When I was in fifth grade, I took a trip with a couple friends to a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. We went up to play in the snow. At some point on that trip, as the college basketball season was getting underway, I heard a radio personality say that if the Bruins were to win the NCAA championship that year, it would be their 11th in 20 years. Now, at that time I was more interested in the math, though I knew I was a UCLA fan. But it wasn't until later in life that I learned the 10 championships of which the radio personality spoke were thanks to John Wooden.
In the '90s, rooting for UCLA, leading up to their championship in 1995, I learned more about the greatness of John Wooden. And from everything I learned, he received more credit as a great person than he did as a great basketball coach. I have memories of Kareem Abdul Jabar and Bill Walton going on Roy Firestone's show with Coach Wooden and lauding the man, even moreso than they lauded the coach.
In 2005, I spent a season watching the greatest college basketball team I've ever seen, the 2004-2005 Illinois Fighting Illini. One of their signature wins came in the Wooden Tradition at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis against highly regarded Gonzaga. After the game, Coach Wooden raved about the unselfishness of Deron Williams and Dee Brown and the rest of the Illini. They thrashed Gonzaga that night, and they did it with a style that Coach Wooden loved. Their trademark was passing and shooting, and it was all on display that afternoon. In one game that season, they made 14 passes in a possession against Northwestern before hitting a three pointer. That was the type of team Coach Wooden loved. Fundamentally sound, great shooters, great passers, great defenders. They didn't wear the blue and gold, but they were a Wooden team.
A couple years ago, I got tickets to see Coach Wooden and Vin Scully give a Q&A with TJ Simers in Los Angeles. I attended the event with my parents. Until the day I die, it will be one of my most treasured memories. I got the chance to see two of Los Angeles' greatest legends hold court, and I got to do so next to my dad, my greatest role model. I've been in Illinois for about a third of my life, but I'll always be an Angeleno, and to see those two mesmerize the crowd, and to do so with my parents, is something I'll never forget.
John Wooden is more than just a great basketball coach. He was a great individual. His contributions to the game are dwarfed by his contributions to the human race. We are all better for having experienced his greatness.