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The Great Fight Ends for John Wooden

The discipline is about to begin up in heaven. St. Peter will learn how to wear his socks and tie his shoes. Or else.

John Wooden's arrived, and if there's one thing John never could accept, it was ignoring fundamentals, whether dealing with the proper method of shooting free throws or the proper method of getting into one's footwear.

"No wrinkles,'' was the Wooden lecture to his players the start of every season, "then put your shoes on and tighten your laces from the bottom up.''

Pay attention, St. Pete. The man had it all worked out

"Be quick, but don't hurry'' You'll hear that as often as did John's players at UCLA.

What we won't hear any longer is John Wooden's voice. What we won't see any longer is that twinkle in his eyes.

Inevitability overtook Wooden on Friday evening. His frail body gave up the fight, but a magnificent fight it was, and a magnificent life it was.

Not only because at UCLA he won more NCAA basketball championships than anyone who ever coached but because he saw the world as few see it, a place where anything is possible.

John Wooden was six months short of a century when he died, leaving us with homilies and memories and advice meant as much for dealing with society as it was for man-to-man defense.

"If you lose self-control,'' said John Wooden, "everything will fail.

"Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.''

He was as old-fashioned as a celluloid collar - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described him as the man from Pepperidge Farm -- and as current as the Internet, learning as he taught, teaching as he learned, never forgetting the past but also never fearing the future.

He gave us the Pyramid of Success, a series of values formulated through the years which became as famous as his zone-trap or fast-break. He, along with Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and others, gave UCLA a record 88-game win streak.

His legacy is 10 banners hanging from the rafters of an arena, Pauley Pavilion, where the floor carries both his name and that of his beloved Nell, who died a quarter-century before John.

His legacy is a reputation as a teacher who went from students in English class at South Bend Central High passing tests to students on a court at Indiana State and UCLA passing basketballs.

He probably shouldn't have made it as far as he did, but an appendectomy at the start of World War II kept him from boarding a ship in the South Pacific hit by a Kamikaze that killed 724, and a change of plans years later would prevent him from a flight from Atlanta to Raleigh that crashed with no survivors.

"Pure blind luck,'' Wooden once said, "I don't believe in fate.''

He believed in living. And, since Nell, the only girl he ever loved, passed on at age 73 in 1985, in dying. He visited her grave and left a rose every week. He wrote letters to her. He spoke often of rejoining her. Now he has rejoined her.

His story is pure America, ultimate Hollywood, although as a small-town guy from Indiana who came West in 1948, Wooden was never much for Tinseltown glamour.

Rather, he was a Norman Rockwell character in a Norman Lear existence, living in Encino, not Westwood Village, driving a Ford Taurus not a BMW 540.

I met Wooden in 1956. I was freshman at UCLA. He was an unappreciated genius whose literal office was in a campus portable and whose figurative one was a 2,500-seat gym overheated opponents referred to sarcastically as the "B.O. Barn.''

UCLA was successful, and yet because it collided with USF and Bill Russell or Santa Clara and Ken Sears, never escaping the regionals, it wasn't successful.

John Wooden, went the rhetoric, couldn't win the big one.

Then starting with the munchkins of 1964, who didn't have anyone taller than 6-foot-5 and went 30-0, the Bruins and Wooden won big one after big one after big one. Walt Hazzard. Gail Goodrich. Lucius Allen. Abdul-Jabbar, still known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor.

Seven NCAAs in succession. Ten in 12 years, at which point, 1975, Wooden retired. He departed with nothing unconquered. He left with nothing unfinished.

He is the only person to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame as a player, at Purdue, and a coach. He might have been the only person in big-time sports who could recite Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a in a Country Churchyard.''

During the 1971 season, Wooden disciplined Sidney Wicks, but after the win over Jacksonville in the NCAA final, Wicks, the star, grabbed Wooden and said unhesitatingly, "Coach, you're really something.''

Later, Wooden, recalling the moment, would tell Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated, "I had tears in my eyes.''

On this day, with John Wooden gone, the rest of us do. Better watch those shoe laces, St. Peter.

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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