As the decades passed, the coach got used to hearing people call him a hero, an icon and even a saint — even though he reminded them that only God knows the truth about any man.
It was common to see the former English teacher reading the classics. But he also read his Bible daily and rarely missed church, so some friends called him the “reverend.” That was probably for the best, since he disliked his other nickname — the Wizard of Westwood.
John Wooden’s own list of heroes was short and symbolic. At the top was his father, Joshua, followed by Abraham Lincoln. Among those who lived during his 99 years of life, he greatly admired the selfless service and deep faith of Mother Teresa.
It’s hard to find heroes in a world wracked by scandals, corruption, infidelity and greed, Wooden once told me, during a 1990 telephone conversation just before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament ended in Denver. But these painful realities only raise the stakes for people whose callings can lead to fame.
“When anyone is in a profession that is constantly putting them in the public eye, then they have to feel that they have a unique responsibility,” he said. On the other side of this tricky equation, he added, some “people want you to be perfect. But we’re not perfect. We’re all fallible, flawed people. That’s the reality of life.”
Wooden had planned to come to Denver and take part in an event he rarely missed, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four. However, he decided it was too soon to return to a setting he had always shared with Nellie, his wife of 53 years, who died on March 21, 1985. He was still grieving.
After the coach’s death on June 4, waves of media tributes focused on his stunning final years at UCLA — when his teams won 335 games and lost 22, while winning 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. But Wooden was also an outstanding student at Purdue University and the first three-time consensus All-American in history. He was the first person enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.
Wooden’s favorite scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 13 and it guided his relationships with his wife, family and players. That chapter ends with these famous words: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life’s great lessons — which led to his famous “Pyramid of Success” image, built on common virtues such as “skill,” “enthusiasm,” “industriousness,” “patience” and “faith.” Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as, “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” and “It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts.”
But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: “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. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.”
In the 1990 interview, the coach stressed that sports are important and can be used to build character. However, sports can also “tear down character” if twisted into a win-at-all-costs brand of faith.
Sports are like politics, business, the arts and organized religion, he said. All of these callings require people to make hard decisions and people are free to make good choices and bad choices. People are also free to admire and follow bad leaders, as well as good ones.
“You see, the truth is somewhere in between. It’s wrong to turn people into idols. But it’s also wrong to lose hope, to believe that we can’t find good examples to inspire us,” said Wooden. “We need role models. … Maybe role models are getting harder to find, these days. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any worth finding.”