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THE COACH AND HIS CHAMPION
Alexander Wolff
April 03, 1989
John Wooden had 53 loving years with his wife, Nell. Now she's gone and he struggles alone
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April 03, 1989

The Coach And His Champion

John Wooden had 53 loving years with his wife, Nell. Now she's gone and he struggles alone

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John Wooden will not be in Seattle this weekend. Instead, the greatest basketball coach ever—the man who so completely made the Final Four his private reserve that the fans and the press and the rest of the college game couldn't get in on the fun until he retired—will be at home, in Encino, Calif., in what is called the Valley.

He will not stay home because he is unwelcome in Seattle. Men like Bob Knight and Dean Smith have implored him to come, to grace with his presence the annual meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which is held at the Final Four. But their entreaties have been unavailing. "We need him at our convention," says current UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who is the sixth man in 14 years to try to wear Wooden's whistle. "He is a shining light. My wife and I have offered to take him. I hounded him so much that he finally told me to lay off. The more you badger him, the more stubborn he gets. But I can see his point. The memories would be really difficult."

To most coaches, memories of 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, including seven in a row, would be sweet and easy. Indeed, this spring marks the 25th anniversary of Wooden's first title, the championship won by UCLA's tiny Hazzard-Goodrich-Erickson team, the one he likens to his first child. But beginning in 1947, when he was coaching at Indiana State, and continuing for 37 consecutive years, Wooden attended the coaches' convention and the Final Four in the company of his late wife, Nell. At 78 he's not about to start going alone, not now.

Nell was perennial, consensus All-Lobby. She knew the names that went with the faces, and she would whisper cues to her husband as well-wishers approached. He needed her with him. for she was as outgoing as he was reserved. A few coaches didn't cotton to Nell's presence, for they had left their own wives at home and knew that the usual boys-will-be-boys shenanigans would never pass unnoticed before Nell's Irish eyes. But her husband wasn't for an instant to be talked out of bringing her, just as today he isn't to be talked into going without her.

So Wooden will spend college basketball's premier weekend in much the same way he passes all his days now. The games on TV will be mere divertissements. He will take his early-morning walk, past the park, the eucalyptus trees and the preschool his great-granddaughter attends. Each evening he will speak to Nell in apostrophe before retiring. He may whisper the lines from Wordsworth that he finds so felicitous: "She lived unknown, and few could know/When Lucy ceased to be;/But she is in her grave, and, oh,/The difference to me!"

Sunday will be for church, for the long drive to Nell's grave in Glendale and for their children, their children's children, and their children's children's children. At night he will repair to the bedroom of the condominium he and Nell shared, in which virtually nothing has been altered since her death four years ago. Wooden sleeps fitfully these days, as if expecting a call. He talks often of death but does not fear it. "No fear at all. absolutely none," he says. "I'll confess that prior to losing Nellie I had some."

Upon finishing his morning constitutional—a doctor prescribed it in 1972 because of heart trouble—he often will sit down in his study, underneath the pictures of the 10 national championship teams that were hung, at Nell's suggestion, to form a pyramid, and a poem or aphorism will take shape. He remarks on how effortlessly this one flowed from him one morning:

They years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face;
Erect no longer is my walk, and slower is my pace.
But there is no fear within my heart because I'm growing old;
I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord.
When I've gone to Him in prayer He's brought me inner peace,
And soon my cares and worries and other problems cease;
He's helped me in so many ways, He's never let me down;
Why should I fear the future, when soon I could be near His crown?
Though I know down here my time is short, there is endless time up there,
And He will forgive and keep me ever in His loving care.

And how did you imagine John Wooden spending his later years? The mind, the values, the spring in his step—they're all still in place. He could probably take over a misbegotten college varsity, demonstrate the reverse pivot, intone a few homilies and have the team whipped into Top 20 shape in. oh. six weeks. He continues to stage summer basketball camps in which you won't necessarily meet famous players but you may actually learn the game. He answers his own mail, in a hand that you'll remember from grammar school as "cursive writing." He books most of his own speaking engagements, although several outfits have solicited his services. Audiences rarely ask about Nell, but he tends to bring her up anyway. He usually refers to her as "my sweetheart of 60 years, my wife of 53, till I lost her." The cards he sends to family and the checks he makes out for the children's trusts, he signs in both their names. "That pleases Nellie." he says.

His life is lived to that end. "I won't ever leave here, because I see her everywhere." he says in his—their—living room. "I miss her as much now as I ever have. It never gets easier. There are friends who would like to see me find another woman for the companionship. I wouldn't do it. It would never work."

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