LOS ANGELES - John Wooden, college basketball’s gentlemanly Wizard of Westwood who built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports at UCLA and became one of the most revered coaches ever, has died. He was 99.
The university said Wooden died Friday night of natural causes at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26.
Jim Wooden and Nancy Muehlhausen issued a statement shortly after their father died, saying, “He has been, and always will be, the guiding light for our family.
“The love, guidance and support he has given us will never be forgotten. Our peace of mind at this time is knowing that he has gone to be with our mother, whom he has continued to love and cherish.”
Just as he was loved by his players, who hurried to the hospital to say their goodbyes.
Jamaal Wilkes said he recognized what he called “that little glint” in Wooden’s pale blue eyes.
During his second visit Wednesday night, Wilkes asked Wooden if he recognized him.
“His glasses fogged up and he had to clean his glasses,” Wilkes said. “He looked at me and said, ’I remember you, now go sit down.”’
Current UCLA coach Ben Howland was among Wooden’s final visitors.
“I just enjoyed him and the twinkle in his eye,” he said, noting Wooden told a few jokes from his hospital bed. “I’m just the steward of this program. It’s always going to be his program.”
With his signature rolled-up game program in hand, Wooden led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships, including an unmatched streak of seven in a row from 1967 to 1973.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about Coach Wooden simply, because he was a complex man. But he taught in a very simple way. He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement released through UCLA.
“He set quite an example. He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.”
Wooden is the only person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
He was a groundbreaking trendsetter who demanded his players be in great condition so they could play an up-tempo style not well-known on the West Coast at the time.
But his legacy extended well beyond that.
He was the master of the simple one- or two-sentence homily, instructive little messages best presented in his famous “Pyramid of Success,” which remains must-read material, not only for fellow coaches but for anyone in a leadership position in American business.
He taught the team game and had only three hard-and-fast rules — no profanity, tardiness or criticizing fellow teammates. Layered beneath that seeming simplicity, though, were a slew of life lessons — primers on everything from how to put on your socks correctly to how to maintain poise: “Not being thrown off stride in how you behave or what you believe because of outside events.”
“What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player,” was one of Wooden’s key messages.
Jim Harrick was the only coach in the post-Wooden era at UCLA to win a national championship. When the Bruins reached the 1995 Final Four, Harrick repeatedly urged Wooden to attend. He had stopped going after his wife died 10 years earlier.
“He said he wasn’t going. You don’t know how stubborn he was,” Harrick said by phone from Orange County, Calif. “Finally, he did come, and it was a tremendous thrill. He snuck in and right before the game was over he snuck out. He never wanted to take away any of my fanfare.”
Wooden regularly attended the Bruins’ home games up until a couple years ago, taking his usual seat a few rows behind their bench at Pauley Pavilion.
Wooden began his career as a teacher during the Great Depression and was still teaching others long past retirement. Up until about two years ago, he remained a fixture at UCLA games played on a court named after him and his late wife, Nell, and celebrated his 99th birthday with a book he co-authored on how to live life and raise children.
Even with his staggering accomplishments, he remained humble and gracious. He said he tried to live by advice from his father: “Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books — especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”
While he lived his father’s words, many more lived his. Those lucky enough to play for him got it first hand, but there was no shortage of Wooden sayings making the rounds far away from the basketball court.
“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow,” was one.
“Don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you,” was another.
Born Oct. 14, 1910, near Martinsville, Ind., on a farm that didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, Wooden’s life revolved around sports from the time his father built a baseball diamond among his wheat, corn and alfalfa. Baseball was his favorite sport, but there was also a basketball hoop nailed in a hayloft. Wooden played there countless hours with his brother, Maurice, using any kind of ball they could find.
But it wasn’t until he headed west to Southern California that Wooden really made his mark on the game.
Wooden guided the Bruins to seven consecutive titles from 1967 through 1973 and a record 88-game winning streak in the early 1970s. From the time of his first title following the 1963-64 season through the 10th in 1974-75, Wooden’s Bruins were 330-19, including four 30-0 seasons.
“My reaction is sadness yet at this point we have to celebrate maybe the most important guy in the history of the game,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun told the AP. “There has been no greater influence on college basketball not just about the game but the team.
“He gave so much to basketball and education. In my opinion if he’s not as important as Dr. Naismith, he’s right next to him.”
The bespectacled former high school teacher ended up at UCLA almost by accident. Wooden was awaiting a call from the University of Minnesota for its head coaching job and thought he had been passed over when it didn’t come. In the meantime, UCLA called, and he accepted the job in Los Angeles.
Minnesota officials called later that night, saying they couldn’t get through earlier because of a snowstorm, and offered him the job. Though Wooden wanted it more than the UCLA job, he told them he already had given UCLA his word and could not break it.
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