It’s a bittersweet morning for me, being a UCLA alum and longtime Bruins sports fan. On the one hand, losing Coach Wooden is a terribly sad moment. And to see the outpouring of love for Coach is a bit overwhelming. But on the other hand, there is also sweetness because today gives us a chance to celebrate a great life. A rich life. One of the most “full” lives imaginable. Coach may have passed on last night, and the world will be a worse place without him, but he gave so much while he was here and remembering and honoring that contribution is what today is about for me.
Full disclosure, I didn’t grow up a UCLA hoops fan. In fact, growing up in Santa Monica and being a contrarian, I actually rooted against UCLA, and specifically UCLA basketball. But I eventually warmed to UCLA and after attending school there, Bruin Basketball became a tier one rooting interest for me, right alongside the Red Sox and Celtics. And if you know me, you know how seriously I treat my “tier one” teams.
So I am familiar with all Coach Wooden did for UCLA. I know all the numbers. I have seen the championship banners. I have heard all the testimonials. All of this stuff has been well covered so I won’t regurgitate any of it this morning. But I think all that stuff barely scratches the surface of why Wooden was so special. Yes, his resume will never be duplicated. But the reason I am sad this morning has nothing to do with the fact that Wooden once won everything in sight. Instead, it’s because the world has lost a man who was so caring, so gentle, so honorable and so diligent in his pursuit of being a great person.
I never met Coach and it sounds like this makes me among a very small minority of UCLA fans but I do have one anecdote that I would like to share.
I have a friend who grew up in New England and attended Notre Dame, but he was a big Wooden fan growing up. And after law school, while clerking for a federal judge in San Diego, he penned a letter to Coach. I don’t recall exactly what was in the letter or whether it solicited a response but a response is what he got. But instead of receiving your standard fan response with the signed picture and form letter, my friend received an invite to lunch with Coach. Full disclosure, this was not brokered by the “make a wish” foundation. But the result might as well have been as my friend accepted the invite, drove up to LA and spent two hours eating lunch at John Wooden’s home. How crazy is that? But as crazy as it sounds, I am not so sure this story is that extraordinary as far as Coach was concerned. Just a hunch, but I get the feeling that hundreds of others have similar stories to tell.
What I find so moving this morning is all the love that is pouring in for this man. Just take a moment to glance through some of the comments. And if you want to tear up, take a moment to browse through some of the photos and comments here. It is simply extraordinary how revered and loved this man is. And that can’t be by accident. And clearly, this is not some faux outpouring that lacks sincerity. Instead, it is clear to me that Coach had that touch. That ability to inspire people by his words and actions. And what you are seeing today is his affected community grieving. That says a lot to me. That says Wooden was more than iconic. Icons are worshipped. Wooden was loved.
And so John Wooden moves on. He lived an incredible life. He experienced unparalleled success as a teacher, and a coach and a member of the community. His time on this Earth was never wasted. And that is what I will remember about Coach. He always did it right. He always did it without ego. He always did it with compassion. And he always did it with great sincerity. He truly was the best.