Amid the buzz between NBA Finals games in Los Angeles, the game and city lost legend John Wooden at age 99 Friday night. If Wooden had to die in any hospital, it's appropriate that it was one only about 1,000 paces from The House He Built, Pauley Pavilion.
There was a time not so long ago, at least to those who can still remember the time when Coach Wooden leading the Bruins to the national championship was an annual rite of spring, when Wooden's Bruins were essentially the only game in the sports cow town that was Los Angeles.
Wooden won his first championship in 1964, a time when the Lakers were a faded dynasty, with the only championship trophies the franchise could lay claim to taking up shelf space in Minneapolis.
Sure, the Dodgers had already won a few titles in Los Angeles, but having just gone westward ho in 1955, they were still considered Brooklyn's team (and stlll are by a vocal, if very graying, minority).
The Rams, then emigres from Cleveland, had made a handful of playoff appearances, but pre-Fearsome Foursome, were largely mediocre, presaging an ambivalent relationship between the sport of pro football and the City of Angels for decades to come.
Wooden was the first coach to win with a team that wasn't some other city's—for lack of a more dignified term given the subject—"sloppy seconds." Wooden's unprecedented streak of ten championships in 12 years put Los Angeles on the sports map and finally brought the city national championships it could truly call its own.
As a coach, he emphasized the importance of practice and self-discipline, but not discipline in the way one thinks of a Bobby Knight or the game's other drill sergeants. Wooden believed in a player doing all he could to put himself in the best position to succeed. Whether that player did or not was practically immaterial; what did matter was that the player had played to his potential.
Of course, that's easy to say when your potential equals ultimate success ten out of 12 times.
Wooden, though, was also the rare champion more humbled by victory than defeat.
Maybe it's because he endured those years of falling short at Indiana State and UCLA before breaking through in 1964.
Or maybe he was just one of the lucky few on this planet touched with an amazing penchant for success and an almost divine sense of grace.
His was the kind of soul that had the equanimity to know that losing is sometimes what makes a winner and that death should not be feared, but rather looked upon as the next step and an opportunity to reunite with those whom we've missed so much in life, as he so missed his wife Nell. We should all be so lucky as Wooden, not because he was a winner, but because he had the winner's attitude.
What also set Wooden apart from his peers, and most other sports figures, was the fact that he was as much the gentleman scholar off the court as he was a winner on it. In a time when sports figures fall short of our expectations as human beings, Wooden was the rare bird who seemed like he was a better man than even he was as a coach, an exemplar of a life examined and lived to its fullest.
If anything, his relationship to the game and city strengthened after he retired. Like Vin Scully, he was L.A.'s honorary sports grandfather.
Which brings us to our kooky hippie uncle. If the Lakers can avenge their 2008 loss and win this series against the Boston Celtics, Jackson would pass Wooden for the most championships won by a basketball coach, collegiate or pro. The Lakers would also pass UCLA mens basketball for most championships won in Los Angeles.
These Lakers, who, in spite of their success, have a maddening tendency to play not at their best level, but good enough to match their opponents. These Lakers, who are known to take nights off, a cardinal sin in the eyes of somebody like Wooden.
If I could offer one of the Coach's many aphorisms to the Lakers right now, it would be this one: "Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character. "
The Lakers will show what kind of character they're made of tomorrow. If they are to overcome their Boston bugaboo and repeat as champions, they should familiarize themselves with Wooden's "pyramid" as much as they have Phil's "triangle."
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