Many of John Wooden's lessons had nothing to do with basketball
Famed UCLA coach took time to talk to a rookie reporter 36 years ago.
Seattle Times staff columnist
In 1974, I was a reporter in Centralia, greener than an unripe banana. I was new to the Northwest and desperate for a ticket to see the UCLA-Washington basketball game.
UCLA was in the midst of its NCAA-record 88-game winning streak. It was one of those larger-than-life teams, like the Yankees or Packers, and its coach, John Wooden, was royalty.
I had begged Centralia coach Ron Brown to call his good friend, Washington coach Marv Harshman, and ask for a ticket for me. And late on a postgame Friday night, less than 24 hours before the tip, Ron handed me a ticket to see UCLA in person for the first time.
I remember everything about that Saturday, one of those rare, spectacularly clear winter days. I arrived at the old Hec Ed before the doors opened and stood in the rapidly fading sunlight, as excited as if I were playing.
That night, UCLA put on one of the most flawless exhibitions of basketball imaginable. The Bruins were disciplined, precise. It was like watching perfection.
On Jan. 5, 1974, I saw UCLA beat Washington 100-48 for its 84th straight win. After the game, even though I didn't have a media credential, I walked with the other reporters into the hallway underneath the stands and outside UCLA's locker room.
It was a Saturday night and the Centralia Daily Chronicle didn't have a Sunday paper. I had no deadline and decided to wait until all of the questions had been asked.
I was naive and didn't understand that I had no right to think that after a night game, in the middle of a historic winning streak, the greatest coach in college basketball would give me 20 seconds of his time.
John Wooden gave me 20 minutes.
As the players walked past us toward the bus, he talked about the challenges of the winning streak. He talked about the shared responsibility in being part of the team. I told him I recently had moved from the Philadelphia area and was interested in his sophomore point guard from that city, Andre McCarter.
He told me McCarter still was learning, still was in too much of a hurry. "He has to learn to hustle, but not hurry," Wooden said. I later learned that was one of the many wise sayings Wooden often repeated in practice.
Then remarkably, he asked me about the Daily Chronicle and asked me about my goals in the business. I felt like I was talking to my grandfather.
He shook my hand and told me to seek balance in my life while I was pursuing my goals, and when I reached those goals, set new ones. John Wooden was coaching me.
It was 20 minutes that I've cherished for 36 years. He didn't owe me those minutes. He could have used the need to get on a bus as an excuse to push past me.
I saw him several times after that, and I always reminded him of how much that night meant to me.
The last time I saw Wooden, I was with longtime coach Jim Marsh at the shoot-around before the 2005 McDonald's All-American game at Notre Dame. I thanked Wooden for his interest in me all those years earlier, and as always, he was gracious to me.
But he was thrilled to see Jim. Although Marsh is a USC alum, Wooden, who died Friday at the age of 99, always treated him as if he were family.
Marsh and Wooden got to know each other when Marsh was traveling the country with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, conducting the "Jammin' Hoops" camps.
Almost every day Walton "borrowed" Marsh's phone to call "Coach." He always passed the phone to Marsh and those phone calls led to a friendship that lasted more than 15 years.
A month ago, Marsh, along with legendary broadcaster Dick Enberg, visited Wooden for the last time.
"When Dick and I left, we were silent for a while because we were overwhelmed by the impact of what had just happened," Marsh said by telephone Saturday night. "We were trying to digest what had just happened.
"Here he was, just months away from his 100th birthday, and he was still sharp as a tack. He was very much in the present. He was teasing me about being the only USC Trojan he allowed in his inner sanctum. He was an extraordinary conversationalist."
That day, sitting in Wooden's den, surrounded by all of his basketball memorabilia, the conversation drifted away from basketball and sports and toward philosophies of life and, in this case, John Wooden's philosophy of death.
Wooden told Marsh and Enberg he was ready to go. He said that every day was another step closer to being reunited with his late wife, Nell.
"He was a man at peace," Marsh said.
John Wooden was a man who understood life. Even in the heat of an unprecedented winning streak, he seemed at peace. He was a giant who always found time for the rest of us.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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