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Wooden Wins a Big One, No. 99

He couldn't win the big one. That was the criticism of John Wooden. Fifty years ago.

Times change. Perceptions change. Integrity never changes.

Couldn't win the big one.

Wooden was in his formative years at UCLA, a team competent enough in the old Pacific Coast Conference and its successor, the AAWU. But in the tournament, there was USF with Bill Russell, or Santa Clara, with Ken Sears, and the Bruins were eliminated.

Then they began to eliminate everybody else. Starting in 1964, UCLA won all the big ones, won 88 games in a row, won seven NCAA championships in a row, and John Wooden earned a reputation he's never lost as the finest college basketball coach in history.

The great man, the "Wizard of Westwood'' - a phrase Wooden still dislikes; it came from the title of a book by Dwight Chapin and the late Jeff Prugh - turns 99 today, October 14. Ninety-nine, one short of a century.

Sadly, he is looking his age, frail, fighting through one ailment after another, the sort of problems not uncommon to those who make it to their ninth decade.

Delightfully, he never acts his age. He hates being pushed in a wheelchair. Doesn't want to be fussed over.

"I'm embarrassed not being able to get around,'' he said a while back. "I don't like it.''

Who does? In our minds, it's always yesterday, always a time of youth, when we never imagined what the future would be, never dreamed those old guys would be us.

The India Rubber Man someone called Wooden. He was the All-America from Purdue in the early 1930s. He would hit the floor and bounce up. Then he would hit a basket.

He became an English teacher and a coach. No, he became The Coach. After serving as a naval lieutenant in World War II.

UCLA hired him from Indiana State in 1948. He headed West and almost headed back to Indiana. Life in southern California, call it the "Hollywood Effect,'' was unsettling. Wooden considered leaving not long after he arrived.

But he still was there when I entered in 1956, a freshman on the school paper, the Daily Bruin, sent to interview Wooden in less than elegant campus surroundings, a spartan office in a wooden bungalow maybe 150 yards from an antiquated gym so small (2,500 seats) and so closed-in it was, in a word-play on the Tennessee Williams' drama, nicknamed "The Sweatbox Named Perspire.''

Wooden was polite if impatient. Businesslike. Efficient. The Pyramid of Success, now marketed, was attached to the wall. He had his ideas. When he would get his players, Walt Hazzard (Mahdi Abdul-Rahman) and Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, the ideas were brilliant.

Twenty-seven years, 10 NCAA titles, 620 wins, 147 defeats. UCLA finally got its building, Pauley Pavilion, in 1965, and Wooden finally got an office worthy of his status. But deep down, he was still the no-nonsense guy from Middle America.

For many years, Wooden has lived in an unpretentious San Fernando Valley condominium that is more museum than residence. Memories, homilies and most of all awards are on virtually every inch of the walls, atop every desk, table or trophy cabinet.

There is a letter from Richard Nixon, a bobblehead doll of Tommy Lasorda, a Yankees cap from Derek Jeter, a photo montage of John Stockton, of whom Wooden wistfully noted, "Was the last player in the NBA to wear shorts, not bloomers.''

He has books about Mother Teresa, a Medal of Freedom award from George W. Bush, a football autographed by Don Shula and, of course, photos of the UCLA teams he coached to titles before retiring in 1975.

"Nell arranged those pictures in the Pyramid of Success,'' explained Wooden, alluding to his wife, who died in 1985. "I didn't like that, but I wasn't going to change anything she did.''

Nell Riley was the only girl John Wooden of Martinsville, Indiana ever dated. There's a framed photo, leaning against a wall, of the two of them, John 16, Nell 16. The love of his life, to whom he still writes a letter the 21st of every month.

Her name is alongside his on the basketball floor at Pauley. It was the only way he would allow the court to be dedicated, to both of them.

Wooden is a baseball fan. He would come to UCLA games when they still played at a utilitarian facility on the land where Pauley was erected and harass the opponents, a classic "bench jockey,'' insulting but never obscene. Wooden can talk about Babe Ruth. Or about Barry Bonds.

John Wooden knew. John Wooden knows. In 99 years, he hasn't missed much. Including winning the big one.

 

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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