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John Wooden Biography

Biography of John Wooden, legendary basketball coach.

Published Apr 20, 2004

Glurge:   Biography of John Wooden, legendary basketball coach.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

On the 21st of the month, the best man I know will do what he always does on the 21st of the month. He'll sit down and pen a love letter to his best girl. He'll say how much he misses her and loves her and can't
wait to see her again.

Then he'll fold it once, slide it in a little envelope and walk into his bedroom. He'll go to the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place the new one on top and tie the ribbon again. The stack will be 180 letters high then, because the 21st will be 15 years to the day since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years, died.

In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between, with just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.

There's never been a finer man in American sports than John Wooden, or a finer coach. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA, the last in 1975. Nobody has ever come within six of him.

[Rest of article here]

Origins:   So often the stories we classify as

John Wooden

glurge have precious little factual basis to them, existing primarily as parables meant to inspire rather than inform. Yet that is not the case here — this item paints an accurate portrait of John Wooden, the renowned basketball coach.

We can't fathom why the article quoted above suddenly became a hot e-mail forward in 2004. It was originally published under the title of "A Paragon Rising Above the Madness" in the 20 March 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated and is the work of Rick Reilly, the well-known sportswriter who pens the "Life of Reilly" column found on the last page of every issue of that publication. Reilly's writings also often appear in Time magazine, and he is the author of a number of books, including Whose Your Caddy?, The Life of Reilly, Missing Links, and Slo-Mo; My Untrue Story.

John Wooden's accomplishments as a basketball coach are almost impossible to summarize because they are so many. The briefest of thumbnail sketches (offered on the understanding that we couldn't begin to do justice to his record without running on for paragraph after paragraph) would note that during his overall career as a head coach he achieved an unequaled win-loss record of 885-203 (for a winning percentage of 81.3), and that during his 27 years as head coach of the UCLA Bruins, his teams achieved a 620-147 record and won an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, including seven in a row (1967-73).

Yet his accomplishments as a basketball coach are only part of his story. His character — the man he is — almost dwarfs them by


His life story and philosophy of living have been recounted in numerous books: My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey, They Call Me Coach, Coach Wooden One-On-One, Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, Be Quick — But Don't Hurry: Learning Success From the Teachings of a Lifetime, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations & Reflections On and Off the Court, John Wooden Pyramid of Success. This man, who came to be called the Wizard of Westwood in deference to his achievements as UCLA's basketball coach, was born in 1910; during World War II, he took a time-out from his coaching and teaching career to serve as a full lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He was married for 53 years to his childhood sweetheart (who died in 1985) and raised two children with her; Wooden now also has seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.

Though John Wooden's career as a coach ended in 1975, his teachings live on. Although it's possible the claim of his knowing the whereabouts of 172 of the 180 men who played for him is a bit of an exaggeration, certainly a great many of his former players have stayed in touch over the years.

Many of his sayings have stuck with his players, including his 'pyramid of success': "Success is the peace of mind which is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you have made the effort to become the best person that you are capable of becoming."

As for the anecdote about how the Wizard of Westwood handled a rebellious player insistent upon breaking tonsorial rules, not only has the player in question (Bill Walton) been quoted in news articles as telling the story, but so has John Wooden. However, the tale has been around so long that Wooden tells two versions of it, one involving long hair, the other a beard:

I've always enjoyed Bill Walton. He's his own man. You've probably heard this story but one time he told me he wasn't going to get a haircut. He told me I didn't have the right to make him get a haircut. I said, "No, I don't, Bill. I just have the right to determine who is going to play — and we're going to miss you."

One day, All-America center Bill Walton showed up with a full beard. "It's my right," he insisted. Wooden asked if he believed that strongly. Walton said he did. "That's good, Bill," Coach said. "I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We're going to miss you." Walton shaved it right then and there. Now Walton calls once a week to tell Coach he loves him.

The coach's monthly letters to his deceased wife Nellie are also a matter of record; they are mentioned in any number of articles about the man, often by reporters who have themselves seen them. On the 21st day of every month, after visiting her grave at Forest Lawn, Coach Wooden writes her a letter, which he leaves on the pillow on her side of the bed. Each of those letters ends with his telling her he misses her every day and looks forward to the time he can be with her again.

Nothing has changed in the house they shared together since she's been gone. "Every picture on the walls are the ones Nellie chose, the ones she wanted up," said John Wooden. "I've changed nothing, except add pictures of the great-grandchildren she never had a chance to see."

Coach Wooden embraced the unchanging in other areas of his life besides decor. He had three main rules for his players: Be on time, do not use profanity at any time, and never criticize a teammate. The following description of him comes from a 1997 Deseret News article:

A great coach, he is a better man, and that has always been his broad appeal. Grace, wit, wisdom, perspective, humility, love, competence, devotion and spirituality have rarely been packaged so well in one tiny man. One of his players was recently asked to choose one word to describe Wooden. He chose "Saint."

Wooden's message has not changed. The old Indiana school teacher is still teaching personal values, discipline, hard work and self-improvement. He's still teaching his famous Pyramid of Success, which encompasses all of the above and more.

Fittingly, the recognition bestowed on the nation's best college basketball player is named the John R. Wooden Award. Begun in 1976, it is conferred annually. In 2004, it was joined by the Women's Wooden Award, a trophy honoring the year's top female college basketball player.

On 4 June 2010, John Wooden passed away. He was 99.

Barbara "wizardry" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    Biography of John Wooden   Biography of John Wooden   (Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame)

Last updated:   5 June 2010

  Sources Sources:

    Bock, Hal.   "UCLA Greats Honor Wooden."

    Associated Press.   13 December 2000.

    Deitsch, Richard.   "Q & A with John Wooden."

    Sports Illustrated.   31 March 2003.

    McCarthy, Dennis.   "Wooden Keeps Love of His Life Updated."

    The [Los Angeles] Daily News   24 August 2003   (p. N3)

    Noland, Eric.   "Coach Wooden is Like Your Dad."

    The [Los Angeles] Daily News.   16 March 1998.

    Reilly, Rick.   "A Paragon Rising Above the Madness."

    Sports Illustrated.   20 March 2000.

    Robinson, Doug.   "Wooden's Medium Is Basketball, But Life Is His Art."

    Deseret News.   13 April 1997   (p. D1).

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