Monday, December 22, 2003

Nell and John Wooden Court

Dear Kari:

As a sports fan, I'm sure you were aware of the ceremony at UCLA this past Saturday to rename the basketball court, Nell and John Wooden Court. I thought you might enjoy a few excerpts from Bill Plaschke's column on the event.

He was escorted on the arm of his daughter, supported at the end of a cane, carried by the cheers of thousands.

Only once Saturday did the 93-year-old guest of honor stand on his own.
It was when the Pauley Pavilion announcer collectively introduced his dozens of former players.

From across the court, John Wooden suddenly rose to face them.

Stooped, but standing. Unsteady, but certain.

While others clapped, Wooden curled both his weathered hands into the tight fists of a young man and pumped them, directly at his students, again and again, mouthing words of encouragement and thanks.

Coach, coaching still.
The young UCLA team dived and skidded across the court during a 64-58 victory over Michigan State.

For the first time, the Bruins did it not only in Wooden's name, but on his name.
Before the game, the floor was christened Nell and John Wooden Court in honor of the only guy in the building who initially wasn't too thrilled with the idea.

"At first I felt, no," Wooden said, typically.

But then UCLA officials suggested that the designation include his late wife of 53 years, a woman to whom Wooden remains so dedicated, he still pens love letters that he keeps on her pillow.

"I thought, well, if they are going to put Nell out there with me … " he said.

The deal was sealed when officials agreed to put her name first.

"She was always first with me," he said. "It just sounds better that way."
The announcer was saying his wife's name. A cheering sellout crowd was shouting his name. Former players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton were clapping like students again.

Wooden stood at the center of the court and felt his throat bulge.

"I lost it a little bit," he said.

But then he found it, magnificently, as only he can find it.

"I didn't come to hear me," he announced to the crowd while pointing to the current UCLA team standing in front of its bench. "I came to watch these young men."

At which point, Coach Ben Howland's throat lumped.

"That's just like him, it's classic John Wooden, it brought a tear to my eye,"

Howland said. "The day is supposed to be about him, but he deflected attention to others."
"I remember each game, I would position myself to look up to her in the stands, where she would give me a signal," said Wooden, fashioning his fingers into an "OK" sign.

Nell died in 1985, a blow from which Wooden has never recovered, initially refusing to attend the Final Four because she wouldn't be there.
Said Mike Warren: "Today is more than a celebration of a great coach. It's the celebration of an incredible relationship."

The day also confirmed that, indeed, Wooden is the sort of splendid antique for whom replication is impossible.

Who else would use his moment of glory to beg the crowd to be nice to … Michigan State?

"Let's be gracious to our opponents," Wooden said. "They are our guests."

It was probably no coincidence that the notorious UCLA student section uttered but one obscene chant the entire game, and only for a moment.

"Somebody like Coach, who speaks out for morals and character, would be pushed to the sidelines in today's world," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Today, it's all about glitz and glamour."

And, in a strange sort of way, about victory.

Not because Wooden demanded it. But because everyone else so badly wanted to give it to him.

"When he told us he was retiring in 1975, I told everyone, no way we're letting him go out a loser, and we didn't," Andre McCarter said. "Today, we have to win this game."

The players felt it and played like it, hustling like no recent UCLA team has hustled, diving across Wooden's name for loose balls, skidding across Wooden's name for steals. They combined old-fashioned jerseys with trademark Wooden effort.

"We knew this was once in a lifetime," T.J. Cummings said.

And when it ended, well, Wooden was amazingly still there, forsaking his usual early-avoid-the-crowds exit.

In his bright eyes, there was 1964. In his wide smile, there was 1972. In his hands was a scrap of paper I forever will believe was a rolled-up program.


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