first moment I realized not all wives washed their husbands’ hair!

Family came first with Daddy. If we hadn’t been to a game, we wouldn’t know whether his team won or lost from his demeanor as he stepped in the door. Sometimes players came over for dinner, particularly on holidays (I can still picture the great Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, towering over our Thanksgiving table), but when Daddy left the court, the game stayed behind.

Sundays, in particular, were reserved for family. We went to church in the morning and had a big dinner afterward. One Sunday in 1970, after UCLA had won the NCAA title, Mom and Dad flew home from Maryland and they were going to take everybody to dinner. The phone rang with a long-distance call. “Operator,” Dad said, “I’ve got my family waiting here for me to take them out to dinner. If this isn’t important I’m going to have to leave.”

“Sir,” she said, “the President of the United States will be on in a minute.” That day we all waited just a bit longer.

A lot has been written about Dad’s famous Pyramid of Success, which he used to demonstrate the key building blocks to good character. It was his way of articulating what qualities were essential in life: enthusiasm, cooperation, loyalty, friendship, initiative, poise, confidence, self-control. It wasn’t about winning but instead working at being the very best you could be, something he conveyed to his players and his students and something he practiced in his own life, especially in his faith.

He was always “working on it,” as he said, praying, reading Scripture, growing in his love for God. During games he fingered a silver cross he kept in his pocket. When it was first given to him by his pastor, it had an alpha and an omega etched on it. Today those symbols are worn off. That’s how hard he worked on it.

During those days in the hospital, Dad grew weaker and weaker but closer and closer to seeing his Nell. Every month since Mom’s death he’d written her a letter. There was a stack of them, tied up with ribbon, love letters of a man who looked forward to a final reunion. He was thinking of Nell now…and God. Our pastor Dudley Rutherford was a frequent visitor. One day at the hospital he leaned forward to Dad. “Coach,” he said, “you love the Lord, don’t you?”

“I’m working on it,” Daddy said.

Those were the last words he spoke. My three daughters and I were around his bed when he took his last breath. He turned to face my daughter Cathleen. His face looked so smooth and unwrinkled.

Pastor Dudley put his arm around me and said, “He’s there.” I could see it in my mind’s eye, my mother greeting him, the two of them in each other’s arms again, everything A-okay.

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