Nov. 20, 2006
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -They came to celebrate Dean Smith, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and James Naismith.
They came to cherish John Wooden.
Young and old, men and women. People who played the game and those who'd never set foot on a court. They stood in a never-ending line for the chance to get an autograph or shake his hand.
What they wanted most, though, was the privilege of spending a minute or two in the great man's company.
"Coach Wooden in four years taught us everything we'd ever need to know," said Bill Walton, who introduced his coach during Sunday night's induction ceremonies for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame's inaugural class.
"Not about basketball. He never talked about basketball," Walton said. "About life."
That Wooden was chosen to join Smith, Russell, Robertson and Naismith in the new hall's first class is no surprise. Few have had more of an impact on the college game than the "Wizard of Westwood."
No one will ever match his record of 10 NCAA titles. Or come close to the run of seven straight. Those seasons-long stretches of excellence are probably a thing of the past, too.
But the truest measure of Wooden's greatness comes not from the games he won, but the lives he's touched. The effect he had on people - both those who know him and those who wished they did - is still felt today, more than 30 years after he retired.
"I felt deprived in that I never had a chance to know him personally," Russell said. "I just can't tell you how much respect and affection I had for him."
Which is what makes nights like Sunday so precious.
Wooden is 96 now, and doesn't travel as easily as he once did. He walks with the help of a cane or the arm of a friend. When UCLA played in the national championship game last spring, he watched from a Los Angeles hospital.
But his mind and his sense of humor are still as sharp as those sparkling blue eyes.
As Wooden told a story about UCLA's first championship, he rattled off the name of the hotel he stayed in and the church where he and his beloved wife, Nell, went for Easter services. After Russell spoke of losing his last college game to Wooden, the coach had a playful retort.
"There were a couple of times I thought I had a pretty good team and he knocked us out," Wooden said with an impish grin. "He never said he was sorry."
He recited a poem, "God's Hall of Fame," as part of his induction speech. When former Louisville coach Denny Crum and his wife visited Wooden a few weeks ago, the coach recited a few poems a former player had sent him.
"We were just in awe," Crum said, shaking his head. "At 96, he's sharper than probably 99 percent of us. ... He's something special."
He always has been.
Though fundamentals, conditioning and teamwork were the trademarks of his squads, the wisdom he bestowed on his players went far beyond basketball. He calls himself a teacher rather than a coach.
His philosophy was based on the Pyramid of Success, with loyalty, cooperation, enthusiasm, industriousness and friendship the foundation. He had sayings that his players never quite understood: "Be quick, but don't hurry." "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail." "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."
And he had quirky ways of doing things his players understood even less. The first thing his players learned was the proper way to put on their socks and shoes.
The truth was, Wooden was simply passing down what he'd learned from his father. Somewhere along the way, those lessons struck a chord with anyone who heard the words or saw the man in action.
"Coach Wooden was so right about everything he taught us," Walton said. "We just didn't know."
Eventually, they did.
Though it's been 31 years since Wooden retired, not a day goes by that one of his former players doesn't join him for breakfast. When he went back to South Bend, Ind., where he'd coached high school basketball from 1934-43, a few years ago, a group of about 20 players turned out to see him.
The oldest was 88. The youngest was 80.
Walton was famous for the challenges he gave Wooden during his time at UCLA. Yet he raised his own boys in the ways of the Wizard, and treats Wooden with the affection a son usually reserves for his father.
When he arrived Sunday, Walton reached down to hug Wooden, rubbing his head against the old coach's.
"I have taken four sons to John Wooden's house," Walton said, "to learn how to put their shoes and socks on."
We should all have been so lucky.
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmourap.org