first_imgENCINO – He stands on his little balcony, his tiny body belying the powerful aura engulfing his two visitors below. One of them, a huge college basketball fan, immediately develops this eerie vision of the pope, looking down upon the masses who worship him. The only difference is John Wooden doesn’t look down on anyone. He still lives here in the same suburban apartment he moved into with his beloved wife, Nell, in 1973. The name “WOODEN” remains on the apartment directory. His home is as ostentatious as a vinyl welcome mat. Right off Highway 101 as it snakes into the San Fernando Valley, the four-room apartment is in a simple, beige, two-story apartment complex, the kind you see in a thousand middle-class suburbs. It’s far from a Malibu castle befitting a man who won a record 10 NCAA titles for UCLA, built a record 88-game winning streak, revolutionized the game with his zone press and remains – possibly forever – the greatest coach the college game has known. Nell, whom he met at a carnival when he was 14 growing up in Martinsville, Ind., died March 21, 1985. To this day, on the 21st of every month, he writes a note to her and places it under her pillow. He didn’t attend a Final Four for 10 years after her death. “It doesn’t get any easier, does it?” he is asked. Wooden shakes his head. During a 45-minute interview, it’s the only question he doesn’t answer with words. But Wooden stays too active to dwell on the past, both good and bad. He speaks 30 times a year at the Arco Building in downtown Los Angeles for American Funds. He speaks at fundraisers for schools and churches, and attends nearly every UCLA home game, sitting in the same seat behind the bench where he patiently signs autographs before tip-off. Basketball remains his passion and he remains as sharp – if not as agile – as the slender little man with the rolled-up program who made Hall of Famers from Lew Alcindor to Bill Walton jump at his calm commands. Wearing a blue cardigan sweater over a blue denim shirt and gray slacks, John Wooden sits back and discusses the game and life he still loves. He says he attributes his longevity to only two meals a day – one at VIP’s, of course – and a lifetime of abstaining from alcohol. He smoked only briefly in the Navy. He also attributes an attitude he thinks more people, young and old, should have. “I’ve always tried to teach and practice: Don’t be affected by either the highs or lows,” he says. “Don’t let either one bother you. I’ve said the two most important words – and they’re in my bookcases – one is love and the other is balance. They are the two most important words in our language. Just keep things in perspective.” Maybe that was as big a key as Alcindor’s hook, Walton’s passing or that withering UCLA press. If any reader is old enough to remember Wooden’s national titles in the 1960s and 1970s, do you recall Gail Goodrich or Sidney Wicks or Marques Johnson jumping up on a scorer’s table with the net around his neck? Didn’t think so. “I never wanted excessive celebrations at all for myself or my players,” Wooden says. “On each of my 10 national championship teams, we had the game won before the last few seconds. I had a timeout. I’d tell my players, `Now, I know you want to get the nets but let’s don’t make fools out of ourselves. Let the student body and alumni make fools of themselves.’ ” Wooden always did, and always will, refer to himself more as a teacher than a coach. In an era when youth rebelled against authority, Wooden and the Bruins were in their prime. Walton marched against the war. Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, spoke up for minority rights. The best college players in the land were also among the most engaging, free-spirited interviews. “I wanted them that way,” Wooden says. “I’ve said to young people, `If you want to be heard, you have to listen.”‘ While Wooden let players be themselves off the court, they were all his on it. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!center_img He has just returned from VIP’s, the 1960s-style diner in nearby Tarzana where he still goes four to five mornings a week at 8:30 sharp. He moves slowly around his cozy apartment – the end result of an artificial hip and no cartilage left in his knees. Then again, John Wooden is 96. What his legs have succumbed to, his mind has not. He points to the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award and the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to an American citizen, from President George W. Bush. He holds up his most prized possession, a bronze medal for academic and athletic achievement from his senior year at Purdue in 1932. He then points to a painting of his most beloved memory. No, it’s not one of his 10 national champions, pictures of which form a pyramid on a den wall. It’s a painting of himself and Nell. He was 16; she was 15. “She was the only girl I ever went with,” he says proudly. last_img

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