Commentary

Honoring John Wooden's memory again

Legendary coach would have turned 100 Thursday and UCLA threw a party for him

Updated: October 15, 2010, 2:22 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- It has been nearly four and a half months since John Wooden died at 99. His remarkable life has been celebrated across the world, his death mourned by thousands, perhaps millions.

Thursday, Oct. 14, was the day he would've turned 100.

Had he lived, it would have been a day of phone calls from old friends, visits from family, and breakfast at his favorite restaurant, VIPs in Encino.

Instead, it was a day to honor his memory once more and celebrate a life so well-lived.

"He came so close to making it to this day," said Keith Erickson, who played on Wooden's first two championship teams in 1964 and 1965.

"We were all hoping he would, but he was ready to go, it was time."

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A group of UCLA student leaders spent the morning teaching Wooden's iconic Pyramid of Success to local school children. In the evening, they threw him a birthday party.

Thirty-one members of Wooden's immediate family attended the event.

"The Wooden family would like to thank all of you that worked so hard to create this day for us," said Wooden's daughter, Nan Muehlhausen, as she choked back tears.

"As Daddy said, 'A simple thank you is worth a thousand words.' "

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said the university had been planning a celebration for Wooden's 100th birthday for several years before he passed away. The school had hoped that renovations to Pauley Pavilion would've been completed by that time, and that the new arena could've been dedicated to him on his birthday.

When it became apparent that was unrealistic, Guerrero and the school decided to re-dedicate Pauley Pavilion, in his honor, to mark what would've been his 100th birthday.

Later this month, the school will open an exhibit in its athletic Hall of Fame called, "The Den." It will be a replication, with original artifacts, of the den in Wooden's Encino condominium. The Wooden family donated the artifacts to the school. Many of his trophies, books and photos will be included.

"There will never be another individual quite like Coach Wooden," Guerrero said. "We were blessed to call him ours."

Though he has been gone for more than four months, those who knew him best still miss him.

"I still have a big hole in my heart," said Andre McCarter, who played point guard on Wooden's final championship team in 1975. "I really miss him. He became my buddy, even though I didn't always see him that often. It was more just knowing he was always there."

McCarter said he has redirected his energy to finish writing a book on Wooden's life and impact.

"I cry a little bit all the time, just thinking he's not here with us anymore," McCarter said. "But I made a commitment to him that I'd tell his legacy in the right way and I've been focused on that."

For Erickson, the sadness still lingers as well. But he said spending the morning with him, on Wooden's final day back in June "helped me release him."

"You know, I still catch myself thinking about him all the time," Erickson said. "The other day I was driving on the 101 freeway by his condominium, and as I passed by his exit, I felt a little tug."

Thursday night, Erickson spoke to the crowd of a few thousand students for 15 minutes. He told stories about Wooden that he'd told a hundred times before. He spoke about what his coach had meant to him.

Many in the crowd had undoubtedly heard about why Wooden made his players wear their hair short or put their socks on a certain way.

But somehow that didn't seem to matter.

On the day he would've turned 100, it seemed fitting that the youngest Bruins would be the ones to honor Wooden's legacy and spread it to the next generation.

"I don't know if you can imagine this," Erickson told the crowd of students. "It was 48 years ago tomorrow that I had my first interaction with Coach Wooden.

"It was in the old men's gym, which is just behind us. There was very poor lighting in there and very poor ventilation. We used to call it the 'B.O. Barn' because three varsity teams practiced in there at the same time: basketball, wrestling and gymnastics.

"Well, my first memory of Coach was in that gym. Every day, as all of us came up to practice, the first one out there on the floor was Coach Wooden. He had a big mop and a big bucket and he'd mop the floor where all the chalk from the wrestling and gymnastics' teams had fallen.

"He was making sure we wouldn't get hurt because if we stepped on one of those chalky spots we could get hurt. I couldn't believe he did that every day, all by himself, and he never complained about it.

"That's just who he was. Always doing things the right way."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.