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Saturday, June 05, 2010
'It was always startling, never surprising, for the high school coach to look up and see the historic but humble man in the corner of the gym, doing what he loved. That would be watching young people practice basketball.
Tim Wolf found his way to the bench at Martinsville High 23 years ago and soon after discovered that one of the great coaching perks in America came with the job. John Wooden, a Los Angeles institution but an Indiana lifer, loved to come home.
He craved the persimmon pudding at Poe’s Cafeteria in nearby Mooresville and would drop in to check up on his old team, known as the Artesians.
Wooden — who died Friday at 99 — was born near Martinsville on Oct. 14, 1910, and led its public high school to three state tournament finals, and an Indiana championship in 1927. Then he went to college in-state at Purdue, became a three-time all-American and in 1932 was part of an unofficial national title team.
Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, his renowned philosophical construct for basketball and life, was rooted in the proverbial rural gymnasium that in most Indiana burgs would rank second only to church.
In Martinsville, with a population in 2000 of about 11,600, they put Wooden’s name on the 5,400-seat gym 22 years ago, and the locals wondered what took so long.
“It was my second year here, he came for the ceremony and spent four days,” Wolf said in a telephone interview. “He held a clinic for the kids, had dinner with the team. The only thing he asked was that we didn’t tell the press.
“After that, you could pretty much count on him showing up once or twice a year. One of the kids would come up to me during the summer and say, ‘I was shooting in the gym today and Coach Wooden came around.’ Around here, the kids know of John Wooden from the time they bounce a ball.”
Elsewhere, the players receiving a free pass in history class might know him as the name on the most prestigious individual award in the college game. They might also recognize the nickname, the Wizard of Westwood. It was one Wooden was never fond of, given the ostentation he demanded his players leave home before matriculating at U.C.L.A.
Wooden won a record 10 national titles, including seven straight from 1967 through 1973. His teams reached 12 Final Fours, and they won 88 straight games between 1971 and 1974. He had supreme talent, including the most dominant centers of the era, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.
He also had critics, who reason that there was little competition out west and remind us that Sam Gilbert, a U.C.L.A. booster, served as friend and fixer for many a Bruins star, landing the university on probation six years after Wooden retired in 1975.
Who knows what Wooden knew or didn’t want to know? Temptation was not invented with John Calipari or Jim Calhoun, but there was one compromise Wooden absolutely refused to make.
His players never took control of the gym. Great as they were, Pauley Pavilion never became their stage to pose for the pros, and doing it the coach’s way was about more than getting a haircut.
“His skills as a coach are overlooked because everyone focuses on the talent,” Geno Auriemma, the Connecticut women’s coach, whose team currently has a 78-game winning streak, wrote in an e-mail message. “He taught the game as well as anyone ever has or will.”
If there was one thing that Wooden came to loathe about the game he loved, it was how the last stronghold was lost in too many places and the sport became a showcase — for players and coaches.
Henry Bibby, who played for U.C.L.A. in the early 1970s, said in a telephone interview that Wooden used to tell his players he did not want them watching the local professional team — and that was when the Lakers had a few decent fellows named Chamberlain, West and Baylor.
“He thought we would pick up bad habits watching the Lakers,” Bibby said. “As much respect as he had for the talent, he believed the pros played a different game.”
Not so much anymore, in an age of dunks, 3-point shots and handing the ball to freshmen who will learn just enough to declare themselves ready for the next level while the echo of Dick Vitale’s tournament ranting still rings in their ears.
There are notable exceptions — no doubt Wooden enjoyed watching upperclassmen-laden Duke and Butler square off in the last title game of his life — but in recent years, he became a fan of the women’s game, saying he appreciated watching players do old-fashioned things like move without the ball.
More than his titles, Wooden’s legacy is his wisdom, forever available to those still interested in a free-flowing, thinking-man’s game.
“I regard him as the greatest basketball coach of all time,” Jack Ramsay, an 85-year-old broadcaster and former coach, whose 1977 N.B.A. championship team in Portland was anchored by Walton, said by telephone. “His attention to detail created routines that we all learned and adopted. Every day at practice, we did the things that he preached — running, balance, change of direction, ball handling, just about every fundamental facet of the game, about seven, eight minutes every single day.”
Ramsay called Walton “as fundamentally sound as any player I ever coached or saw,” and Walton has said a few thousand times that he owed that to Wooden, who got his point across without bravado or bullying, who preached the same things to him that he did to Tim Wolf’s Martinsville team.
“The last time he came, a few years ago, his daughter brought him over, with a walker,” Wolf said. “As always, he was happy to take a few moments, tell the boys never to get too high or low after a game, value the fundamentals and always remember there’s a life after basketball.”
John Wooden lived a long one that fell a little more than four months short of his 100th birthday and a planned dedication of a renovated Pauley Pavilion. Just a hunch, but the college arena might not have been the gym he cared about most.'
A version of this article appeared in print on June 6, 2010, on page SP1 of the New York edition of The New York Times.