Remembering an afternoon with a Wizard

John Wooden, nicknamed ‘The Wizard of Westwood’ died last Friday at the age of 99. While he never embraced that poetic nickname, he certainly earned it after 620 wins and 10 national titles as a college basketball coach, mostly at UCLA.

Many with closer ties to the man and with much more training have already written eloquent responses to the passing of this coaching legend. But allow me to share about the privilege I had to spend some time with this man in January of 2001 during a basketball Christmas break trip I was a part of as a member of the Grace College men’s basketball team.

Through connections I’m still unsure of, our coach made arrangements for us to eat lunch and spend an afternoon with Coach Wooden. I will always remember traveling to his condo and getting out with the rest of our group of about 20 at a very modest, non-descript apartment complex. I remember thinking, Are we lost? Coach Wooden couldn’t live anywhere around here.’ Sure enough we entered the complex and were greeted by the short, frail but friendly basketball genius.

While the living room was barely big enough to hold all of us, it was a monument to the history of basketball. I’ll never forget all of the random trophies and awards that were sitting in on book shelves and coffee tables. It was clear though that they were not set up so much for our viewing pleasure as much as there was nowhere else to put them. And these weren’t just your run-of-the-mill plaques and trophies. They had titles like ‘NCAA Coach of the Year’, ‘ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award’ and ‘Sports Illustrated Coach of the Century’. He spent a couple hours talking with us about his philosophy and career. I don’t remember him describing very many games or plays unless we directly asked him about those. But he freely shared about his perspective on life, his famous ‘Pyramid of Success’, and his love for his players, friends, and family.

And that’s true to who he was. ‘Basketball Coach’ didn’t define him. He was a man of impeccable character. John Wooden was a strong Christian who wore his faith on his sleeve without shoving it down anyone’s throat. While not perfect, he was an incredible example of humility and grace while at the same time being very determined and disciplined. Spending that afternoon with him was surreal. My only regret is that I have since lost the autographed copy of his Pyramid of Success that  he took the time to give each and everyone of us. But I will never lose the memory of his friendliness and grace. If you pay close enough attention, you can discern who is trying to act a part and who is the genuine article. And Coach Wooden was as genuine and real as anyone I’ve ever met.

John Wooden is widely acclaimed as the greatest coach in the history of sports but it’s his impact on those he interacted with that is his real legacy. I know that because it was my privilege to spend one short afternoon with him. I can barely imagine what it would have been like to play for him.

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