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"I am what I am"

By Jeff Eisenberg and Kelly Rayburn

Sept. 24, 2003 9:00 p.m.

The first thing that stands out about John Wooden’s condo
is that it’s ordinary.

Tucked away on a quiet Encino street corner in the shadow of the
Ventura freeway, it’s the sort of place you’d expect to
find a young family ““ not the man who is widely
considered the greatest college basketball coach in history.

But for Wooden, it’s home.

The former UCLA coach and his late-wife, Nellie, moved into
the two-bedroom condo 30 years ago to be closer to their daughter,
Nancy. Wooden has lived there ever since.

Now, though he lives by himself and his ailing knees and back no
longer allow him to get around as he once did, the 92-year-old
Wooden does not plan to move to more comfortable surroundings.

“This is all I need,” he says.

Nellie died in March of 1985, and each room in Wooden’s
condo has been carefully preserved just the way she left it.

It was Nellie who chose all the pictures on the walls, and it
was Nellie who arranged the team photos from Wooden’s 10 NCAA
championship teams in the shape of a triangle to represent
Wooden’s core philosophy, the “Pyramid of

In many ways Wooden’s home is a shrine to her.

The living room is littered with photos of Nellie, the
couple’s two children, seven grandchildren and 11

On the 21st of each month ““ the date Nellie died ““
Wooden writes her a love letter and places it on her pillow along
with some of her favorite books and pictures that are scattered
across her side of the bed.

While Wooden privately pays tribute to his wife every day,
publicly she will be remembered on Dec. 20.

That day, UCLA will hold a ceremony prior to its game against
Michigan State to announce that the floor at Pauley Pavilion will
be renamed John and Nell Wooden Court.

When asked if he was pleased to share the honor with his
late-wife, Wooden replied that “It wouldn’t have been
done if it hadn’t been named after both of us. I
wouldn’t have permitted it.”


A small 8-by-10-inch calendar sits atop the desk in
Wooden’s study to help him keep track of his

He meticulously jots down the date and time of each of his
meetings on it, whether it’s an interview for local
television or just a get-together with ex-players.

Since he has no personal assistant, Wooden screens the dozens of
calls he receives each day with his answering machine, asking those
who call to “speak slowly and distinctly.”

Wooden keeps in touch with everyone. He talks to UCLA
coach Ben Howland almost weekly and communicates with many of his
ex-players even more often.

“Bill Walton probably calls me the most,” Wooden
says. “He and his wife were just here yesterday for four
hours. When he was in Australia for the last Olympics, I had 29
long distance calls from him.”

Just then, the phone rings. It’s Wooden’s daughter,

“I better pick up,” he says.

A few minutes later, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher

This one he lets go. The decision reflects Wooden’s

“Faith first, then family,” he says.

Anything else comes afterward.


Nellie’s pyramid of team photos seems to represent
Wooden’s greatest accomplishments as a coach, but Wooden

The former high school English teacher is proud of his
team’s success in basketball ““ 10 national
championships, more than 600 victories and an 88-game winning
streak do not come easily. But he almost glows when he speaks of
his players’ academic achievements.

During his 27-year tenure at UCLA, nearly all of his players
graduated, and many of them went on to enjoy successful careers
outside of basketball.

“I stressed academics, and my players will tell you
that,” Wooden says. “I had one player that didn’t
get his degree until 20 years after he left, and he said he finally
went back to school to get it just to get me off his back. They
were here to get an education. That’s number one and must
always be number one.”

Lately, academics seem to have decreased in priority for UCLA
athletics. This past year, former Bruin Andre Patterson failed out
of school and senior T.J. Cummings will miss at least the first
three games of the upcoming season due to academic trouble.

“To some degree, we’re turning the student-athlete
into the athlete-student,” Wooden says. “As a coach,
you can’t leave it up to the players. You’ve got to
work on it, and concentrate on it.”


Baseball memorabilia litters Wooden’s living room, but his
prized mementos are given a special place.

Three baseballs ““ two signed by Joe Dimaggio and Sandy
Koufax and one signed by Wooden’s great-grandson ““ rest
on a shelf adjacent to the kitchen, the latter baseball displayed
more prominently than those signed by the two hall of fame

“My great-grandson was in Cooperstown for a tournament a
couple weeks ago, and he hit three home runs,” Wooden says
glowingly. “They keep one on what they call the “˜Wall
of Fame,’ he has one that he got his teammates to sign, and I
have the other one.”

Basketball earned Wooden a living, but baseball is the sport he
follows with the most passion.

He’s been a Dodgers fan since they moved from Brooklyn to
California, but he’s not too optimistic about the
Dodgers’ fading playoff hopes this season.

“It’s not looking good,” he laments.

Wooden is still a very knowledgeable sports fan, although he is
not too fond of the flashiness that some of today’s athletes

He hates the dunk and cringes whenever one of the Bruins goes up
for a slam.

Two years ago at a UCLA game, Wooden was nestled in his
customary spot behind the Bruin bench at Pauley Pavilion when
then-UCLA forward Matt Barnes stole the ball and went in for a
thunderous dunk.

As the crowd roared its approval, Wooden stewed.

“Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “˜What
did you think of that coach?'” Wooden recalls.
“And I said, “˜I’d have had him out of there
before he hit the floor.'”


A small medal attached to blue ribbon hangs from a statue on a
table near Wooden’s front door.

This is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s
highest civilian honor and an award Wooden received at the White
House in July thanks to a very unlikely source.

Andre McCarter, a member of Wooden’s final championship
team in 1975 and one of the few players who the coach had trouble
connecting with, went to work behind the scenes to help make it
possible for Wooden to receive the award.

He collected more than 30 letters from Wooden’s former
players, and then sent the letters, along with a formal request to
honor Wooden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Washington
D.C. in 2000.

After a three-year campaign from McCarter, Wooden received a
surprise phone call in July from the social secretary of the White
House, who told him he had been selected to receive the
president’s highest civilian honor.

“I thought someone was pulling a prank on me,”
Wooden recalls. “But I told them to send me the details, and
I got a special delivery letter the next day so I knew it had to be

McCarter had an often rocky relationship with Wooden during his
playing days, so that made the award all the more unexpected.

Not only did McCarter run into academic trouble early in his
career, but he was a bit of a “fancy man” as Wooden
called it, and his histrionics on the court earned him both praise
from the crowd and a near-permanent seat on the bench.

But even McCarter came to respect Wooden with time.

On the day of his graduation, he went to see Wooden, cap and
gown in hand, and said, “You never thought I’d get
this, did you?”

“I told him, “˜When you came ““ no ““ but
when I left a year ago, I knew you would,'” Wooden
says. “And then he told me, “˜I think you cost me a
million dollars as a pro player, but I want you to know that I love
you as much as anyone in the world.'”


Among the stacks of thick novels and Abraham Lincoln biographies
that line the bookshelf in the living room is a large blue picture
book with a cartoon crocodile on the cover.

This is Wooden’s newest book, “Inch and Miles
““ the Journey to Success,” a reminder of the potential
for greatness within all of us. The book is based on the
“Pyramid of Success” and written entirely in verse

Wooden reads the first two lines of the last page aloud:
“Success isn’t having trophies or toys. It isn’t
a medal or friends of your choice.”

Wooden has all of those, but that’s not the reason why
he’s successful.

While it’s no opulent palace or stately mansion,
Wooden’s condo ““ like his simple lifestyle ““
suits him just fine.

“I am what I am,” he says. “I don’t
worry about what others think of me.”

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Jeff Eisenberg
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