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John Wooden: The Wizard of Westwood and the Legend of Basketball

Todd KaufmannSenior Writer IJune 4, 2010

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 13:  Former UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden looks on during the John R. Wooden Classic match between the UCLA Bruins and the De Paul Blue Demons at Honda Center on December 13, 2008 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The story of John Wooden will never be told by just one person, not all on their own.

It's a story told through a culmination of interviews, facts, and numbers from not only his playing days at Martinsville High School in Indiana, leading his team to three straight state championship appearances, where they finally won it in 1927, but also through his legendary coaching days at UCLA.

The story of how Wooden, who was hospitalized early today in Los Angeles and listed in "grave condition" at age 99, ended up at UCLA is an interesting one. Coach Wooden and his wife, Nellie, wanted to stay in the Midwest and were waiting for a phone call from the University of Minnesota for their head coaching job.

Having already received an offer from UCLA, Wooden's second choice, he and Nellie waited for the call from Minnesota. But thanks to bad weather, the scheduled phone call from the university never came, and he ended up accepting the job at UCLA.

A day after Wooden accepted the job with the Bruins, Minnesota finally did call, but he turned them down as he had already given UCLA his word.

In 1948, Wooden took a UCLA team that finished 12-13 the previous season to a 22-7 record and a Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division championship. Wooden led the Bruins to four straight Southern Division championships in his first four seasons at the university.

It wasn't until the 1963-64 season that the legend of John Wooden, and the UCLA Bruin basketball program, took on a life of its own.

After finishing 20-9 in 1962-63 and being bounced out in the NCAA Regionals, the Bruins finished with a perfect 30-0 record and the university's first ever NCAA National Championship.

From 1964-1975, Wooden led UCLA to nine national championships, including seven straight, and three undefeated seasons (1966-67, 1971-72, 1972-73).

All total, Wooden led UCLA to 10 national championships, four undefeated seasons, and a 620-147 record during his 27-year tenure as the head coach. It's how Coach Wooden earned the nickname the "Wizard of Westwood," a nickname which he never really took to.

In 1975, after a semifinal win over Louisville, Coach Wooden announced that he would be coaching his last game with UCLA when they took the court against the University of Kentucky for the national championship.

The Bruins gave him a perfect send off as they took down Kentucky 92-85 to give Wooden his 10th national championship.

Ten years later, in 1985, Wooden's life after basketball took a devastating turn. His wife of 53 years, Nellie, lost her battle with breast cancer.

Even though she'd been gone for 25 years, Wooden still writes a love letter to his beloved wife every Sunday, just as he had always done from the time they married.

What has carried him through the last 25 years since her death is the faith that Wooden has consistently lived by saying , "I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me."

It was almost 14 years ago that I got the chance to meet Coach Wooden. It was at a basketball camp that UCLA was holding up in Napa Valley. It was the summer after I had finished my eighth-grade year.

I remember him sitting in one of those metal folding chairs sitting in front of a bunch of basketball players, who were all too eager to hear what he had to say.

Sure, it was cool to have guys like Ed O'Bannon, Charles O'Bannon, Tyus Edney, and a few others from UCLA's 1995 National Championship team, but this man was bigger than any college, or pro for that matter, coach that had ever coached the game.

He spoke life lessons about not only playing the game of basketball with class, but also teaching the importance that school played in our lives. Even at his age, he was still as sharp as he had ever been. The moment I got to shake his hand after he spoke was a moment I'll never forget.

After Wooden was admitted to UCLA Medical Center earlier this morning, UCLA officials said that the long time coach was in "grave condition."

Even knowing that, if you've heard any interview he's done, you know that Coach Wooden doesn't fear death. He's been ready to rejoin his bride, Nellie, since her death 25 years ago. He lived in the same home that they shared for so long, and he went through the same routine every day as if she was still alive.

He has high schools named after him, a college basketball award that's the equivalent of college football's Heisman Trophy, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, and the court at Pauley Pavilion (home of the UCLA basketball team) named after both him and his wife.

His legend at UCLA will live on through generations to come. Every time fans and players alike look up to the rafters at Pauley Pavilion, they'll see the 10 championship banners that were raised during John Wooden's tenure.

When they look down, they'll see John & Nell Wooden Court every time they take the floor for a game.

Coach John R. Wooden will always be synonymous with UCLA basketball, regardless of who the current head coach is. Because of Coach Wooden, UCLA basketball and its players will always be held to a high standard both on and off the court.

That will always be his legacy.