Friday, June 4, 2010

Lessons from John Wooden

John Wooden’s phone number is still listed, and you can easily find it on whitepages.com. In an age where sports figures are increasingly remote, the fact that anyone, at any time, can call the legendary UCLA coach is amazing.

The news that Wooden, 99, is gravely ill reminds us an era is closing.

Longtime ACC basketball fans loathed and respected Wooden, who dominated college basketball through 1975. If you followed the sport then, you feared the man with the rolled-up program and old-school discipline.

N.C. State’s monumental victory over UCLA in the 1974 national semifinals – the Pack won the championship two nights later, against Marquette - remains one of the epic games in collegiate history. Wooden retired after winning the 1975 title.

I had a chance to speak with him once. I was stunned when I called and he answered the phone, taking time to talk to a young News & Observer reporter. He patiently answered my questions on college basketball, and we veered off into talk about that 1974 season.

Wooden, in a soft deep voice grown richer with age, spoke of how much he admired that N.C. State team. In basketball, he said, you need quickness and balance. And N.C. State had both.

But what I remembered from that conversation was not what he said about N.C. State, but how he related basketball to life.

In life, he said, you need love and balance. Those words came through the phone with grace and clarity and I knew that even though I was a random reporter who happened to call when he was home, he was still coaching, still teaching, still doing what he loved.

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