John Wooden Embraced Life and Death

ESPN columnist Rick Reilly asked the 99-year-old John Wooden in an interview, “Are you afraid to die?” Wooden said, “No, I’m not afraid to die. Why should I be afraid? That’s the most wonderful thing that will ever happen. It really is. Once, I was afraid of dying. Not anymore.”

“Fear of leaving does not bind me and departure does not hold a single care. Peace does comfort as I ponder a reunion in the yonder with my dearest one who’s waiting for me there.”

The dearest one he refers to is his wife Nellie, whom he first kissed at 14. Nell passed away on March 21, 1985. Wooden used to write her love letters on the 21st of every month and set it on her side of the bed.

When a tragedy like John Wooden’s death strikes us, our first instinct is to relate it to our own life. After I heard about his passing, I felt a peculiar sense of guilt because I barely knew anything about the man who was so legendary in the sport that I have loved since childhood.

So I subsequently spent the better part of Sunday browsing YouTube videos of Wooden in order to get a better sense of the kind of person he was.

What I found was an extraordinary man who transcended life itself. Forget the 10 national championships, the 88-game win streak, or the four undefeated seasons. Wooden would be ashamed to let himself be defined by those records.

He is the man who coined his own definition of success in 1934. “I wanted to come up with something that I hope could make me a better teacher and give the youngsters under my supervision, whether it be in athletics or an English classroom, something which to aspire other than just a higher mark in the classroom or more points in some athletic contest.”

After perusing Webster’s Dictionary and finding the definition unsatisfactory, Wooden drew upon past experiences and life lessons to finally define success as “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

The wise man also lived by three rules: 1) Start on time, end on time, 2) No profanity allowed, and 3) Never criticize a teammate.

Simplicity was his essence. When asked why he enjoyed teaching, he would say, “Where could I find such splendid company?”

As trite as it may seem, Wooden’s lessons were most felt off the court. “I always try to make the youngsters feel that they’re there to get an education, number one. Basketball was second,” Wooden said. “They do need a little time for social activities but you let social activities take a little precedence over the other two, and you’re not gonna have any very long.”

He stressed pride and holding one’s head up high whether a game ended in a victory or a loss. “I used to say that when a game is over and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you,” Wooden said. “If you make the effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should.”

He believed so strongly in loyalty and being true to his word that when his top choice, the University of Minnesota, failed to call by 6pm with a coaching offer, he accepted the UCLA position instead. He later found out that a snowstorm had knocked down the phone lines so Minnesota couldn’t call by the deadline.

However, Wooden had already given his word to UCLA and felt that it would be improper to back out of the agreement even though he and his wife both wanted to move to Minnesota. Thus, the Wizard of Westwood headed out west.

In addition, Wooden coached for $35,000 a year and never asked for a raise. He never negotiated deals, preferring to trust others to make their own judgments on how much they wanted to pay him.

A self-proclaimed lover of poetry, his words rolled off his tongue like lyrical prose. A combination of wit, humor, and intelligence made Wooden a natural storyteller and a thoroughly engaging speaker.

In December 2008, when an ailing Wooden was confined to a wheelchair, he spoke of his own fragility. Although it was only a 44-second clip, by the end, I was brought to tears.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Wooden or watching him coach. After today, I don’t need to; I feel as if I already know the man. His words are some of the most genuine and wise I have ever heard spoken.

In a day and age where coaches parade around in private jets like celebrities (Kentucky’s John Calipari) and compare their on-court losses to the earthquake in Haiti (North Carolina’s Roy Williams), the loss of a true hero hurts even more. May John Wooden find peace and happiness with his wife Nell.

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