Too Short For A Column

10/14/2009 - UCLA Bruins

On your 99th birthday -- if you get there -- do you think you'll be launching your new book?

John Wooden is. It's called A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring (with Don Yeager, $25, Bloomsbury) and it came out yesterday, the day before the great man's birthday.

John Wooden Turns 99 On Wednesday

Three weeks ago, I spent an afternoon in his Encino condo, which must be one of the most amazing 1500 of square feet in all of Los Angeles. His Presidential Medal of Freedom hangs next to one from the local YMCA. His letter from Mother Teresa hangs near his great grand daughter's report card. There are far more signed baseballs (his favorite sport) than basketballs, and nearly as many books about Abraham Lincoln (his hero) than there are jellybeans (his weakness.)

I like going to Wooden's house for the same reason people like going to church: It makes me want to be a better man.

The last time he swore? 1924. The last time he drank alcohol? 1932. Number of girls he ever kissed? One, his beloved Nell, who passed in 1985. He's never gotten over it. Still writes her a love letter on the 21st of every month -- the date of her death.

Every time I go, I learn something new about the Wizard of Westwood (a name he hates.) For instance, did you know --

-- Wooden helped build Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan., still the home of the Kansas Jayhawks? He was 20, hitchhiking across the country at the time. "I wore my state championship sweater," he says. "It helped me catch rides." He needed some money, so he stayed and worked construction for two weeks.

-- Wooden once made a hole in one and a double eagle in the same day? It was in 1976 -- a year after he retired -- at the Balboa course in Encino. He made the ace first and then, a few holes later, holed a fairway wood (yes, wood) from the middle of the fairway for his second shot. He was a four handicap at the time. He did not celebrate with a beer.

-- Wooden used to predict how his UCLA teams would do that season and hide the prediction in his desk drawer? Only once did he predict the team would go undefeated: "Lewis's first year," he says. He means Lewis Alcindor, of course, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And he was right. Alcindor's sophomore year (his first with the varsity), the Bruins went 30-0 and won the national championship, Wooden's third. "I just felt Lewis was so good and so different that it was going to be hard for opponents to catch up to him." Wooden had three other undefeated teams, two with Bill Walton.

-- Wooden didn't like it at UCLA at first and wanted to leave? After his second year he wanted to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Purdue. Nellie didn't like Los Angeles. But he had.a year left on his contract. "There was a lot more money and everything else," Wooden says. "But UCLA reminded me that I was the one that insisted on a three year contract, which was true. So I talked it over (with Nell) and I said, 'You know I gave my word.' And I haven't broken it yet."

It's amazing, isn't it? How a man who can't get out of a wheelchair still manages to stand taller than everybody else?

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