TIM DAHLBERG: Here's to John Wooden and a life well lived

By Tim Dahlberg/The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — He was a coach when coaching meant something else, long before the job became a pathway to riches and fame.

A coach when student athletes were really students, and the thought of making millions of dollars rolling out basketballs in the gym seemed preposterous.

A coach when it meant more to mold the lives of young men than to proclaim his own greatness.

A coach who offered a new life lesson to his charges almost every day.

“Learn as if you were going to live forever,” he would tell his players. “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

John Wooden didn’t live forever. His tomorrow finally came Friday, when he quietly passed away just months before his 100th birthday.

The end came, fittingly enough, on the same UCLA campus where he tutored a player then known as Lew Alcindor. The same place he seemingly couldn’t lose with Bill Walton.

The place where he dispensed wisdom that his players remembered long after they had forgotten the X’s and O’s.

“What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player,” he would say.

His players listened. How could they not when the man giving advice lived by the same code?

He was born on a farm in Indiana without running water or electricity, and his values were as solid as the land his parents worked. He lived into a time he could never have imagined, but nothing changed.

The championships seemed to come as an annual rite of spring. There were 10 of them in all, an accomplishment so staggering that no other college coach will ever come close.

The other statistics blurred together over time, but they won’t be matched either. Still, it wasn’t the 88-game winning streak, four 30-0 seasons or even the 38 straight NCAA tournament wins that defined the humble Midwesterner who ended up at UCLA almost by accident.

He had the best players. They came because of him, and they came in spite of him.

Playing for Wooden, you see, was never easy. He was the boss, practices were brutal, and things were always done in his meticulous way.

The players who bought in would one day become his lifetime friends. Those who didn’t would never understand.

The first practice of every season began not with a midnight slam dunk contest, but a demonstration by Wooden on the proper way to put on shoes and socks. Wrinkles in the socks could lead to blisters, he explained, and blisters could lead to losing.

The fundamentals never went out of style, and Wooden never changed his approach.

His players learned, and they grew. He taught them how to win, but he also taught them bigger things, like his belief that a life not lived for others is a life not lived well.

He wouldn’t accept less than their best effort both on and off the court, and that’s usually what he got.

“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but what you should have accomplished with your ability,” Wooden would warn them.

Walton was one of those with ability, and tons of it. The redhead was one of the greatest college players ever and the bedrock of the UCLA team in the early ’70s that won the 88 straight.

Walton was also very much an individual in a time of individualism. One day, during a break in the season, he showed up at practice with a wild, red beard, ready to play for a coach who didn’t allow facial hair.

“It’s my right,” he told Wooden.

“That’s good, Bill,” Wooden replied. “I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. We’re going to miss you.”

The beard, of course, went. And although Walton finally graduated and moved on, his friendship with his coach grew by the year.

Walton’s hair is now white, and he walks gingerly from back problems. In the bowels at the Staples Center the other night, his voice caught as he talked about visiting Wooden a few days earlier in the hospital.

“He’s the greatest,” Walton said. “We love him.”

It’s been 35 years since Wooden watched his Bruins cut down the nets down one last time, then walked away while still at his peak. Yes, he was the “Wizard of Westwood” — a nickname he didn’t like — but he never made more than $32,500 and for years he mopped the floor himself before practice.

He never begrudged the coaches of today the millions they make, but making money wasn’t why he got into coaching in the first place. He became a legend because of what his players did on the court, but to Wooden the victories were merely a byproduct of the life lessons that always came first.

Indeed, Wooden did what he preached, living his life for others. His style was authoritarian, but his players graduated and the messages sank in a lot more than they missed the mark.

He encouraged them to take chances, urged them to be all they could be.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” he would tell them. “I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Wooden didn’t make many. He lived an impeccable life, devoid of scandal, still so in love with his wife, Nell, in the years after she died that he would write her a letter each month just as he had done while she was alive.

As word got out about his final hospitalization, students who hadn’t even been born the last time he worked a game rallied on the UCLA campus in tribute.

Words of tribute, meanwhile, began flowing the moment his death was announced.

But the words that matter most are the ones his players still remember. The same words they’ve passed on to their children and their children’s children.

“Don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you,” he told them.

As hard as it is to imagine, John Wooden is gone.

His dreams, however, live on.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org