The following is from my most recent Basketball Times column, which ran in the August issue.
Not all is bad in college basketball. The Sporting News convened a blue-ribbon panel of experts to vote on the 50 greatest coaches of all time. These types of lists are subjective, but who cares, especially when the the runaway winner is, not surprisingly, John Wooden. Of the 118 sports experts assembled, 57 placed Wooden in the No. 1 slot.
I was fortunate to be invited to an intimate luncheon to mark the occasion. The gathering was held appropriately in the John Wooden Room at the Valley Inn, one of Wooden’s favorite hangouts. Mike DeCourcy served as Master of Ceremonies and did a great job introducing the esteemed group of speakers.
UCLA coach Ben Howland and athletic director Dan Guerrero spoke glowingly about Wooden and his impact on the UCLA community. Former players Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Marques Johnson and Andy Hill each recounted poignant and funny memories.
I was particularly moved by the story told by Johnson. He brought up the time Wooden demonstrated his competitive drive. Johnson was a freshman when Wooden saw him shooting pool at a campus hangout. Wooden walked up and demanded his pool cue.
“Uh oh, I’m trouble,” thought Johnson.
“Toothpick in his mouth, blue sweater, he leans over the pool table and proceeds to run off about seven or eight balls,” Johnson recalled. “Hands me the pool cue, walks out without saying a word.”
That’s John Wooden. He may come across as a homespun Midwesterner, but don’t let his “goodness gracious sakes alive” act fool you: He has always been a tough, confident competitor.
Wooden is 98 years old. He doesn’t get around like he used to, but he can still light up any room. Wooden spoke beautifully, as he always does. When he forgot his point, he recovered with great humor, as he always does: “At my age, your memory gets a little bad, your hearing gets a little bad and a lot of other things get worse.”
His final lesson that day: “The most important things in the world are family and love,” he said. “The most important word in our language is ‘love.’ The word ‘hate’ we should remove from our vocabulary.”
Words to live by.
An important piece. Best point: "John Wooden gained his immortality with the life lessons we will never forget. And as all the guests, including former players Mike Warren, Lucius Allen, Gary Cunningham, Jamaal Wilkes, Kenny Washington, Fred Goss and Ken Heitz said their farewells to Coach, there were no handshakes -- just hugs and kisses -- and Coach's now aging students telling their old teacher that they love him. After all, Coach may have left the word 'love' out of his pyramid, but his players got his message just the same."