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Summer 2000
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by Bill Walton '74

John Wooden was hired at UCLA to coach basketball, but what he really taught during his 27 years in Westwood was life.

While other schools were recruiting us with promises of material and personal success, John Wooden talked about coming to UCLA as an opportunity to be a part of something special, to train our minds and to learn how to think, to dream and to achieve peak performance. And oh, by the way, if we lived up to our responsibilities as a student and as a human being, we would earn the privilege of becoming a member of the UCLA basketball team.

Though he was a standout as a player at Purdue, John Wooden did not come to basketball with the physical prowess that enabled others to dominate their sport. Nor does he have a consuming, overwhelming personality to give him complete control. What he does have, to this very day at age 89, is a heart, brain and soul that have enabled him to inspire others to reach levels of success and peace of mind that they might never have dreamed possible on their own.

All the while he guides us-I speak in the present tense because he guides me still. He is constantly pushing underlying themes, particularly his belief that basketball, like life, is not a game of size and strength but a game of skill, timing and position. It is not how tall you are, he drills us, but how tall you play. It is not how high you jump, but where and when you jump. He drives us in directions we are not aware of, always with the selfless goal of making us better, even down to the minutia of how to properly put on our socks and uniforms. He rarely tells us the what or why; rather, he shows us the how and lets us come to the rest of the answer on our own. He never talks about winning or losing, but about the effort to win. He never talks about strategy or statistics or plays; he discusses people and character. And he constantly reminds us that once we become good people, we then have the chance to become good basketball players-or whatever else we may want to do in life.

We did not understand the full extent of his approach while we were living our dreams at UCLA. We thought he was nuts, a walking antique and more than a bit crazy. It wasn't until after I'd graduated and encountered the adversity he told us would be there that it started to dawn on me just how special it had been at UCLA. When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time, the quality of my life went down. That's how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA.

I have spent the 26 years since leaving UCLA trying to duplicate that period in my life. Our home is a shrine to UCLA and John Wooden, with memorabilia, the Pyramid of Success and pictures of him everywhere. I have taken my four sons to his house to receive from him the same great lessons of life that I received. I am closer to John Wooden today than I've ever been. While I was at UCLA, I was a player and he was my coach. Today we are friends. I call him regularly, probably too much, and go to see him as often as I can, always insisting that we sit in his den, his sanctuary, a museum of the history of basketball and life that has remained unchanged over the years. It is an incredible place: so inspiring. So bright. So positive. So John Wooden. On October 14, he will turn 90. He remains the same teacher, the same positive force he has always been, the person we would all like to become, only better.

The joy in John Wooden's life today comes, as it always has, from the success of others. He regularly tells me what he learned from his two favorite teachers-Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa-is that a life not lived for others is not a life.

By that measure, John Wooden's is a giant life. He is still our guide in so many ways, with us each and every day to push, shape, mold, challenge and drive us to be better. I thank John Wooden daily for all his selfless gifts, his lessons, his time, his vision and, especially, his patience.

This is why we call him Coach.


2005 The Regents of the University of California