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A VISIT WITH JOHN WOODEN : He Walks Alone With His Memories

December 25, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

Almost every morning, just as daylight begins to brighten the color of the leaves on the Eucalyptus trees lining the sidewalk closest to his front door, John Wooden sets out on a 5-mile walk.

The route he takes is always the same: White Oak to Burbank, up Burbank to Balboa Park, through the park, up Balboa to Ventura and back home. He could probably walk his path with his eyes closed, because in 17 years, it has never varied.

Each morning, John Wooden walks alone, a 78-year-old man alone with his thoughts. Sometimes he recites Biblical quotations as he makes his way. Sometimes he says a favorite poem or verse aloud, but only if no one is around.

There is a chance that a tree or a flower or a bird or a cloud might give him an idea for a poem. Maybe he will include it in the book of poetry he is writing for his children, their children and their children.

Each morning, the greatest college basketball coach who ever lived, the sport's greatest perfectionist, studies the imperfect world through which he walks and thinks about writing some of it down.

"Recently, I got an idea for a poem from geese flying above me," Wooden said. "I've learned that you just can't sit down and write a poem. It must flow. Something has to hit you."

But this morning is different.

It is not like any of the other mornings Wooden has taken his walk. Something hit him 4 years ago this very morning.

It was Christmas morning that Wooden took Nell, his wife of 52 years, to the hospital. She was a fighter, that smart Irish girl, but she couldn't beat cancer. Nell Wooden, 73, John Wooden's sweetheart for 60 years, died 3 months later.

Because Christmas will never be the same, neither will Wooden, who sits in a comfortable armchair that Nell chose in a room that Nell decorated in a condominium that Nell wanted. Wooden said he will never change it.

A dark-stained wood cart with silver tea service rests against one wall. On the kitchen table, next to a dish of jellybeans and candy, a small wooden stand holds a card with a quotation from Socrates:

I pray Thee, O God ,

That I may be beautiful within .

The Christmas memories that come rushing back to Wooden are sometimes painful ones.

"It's a hard time for me," he said. "It was 4 years ago that we rushed her to the hospital and she never got out. So that's always kind of a hard time thinking about that, in connection with a time that should be a beautiful time, a joyous time, Christmas.

"But at Christmas, I think of her even more."

Nearly 3 months into his 78th year, Wooden has slowed his pace somewhat. Arthritic knees have affected his gait, for which he apologizes, but he still covers ground quicker than those many years younger. Wooden has taken vessel dilator pills every 4 hours since he had a heart attack in 1973, but he seems remarkably spry and relishes his fitness.

Last summer, Wooden decided that he would no longer develop and run the program in his basketball camps, the John Wooden Basketball Fundamentals Camp. But he has recently changed his mind. The owner of the camps that bear Wooden's name agreed to provide an annuity for the college education of Wooden's 2 great-grandchildren if Wooden agreed to one youth camp and one adult camp.

Wooden continues to be much in demand as a speaker. He has no secretary and not only answers his own correspondence, but also books his speaking engagements. Wooden says he has cut down on them, especially those that involve a great deal of travel, although he is a favorite at many coaching clinics.

And why not? Wooden coached for 27 years at UCLA and had 27 winning seasons. His teams won 620 games, 19 conference titles and 10 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships, 7 of them consecutively, from 1967-1973.

He announced his retirement during the 1975 NCAA tournament, which UCLA eventually won, just after the Bruins had defeated Louisville in overtime in the semifinals. Wooden was 64. He walked into the locker room and stunned his players with 3 words: "I'm bowing out."

Wooden had decided to retire the previous December and his plan was not really a well kept secret, but until he made it official, there was always a little doubt. Actually, Wooden had wanted to quit after the previous season, but Nell talked him out of it.Such was her power that she could change the mind of the most successful coach in the history of college basketball.

All those victories, piled one atop another as memories in Wooden's plaque-lined study, apparently meant more to others than to him. Wooden said he never really preached winning. What he sought, he said, was effort; something a bit less tangible, with less of a hard edge to it.

"The general conception of what winning is, is wrong," he said. "I felt on occasions, very, very sincerely, that we may have out-scored someone and I felt in reality we really lost.

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