Commentary

Basketball world reacts to Wooden

Magic, Kobe and Doc Rivers among those offering thoughts on legendary coach

Updated: June 4, 2010, 11:57 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- There was a game played here Thursday night, but there was a sadness in the building.

Whether they had heard before the Lakers and Celtics opened the NBA Finals at Staples Center that legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden was in the hospital, gravely ill, those who had known him, loved him or simply respected him from afar reacted to the news with great emotion: sadness at the news, and gratitude and appreciation for all that Wooden meant to them.

"He's a legend and an icon. He's one of the world's treasures, but especially in L.A.," Magic Johnson said.

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson says he took notes whenever he listened to John Wooden speak.

Wooden died Friday night of natural causes at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26.

"I sat down with him many a time," Johnson said Thursday. "He was a guy who gave me a lot of advice when I first got here. We used to speak at different [basketball] camps together. It was amazing to hear his knowledge. He used to tell me, 'When you work with young people, never penalize them for what they are or what they aren't -- you work with them, and love them.' When he talked, I took notes, many notes."

Kobe Bryant hadn't heard of Wooden's condition until he was leaving Staples Center after the Lakers' 102-89 Game 1 victory.

"I met him once, it was at Chick Hearn's funeral, and we talked for about 20 minutes," Bryant said. "I've read his books, and I've been a fan of his for a long time, since I was in middle school. In high school, my high school coach introduced me to his philosophies, his pyramid and things like that.

"His legacy is unmatched. It's unreal. You talk to players that played for him, they all say to a man that he has made them better people, aside from the basketball. Just them as people, he's helped them be better. That's the true testimony to his legacy."

Across the aisle in this already-heated series, the sentiment was the same.

"Forget the coaching part. I wish we could all be that decent," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I only have two autographed pictures on my desk. One's Red Auerbach and one's John Wooden. Those are probably the only people, outside of Muhammad Ali, that I've ever asked for an autograph."

Former UCLA star Marques Johnson, who won the first Wooden Award in 1977, said he'd seen Wooden on Mother's Day and got the sense that the legendary coach "was ready to move on."

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesCeltics coach Doc Rivers says he has two autographed pictures on his desk, and one of them is of John Wooden.

"We have to let him go," said Johnson, who helped Wooden win his 10th and final national title in 1974-75. "It's selfish of us to want him to stick around, to be here to reach his 100th birthday.

"He's done everything in his life that he's wanted to do. He married his childhood sweetheart; he got to participate in a game he loved; he has his kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. I believe that he believes that he's going to be reconnected with his loved ones [once he leaves us]. That's why I feel it's time for us to let him go. Because in the spiritual sense, and I don't know what you believe in, but if he's ready to go, we need to let him go.

"I've been very blessed to have had him in my life and to have been a part of his. The life lessons are what stick with you the most. For most of his players, the stuff he talks about goes over our heads. The spiritually laced messages, all of that stuff, as a 17- 18-year-old kid, you aren't trying to hear that. I was a 17-year-old kid from the 'hood when I came [to UCLA], and for the first two years of my college career he told me things that I didn't connect with. A lot of times, I was like 'Whatever.' I was just trying to play ball. But as you live, as you get older, as your life develops, as you persevere, everything he says -- it begins to kick in. You hear his voice telling you things that he told you years ago."

Former UCLA coach Jim Harrick was emotional while talking about his relationship with Wooden over the years, a relationship that began five games into Harrick's coaching career when he looked over his shoulder at a high school basketball game and saw the legendary coach sitting four rows up in the stands.

[+] EnlargeJim Harrick
J.D. Cuban/Getty ImagesFormer UCLA coach Jim Harrick says John Wooden is the wisest man he has ever known.

"He was such an inspiration for me. I just love the guy," Harrick said. "He's the wisest man I've ever known. He'd always say the simplest things, and just break things down in the simplest ways, and you'd be like, 'How did I never think of that before? How could I never have seen that?'

"I always say that if they ever needed someone to stop a war, they should send John Wooden. I honestly believe he could create peace in the Middle East; he could solve that.

"When I was at UCLA, we'd talk all the time, but he never wanted to outshine me and he never would. I'd ask him for advice all the time and he'd say, 'I don't give advice, I can only give you an opinion.' And I'd be like, 'Coach, give me your opinion then, I need it.'

"There's never going to be another John Wooden. Never. I just hope we can all honor him in the right way."

Lakers forward Luke Walton knew Wooden through his father, Bill, who'd played for Wooden at UCLA and then became one of his closest friends.

"I think everyone that talked to him gained knowledge," Luke Walton said. "The huge impact he had on my dad's life is mainly how he impacted our life. My dad wouldn't be who he is today without John Wooden. John Wooden has had an incredible life. He has helped so many people in this world. It's very sad to hear, but it's a time to celebrate his life as well."

Jordan Farmar's father attended Wooden's basketball camps growing up, and handed down a lesson from the legendary coach to his son years later. Like so many of Wooden's lessons, it was a simple one, born from practical, disciplined Indiana roots.

"He taught my dad to put on his socks," Farmar said.

Among Wooden devotees, that simple act is an art form, a discipline as important as anything on the basketball court. It was one of the first skills he would teach his players.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Jon Soohoo/NBAE via Getty ImagesKobe Bryant was one of several Lakers after Game 1 to react to the news that John Wooden is gravely ill in the hospital.

"The socks should be changed every day and always put on with care," Wooden wrote in "Practical Modern Basketball." "All wrinkles must be smoothed out."

Later, Farmar met the coach at UCLA.

"He would come to games and just be supportive," Farmar said. "He would preach being a good man before being a good basketball player. He lived up to what he taught, and that's the most important thing, that was the aura around him."

Earlier Thursday, former Lakers coach Bill Sharman, with his wife, Joyce, went to UCLA Medical Center to see Wooden.

They've been friends for more years than either of them can remember, but long enough that it doesn't really matter.

"I talked to him before the game tonight. He could talk a little bit, and he could see who you were, but you could see it was going downhill," Sharman said.

"He is a beautiful man. He is one of the greatest men I ever knew. I know with me, he was such a good example. I tried to think a lot of times, when I was going through something, 'What would he do? What would he say? How would he coach?' I admire him so much. He's such a great man."

Said Sharman's wife: "There will never be another. He told Bill he loved him. He asked to see Bill. He told Bill he loved him and thanked him for his friendship.

"This is what he wanted, I think. He wanted to see Nellie [Wooden's wife, who died in 1985]. It was very powerful to see him tonight."

Though Wooden could barely talk, he said what he needed to.

"We said goodbye today," Sharman said.

"I think he realized it."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. ESPNLosAngeles.com's Eric Neel and ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson contributed to this report.