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John Wooden's words live on in the hearts of his admirers

As they mourn his death, followers and colleagues treasure his words of wisdom on achieving success without sacrificing humility. His own pithy sayings, and his ability to quote great literature from memory, were as much a part of the man as his basketball acumen.

June 06, 2010|By David Wharton and Chris Foster
  • Wooden, at his Encino home, reads from an assembled book of poems sent to him by one of his former players, Swen Nater.  See full story
Wooden, at his Encino home, reads from an assembled book of poems sent to… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Years after he graduated from college, John Vallely found himself riding in a hospital elevator, trying to stay calm after his 9-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with cancer.

The former UCLA player remembered one of John Wooden's favorite sayings.

" 'Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,' " Vallely said. "I couldn't control cancer, but I could control how I reacted … how I could be the best father and the best husband. That thought helped me keep my balance."

On Saturday, the day after Wooden died of natural causes at 99, Vallely gathered with other former Bruins players and assistant coaches at Pauley Pavilion, part of an emotional outpouring that reached well beyond the game of basketball.

Mourners honored the coach, a winner of 10 national championships, by placing flowers and candles at the base of a statue on campus.

Politicians, religious leaders and educators from around the nation spoke of Wooden's determination to teach his players — along with countless fans who read his books or heard him talk — about how to conduct themselves in a decent and considered way.

"He was as conversant with Shakespeare and the Bible as he was with basketball," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in a statement. "He could and did quote poetry and biblical verse from memory until his dying day."

Jim Isch, the NCAA's interim president, called Wooden the type of individual who comes along "once in a lifetime." Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said: "Many have called Coach Wooden the 'gold standard' of coaches. I believe he was the 'gold standard' of people."

Wooden amassed a 620-147 record over 27 seasons at UCLA. Yet he might be remembered just as well for his "Pyramid of Success," with its building blocks and catchphrases seeking to provide a blueprint for life.

"Through basketball, he taught generations of players and fans the values of love, friendship, responsibility and humility," Cardinal Roger Mahony said. " 'Make friendship a true art' and 'Give thanks for your blessings and ask for guidance every day' were among his favorite maxims."

Wooden was a presence on campus until the final months of his life, regularly attending games through the 2008-09 season and speaking to classes.

"His values are still taught here as a way of life," said Kelsey Louder, a 20-year-old sophomore

Former UCLA star Jamaal Wilkes said, "You listened, but it wasn't until years later, after college, after the NBA, when my life focus began to change on marriage, divorce, children, the business world, that I began to sense how special a man he was," Wilkes said.

Even basketball lessons did not always sink in immediately. Keith Erickson was long gone from UCLA before he understood Wooden's requirement that players have short hair.

"That was because if you perspire and run your hands through your hair, the next time someone threw you a pass, the ball could slip through your hands," Erickson said. "That happened to me years later in a game and I realized, 'Doggone it, that's the reason.' "

Long after Wooden retired in 1975, the sports world sought his advice.

Pete Carroll, the former USC football coach now with the Seattle Seahawks, credits one of Wooden's books for reviving his career. Lute Olson, the longtime Arizona basketball coach, once sent a private jet to Van Nuys Airport to fly Wooden to a practice in Tucson.

Wooden addressed Olson's team at length, never mentioning basketball, preferring to expound on his philosophy.

Yet there seemed to be at least one limit to his generosity. When UCLA alumnus Henry Bibby became the coach at USC, Wooden counseled him over the phone but declined invitations to visit.

"He would say, 'Henry, you are one of my boys, but I will never go watch you coach over there,' " Bibby said. "He was UCLA through and through."

Many of Wooden's closest friends and colleagues visited him at the hospital last week, a who's who of basketball that included current UCLA Coach Ben Howland.

"He hadn't shaved in a couple of days," Howland said. "He scratched his whiskers and quietly said, 'I feel like Bill Walton.' "

Shortly after Wooden's death was announced Friday, about 200 students gathered outside the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said Jasmine Hill, president of the undergraduate student body.

As of Saturday afternoon, no plans had been announced for a public service.

Fans were making do with the impromptu memorial at the Bruin Bear statue outside the athletic department's offices on the UCLA campus. The Lakers planned a short tribute before Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at Staples Center.

Former player Kevin Love, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, said Wooden had a way of attracting followers. Love recalled visiting Wooden's San Fernando Valley condominium and noticing a space cut out of the front steps to make room for the volume of letters that arrived.

"One thing that stuck with me was all the mail," Love said. "I remember thinking what a special person you have to be to get all that mail."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

chris.foster@latimes.com

Times staff writer Diane Pucin and wire services contributed to this report.

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