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When the flowers have faded and the candy is gone

John Wooden's death was announced this evening.  One of my earliest sports memories is listening to the NCAA tournament games late at night with a pocket-sized transitor radio pressed so tightly against my ear so tight that I could smell the faux leather covering. I hated his teams the way you hate a dominant team that routinely crushes the teams you're cheering for.  That's what UCLA did for years until David Thompson and North Carolina State finally put an end to their incredible run of seven straight championships. It wasn't until after Wooden retired that I realized there was so much more to the man than winning ballgames.  This little piece on so, insipred by something I read in The Sporting News and some additional research, gives a glimpse of that. I'm not sure they'll ever be another John Wooden, but I know this --- we could sure use one.
John and Nell were married for 53 years.  He says she was “the only girl I ever dated, the only girl I went with.”  The greatest day of his life was “the day I married Nellie.”  She died in 1985.  He is now 98.  His family would like John to sell their old house and move in with them, but he won’t hear of it.  Nell picked out the house and furnished it and he wants to remain there and leave things as they are because, “It makes me feel closer to her.” 
He still sleeps on “his” side of the bed.  And every month since she passed away, he has written her a letter.  He tells her how much he loves her and misses her and because he is a believer, how he can’t wait to see her again one day. 

You might think from the above that John is nothing more than a sentimental senior citizen who is a little out of touch, but that would be a severe miscalculation on your part.  It would be the same kind of mistake in judgment that someone who worked under John made years ago.  Bill had broken a rule and John brought it to his attention.  Bill told John he believed strongly that he had the right to do what the rule prohibited him from doing.  To his surprise, John didn’t rant or rave, or even raise his voice.  Instead, he told Bill that he admired people who had strong, personal convictions.  He went on to say that they would miss him and he would try to help him find another place to go.  Bill thought about it and decided that working with someone like John was more important than the issue being discussed, so he told John he would follow the rule.  Now, over thirty years later, Bill calls John each week to check in on him and tell him he loves him. 

That’s not surprising because dozens of people he worked with decades ago still keep in constant touch with John.  Just about every morning at least one of them will show up at the restaurant where he eats breakfast.  It’s an interesting group, even for southern California.  There is an actor, a poet, a producer, and several former professional  athletes.  They come because they care.  They come because they seek his counsel.  Everyone does.  Although he’s a little too feeble now, up until a few years ago he was in demand as a speaker all over the country.

And why shouldn’t he be?  John is the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, winner of an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, including an 88 game winning streak that spanned three seasons.  Several of his players went on to have hall of fame careers in the NBA, including Bill (the rule-breaker) Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  But the thing that makes John Wooden great is that all of the trophies, accolades, and awards were never as important to him as the people were and still are. 

And the most important person was and still is a woman named Nell. 

If a man like that, believes in love and marriage like that, the rest of us would do well to listen and learn from him.  That’s something to hold on to when the flowers have faded and the candy is gone.
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*The direct quotes and much of the information here comes from an article in the January, 2009, edition of The Sporting News written by Steve Greenberg.  You can find the article here:  http://www.sportingnews.com/college-basketball/article/2008-12-31/john-wooden-im-not-afraid-death

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