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COVER STORY

A Man of Dignity

Put Aside the 10 NCAA Basketball Crowns and the 'Wizard of Westwood' Moniker. John Wooden Is Best Remembered for an Honorable Life.

March 29, 1998|BILL DWYRE | Bill Dwyre is sports editor of The Times

I am just steps out of John Wooden's condo when I realize he has, once again, transformed me into Jack Nicholson, gazing across the dinner table at Helen Hunt. Wooden has made me want to be a better man.

My professional life is so much the antithesis of Wooden. It is basketball players with orange hair and boxers with an appetite for ear. In my world, Charles Barkley says he doesn't want to be a role model, and I thank the heavens.

I am cynical, with both reason and pride. I tell our political reporters that they are the second-most lied-to group at our paper. I live with coach-speak, player-spin and owner-hype. I'm not sure anymore which is more psychobabble, "Oprah" or the National Football League.

But I have found my safe harbor, my antidote for the Dennis Rodmans and Mike Tysons, in the form of a hunched-over, slightly rumpled 87-year-old former English teacher, the same former English teacher who dabbled enough in basketball to play on one Indiana State High School championship team (1927) and two national championship teams at Purdue (1930 and '32), and coach UCLA to 10 NCAA titles in the '60s and '70s.

Nobody else has ever done that. Nobody else ever will.

And nobody else will ever be like John Wooden.

Millions of words have been written about his 40 years in college coaching, about his 27 years at UCLA that not only produced the record 10 NCAA titles and a record 88-game winning streak, but also contributed to an 885-203 record and .813 winning average.

That, like so many things about this scholarly, dignified man, is unprecedented.

He lives in a small condominium on a quiet street in Encino, the same place chosen for them 25 years ago by his wife, Nell, to whom he was married for 53 years and to whom, by the very tone of his voice, he pays homage at any mention. She died in 1985, and yet Wooden's home remains, in many ways, a shrine to her. In his tiny study, stacked floor to ceiling with shelves of books, plaques, trophies and pictures, one wall is reserved for commemoration of the 10 national championships. There are 10 team pictures, symbolically configured in a triangle that represents his Pyramid of Success, a 15-step process that is the core of his philosophy.

"Nellie put them up like that," he says reverently.

*

John Wooden is a celebrity who either doesn't know it or doesn't show it. He drives a 1989 Ford Taurus with 25,000 miles on it ("It gets me there") and never has had much to do with charge cards ("Nellie and I didn't believe in them").

When he lunches out, his favorite stop is just down the street on Ventura Blvd., a place called Fromin's. He orders soup and half a sandwich and is oblivious to the buzz around him ("Hey, there's Johnny Wooden. Doesn't he still look great?").

When people stop by, he treats his guest like the royalty at the table. ("This is the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. I'd like you to meet him.")

On the way out, he points to the empty table near the cashier. It was the favorite table of a longtime customer who died while eating there, and Fromin's has left the table there, unoccupied, with new flowers every day and a commemorative plaque. Wooden likes that sort of perpetuation of a person's memory.

Even now, 23 years after his retirement from UCLA, he is in demand. His telephone rings constantly, and he lets the message machine begin the screening process, but if he is there, he picks it up halfway through the incoming message. While not naive, he is also incurably friendly, remarkably patient and seldom short or gruff with anybody.

"Hi, Coach Wooden, this is Jim Smith from the High Premium and Low Payoff Insurance Company and I was calling to see if you'd be interested in . . . "

"Well, hello, Jim. How are you? I'm not really in the market for any insurance these days, but it was kind of you to call. Thank you so much."

He got a call recently from somebody who wanted a copy of his new book, "WOODEN: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court." The caller said he needed the book right away, so Wooden got one off the shelf, stuffed some padding in the envelope, packaged it up, taped it shut and went out and mailed it. The man had given Wooden a collect Federal Express number, but Wooden fretted that sending the book that way would be much too costly for the caller. It never occurred to him that few Hall of Fame sports figures prepare mailings for strangers.

He has no secretarial help, and when asked how he keeps it all straight, he responds proudly, with a huge smile on his face: "I'll show you." He returns from the tiny study with an 8-by-10 calendar, each day filled in in longhand. "See, I've got you right there. Bill Dwyre at 1 o'clock on the 18th, then changed to the 19th."

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