Even though most people call him Coach, John Wooden prefers to think of himself as a teacher, and not just one who taught hundreds of UCLA basketball players during his 27 seasons coaching the Bruins. His "Pyramid of Success," a diagram of core values, has helped shape the lives of thousands.
Wooden, 95, who won a record 10 national championships at UCLA and is widely considered the greatest coach in the history of college basketball, is largely unaffected by his success. He still lives in the modest Encino condominium he has called home since 1972. The place is stacked floor to ceiling with plaques, honorary degrees, photos, letters, poems, books ... and, of course, basketballs.
"Bill Dwyre once wrote that I was thrown into the limelight, into a place I never wanted to be," he said, referring to The Times' sports editor. "I'd be pleased if that were true. Regardless of how it might appear to others, I'm not comfortable there."
Wooden spent a morning with The Times recently and talked about his old-school values, his lesser-known love of baseball, the soft spot in his heart for Pauley Pavilion, and his view of the Los Angeles sports landscape over more than half a century.
I keep an old newspaper clipping folded in my wallet. It's from the time I was offered the manager's job of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Joe Brown was general manager at the time, and he's the one who made the offer.
It's ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. But I still keep the clipping just for fun.
"If I should take you up on this," I said, "who do you think they'd fire first, you or me? If I were the owner, I'd fire you first for hiring me. Then I'd fire me."
But I still keep the clipping. Baseball, not basketball, was my first love. In the almost 60 years I've been in Los Angeles, I've seen a lot of great baseball. Although I pull for all the local sports teams — the Lakers, Clippers, Angels — I've always been partial to the Dodgers.
When my wife, Nell, and I moved to Los Angeles in 1948, we lived in the same apartment complex as Vin Scully. We were neighbors for a little while. He moved on to a larger, nicer place. Vin is absolutely, unquestionably the greatest sports announcer of all time. I've listened to him for years. He's remarkable. He can do any sport, but in baseball, no one's close.
Passion for baseball
Why do I love baseball so? Baseball is thinking all the time. Every pitch is different. Every position is different. Every situation is different. There's the outs, who's coming up next, who you have in the bullpen. People say it's slow, but it's a thinking game.
The athletes who I've had the most respect for over the years are all outstanding thinkers: Sandy Koufax, Lewis Alcindor, Bill Walton, John Stockton, David Robinson. In the USC football I've seen lately, I like the way Matt Leinart thinks.
I was always a Dodger fan. I went to a lot of games and got to know most of the players. I was in their dressing room a lot. I had met Walter Alston, the manager, and knew him before I came to UCLA in 1948. They had a couple players from Indiana, my home state, Gil Hodges and Carl Erskine, and I knew them. I knew Don Drysdale, and I knew Sandy.
If I had a favorite Dodger, it was Sandy Koufax. He was modest and unassuming, and he left at the height of his career when he could have played longer. He had enough strength to walk away and not stay too long as some do.
I first got to know him when he went to the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship. He's a big basketball fan. I sat with him a few years ago at a Final Four in Indianapolis. We weren't there together, but it just so happened that we were seated very close together. He's a shy type of person. We just greeted each other. We'd met before, of course.
A lot of Dodger memories have stayed with me over the years. I'll never forget the night they honored Roy Campanella. The Coliseum was full, and they had candles that lighted up the night. It was sort of eerie.
Before Dodger Stadium was built, the team played at the Coliseum. I remember Wally Moon, who was left-handed, hitting a little pop fly to left and it would be a two-base hit. And then Duke Snider would hit one twice as far into center field and it would be caught for an out. I remember Duke hurting his arm trying to throw a ball out of the Coliseum.
People have asked how my life might have turned out had I pursued baseball instead of basketball. I don't like to look back. According to others, though, I had some ability in baseball as a youngster. I was a shortstop and I had a great arm, at least that's what people told me. But I got to my freshman year in college and I turned into a fastball and got hit on the shoulder. I went from having a great arm to no arm at all. That ended my baseball.