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The finest

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2002

GAINESVILLE -- The white-haired English teacher begins with Cervantes. He slips in Robert Louis Stevenson. Were the hour not late, he might be persuaded to drag Ralph Waldo Emerson to the table.

GAINESVILLE -- The white-haired English teacher begins with Cervantes. He slips in Robert Louis Stevenson. Were the hour not late, he might be persuaded to drag Ralph Waldo Emerson to the table.

He is touching now on a favorite theme. The idea that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. That the journey is better than the inn. That it is not where you end up, but rather how you prepare yourself along the way.

John Wooden uses the words of poets to explain this. It would never occur to him, but Wooden could use his world as an accompanying illustration.

In two days, he will sit at a desk in his one-bedroom condominium in a Los Angeles suburb. He will hand write a letter to his wife Nellie, the love of his life. It is a tradition Wooden has kept on the 21st of every month, beginning when Nellie died on March 21, 1985.

When the letter is completed, it will be tied within the yellow ribbons that hold more than 200 similar letters in his bedroom. The letters rest, like Nellie's bathrobe, on the bed's right side. In her memory, Wooden sleeps only on his side of the bed. And never between the sheets.

He is 91 now.

And still, John Wooden travels hopefully.

* * *

The world never has known a better college basketball coach. It would be hard-pressed to find a better man.

Forget the accomplishments. The 10 NCAA titles and 88-game winning streak at UCLA. The plaques in basketball's Hall of Fame as both player and coach.

Focus instead on a life lived free of rancor. On a life filled with success but, perhaps, more so with value.

It has been 27 years since Wooden coached his last basketball game, and still his words are in demand. On Tuesday, he was in Gainesville to share his thoughts with college students. On another day, it might be business executives. Or it could just be the fan who stops him on the sidewalk.

No matter the audience, the message is the same. Live each day as if you were creating a masterpiece.

"What do they say? Learn as if you're going to live forever and live as if you're going to die tomorrow. There's a lot of sense in that," Wooden said. "In one of my books, I stress faith, family and friends. If you have those things in place, it's all you need. You're at peace with yourself. If you don't have peace with yourself, you don't have much of anything."

In a world that places value on the outrageous and measures success by the dollar, Wooden's message would appear old-fashioned. But only to those who are not paying attention.

As a graduation present more than 70 years ago, his father gave him a crumpled $2 bill along with a card that spelled out Joshua Wooden's beliefs.

No. 1 on the list:

Be true to yourself.

This was the lesson that set Wooden on his hopeful journey.

When he graduated from Purdue University in 1932, he was offered one job as a high school English teacher and another as a pro basketball player. The teacher's salary was less than one-third the amount offered by the Celtics.

Unsure of what to do, Wooden sought the counsel of Purdue coach Piggy Lambert. Why is it you came to Purdue, Lambert asked. Was it to become a professional basketball player or to get an education?

An education, Wooden replied.

At that moment, his decision was made.

And so was history.

* * *

He often is asked if his coaching methods would translate to the 21st century. If a coach who would not tolerate profanity, who required players to be clean-shaven, who gave in-depth lessons on the proper way to put on a pair of socks to avoid blisters, could function in today's sporting world.

Wooden laughs as he tells the story of watching a recent UCLA game and seeing a player perform a crowd-pleasing, 360-degree dunk. A fan tapped Wooden on the shoulder and asked what he thought of the move.

"I said, "I would have had him out of the game before he hit the floor,' " Wooden said.

Do not be fooled by this. Wooden's coaching career spanned decades of change in America. From all-white teams to integration. From the innocence of the 1950s to the turbulence of the '60s.

Bill Walton once returned from a 10-day break sporting a beard. When Wooden questioned him about it, Walton replied that he should be allowed to keep it. That it was his right. Wooden asked if Walton felt strongly about it. The player replied he felt very strongly about the issue.

"Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do," Wooden wrote in a recent book. "And the team is going to miss you."

Walton ran to the locker room and shaved.

The story's point is not about Wooden's inflexibility, but his consistency. Walton, the Grateful Dead-loving original hippie of college basketball, has grown to be one of Wooden's greatest supporters.

When his own sons were teenagers, Walton began passing on Wooden's lessons. He would write the coach's favorite maxims each day on the boys' lunch bags.

* * *

He walks with a cane and has difficulty getting up from his seat. The knees have gone bad and the hip was replaced some years back.

Yet, though the body may be fading, the mind is remarkably sharp. He has amazing recall and a timely wit. The names of players, not just stars, flow easily past his lips. When he refers to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Lewis -- as in Lew Alcindor -- it is merely the way he recalls him.

Wooden's son-in-law shows up at the condo just about every morning to have breakfast with the coach. Dinners are often spent at a restaurant with one of his two children, seven grandchildren or 11 great grandchildren.

He is in demand across the country for speaking engagements and is routinely approached with new ideas for books.

The family feared what would become of Wooden when Nellie, his wife of more than 53 years, died of cancer on the first day of spring, 1985. He went 10 years without returning to the Final Four because he would not go alone.

Even today, hearing his wife's name causes him to pause. And, without saying another word, his eyes fill with tears.

"He still pines for her. He misses her so much. He is grateful for everything he has, but it still hurts him to be without her," said Wooden's daughter, Nan Muehlhausen. "The older I get, the more I look like my mother. Daddy loves it, but sometimes it tugs at his heart too because, when he looks at me, it reminds him that she's gone."

Socrates once wrote he was not in fear of death because of the life he lived. And so it is with John Wooden.

There was pleasure in the championships.

Pride in the accomplishments.

But the true joy?

That has been the journey.

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