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Shorter team but another slam dunk

March 25, 2004|Don Patterson | Special to The Times

Anaheim — The Coach's thumb got sore halfway through the signing. By then, he'd written "Love, John Wooden" in nearly 200 copies of his children's book, "Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success," and the line was still out the door, stretching far into the courtyard.

People began gathering outside Compass Books & Cafe near Disneyland around noon on a recent Saturday, even though the Coach wasn't scheduled to sit down with his pen until 3. When he got there, he walked slowly, cane in hand, a bit bent at the shoulders, and when people saw him, they applauded.

Face to face, they called him Coach or Coach Wooden or Mr. Wooden. One woman from Corona, Lanien Delgado, got her picture taken with him and then said: "I'm going to cry." Her father took her to UCLA games in the 1960s and '70s when Wooden's teams were mowing through college basketball, winning a record 10 NCAA championships. Delgado has four children -- ages 15, 12, 8 and 5 -- and she teaches them about Wooden's Pyramid of Success, which served as the blueprint for "Inch and Miles."

"I just love his principles," she said. "Hard work, determination, poise, teamwork -- everything on the Pyramid is great for character building."

Kerry Carmody from Valencia bought seven copies of the book, enough to pass out to his godchildren, a niece, a cousin and co-workers. "There are only three people I'd stand in line for," he said. "My father, Walt Disney and John Wooden."

Another who waited to see the coach was Gary Barragan, who played baseball for UCLA in 1973. He chose to attend UCLA after hearing Wooden speak, and he came to the signing with his 8-year-old, Jeremy, who finished "Inch and Miles" while standing in line and said he learned from it that you shouldn't complain or whine.

"And," Jeremy added, "you should be determined and show self-control."

The lineage of the book can be traced back six years, when Wooden was interviewed by Steve Jamison, who helped him write "Inch and Miles" with retired tennis pro Peanut Louie Harper. When Jamison reviewed notes from the interview, he decided he had the makings of a book.

At first, Wooden disagreed.

"I just didn't see how anybody would be interested," Wooden said.

After five months of writing letters and getting "Thank you, Steve, but ..." responses, Jamison struck the right note by pointing out that a book would make a terrific tool for teaching. The result was "Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court."

When people began asking for a children's version, Wooden and Jamison decided to write "Inch and Miles," the colorful story of a mouse and worm whose teacher -- Mr. Wooden, a wise, old owl -- sends them on a journey to discover the true meaning of success.

Wooden is 93 now, and his work on the Pyramid of Success began 70 years ago while he was teaching English and coaching at Dayton High School in Kentucky. It bothered him when parents made kids feel like failures if they didn't get an A or a B or make the starting lineup. So he began shaping a new definition of success, one that wasn't based on results, one that reflected lessons he'd learned from his dad, Hugh, and one that he sums up as the peace of mind that comes as "a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

The Pyramid wasn't just tossed together. It took Wooden 14 years. But once he was finished, he was finished. Since 1948, he hasn't modified it or even fine-tuned it.

"I was satisfied with what it was," he said.

"I've never had any reason to change it."

From time to time, he has seen interviews with former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played on three championship teams for Wooden at UCLA from 1966 to 1969. When Abdul-Jabbar -- Wooden still refers to him as Lewis Alcindor -- is asked about the Pyramid, he says he thought it was corny at first but found it more meaningful later in life.

"That pleases me," Wooden said. "I always remember Mark Twain's statement about his dad, that he was ignorant and that he could hardly stand to be around him when he was 14. When he got to be 21, he was surprised at how much his dad had learned."

Twenty-nine years after his retirement, there is still demand for Wooden wisdom. He was asked recently to speak to McDonald's executives about keeping a streak going. He was stopped outside the book signing by a teacher who uses his sayings frequently in his fifth-grade classroom. And he is always urged and cajoled to attend the Final Four, which he did last year, even though he doesn't sleep as well away from his condo in Encino and the many warm reminders of his late wife, Nellie, who died in 1985.

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