No loose ends with Wooden
LOS ANGELES — The Portland Trail Blazers were making their first trip to Boston in the Bill Walton era, and I was witness to a fascinating ritual.
Walton came out of the scrimmage, removed his shoes, and loosened his laces. When it was time to go back in, he meticulously retied the laces with the precision of an artisan.
When the practice had concluded, I introduced myself to him and asked the question.
“Why did you untie your laces?’’
“I learned that from John Wooden,’’ he replied. “He always stressed the proper way of tying your shoes. But that wasn’t the first thing he taught us.’’
“And what was that?’’
“How to put on your sock to avoid blisters.’’
We had all heard that devotion to detail was a John Wooden policy, but I had no idea it went that far.
John Wooden, who died Friday at age 99, was a great basketball coach. But there have been many great coaches. As anyone who knew him in the 34-plus years he spent on this earth following his 1975 retirement, he was a truly extraordinary man who touched the lives of countless people. He possessed a brilliant mind, and he was fortunate enough to retain his mental powers until the end. When the body failed him completely, he apparently made the conscious decision to go, checking himself into a facility, refusing to eat, and awaiting the end. Death with dignity is what he deserved and death with dignity is what he got.
He was the single most important figure in the history of college basketball. His UCLA championship teams shone a light on the sport unlike any other, before or since. People who were barely conscious of the sport, or were perhaps even disdainful of it, knew that UCLA was the dominant team in college basketball, the one college so-called “dynasty’’ that belonged in larger-than-life conversation, along with the Yankees, Canadiens, Celtics, and, yes, Lakers.
That run of 10 championships between 1964 and 1975 was distinguished in a basketball sense because the core groups were so dissimilar. It wasn’t a matter of having a system and finding players to fit it. The only constant linking the 1964 team that defeated Duke for the title and the 1975 team that defeated Kentucky for the title was a solid man-to-man defense. That was it.
He won with no center (unless you called 6-foot-5-inch Fred Slaughter a center), a low-post center (Lew Alcindor), a very traditional in-between center (Steve Patterson), a high-post center (Walton), and then again with no real center (the Richard Washington-Marques Johnson team). He won by featuring a 1-2-1-1 press and he won with no backcourt pressure at all.
He didn’t pay much heed to scouting reports. He preached a commitment to the pursuit of excellence instead. Play the game properly, to the best of your ability, he said, and the results should take care of themselves. Once he found the right players to execute his vision (and it took him nearly 15 years at UCLA before he did so), he entertained the sports world with the greatest ongoing collection of efficient teams college basketball has ever known, winning championships, running up four perfect seasons, and compiling a record 88-game winning streak.
John Wooden was a child of the Midwest, born on Oct. 14, 1910, in the Indiana hamlet of Hall. His family moved to Martinsville by his high school years, and there he launched one of the great playing careers in Indiana history. He became a three-time All-America guard at Purdue. He was a great enough player to become the first man named to the Naismith Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
He stuck to his principles, which were quite often Biblically oriented. Without raising his voice, he commanded respect. A player was never confused about what the rules were, and what was expected of him. When a headstrong Walton balked at cutting his hair, Wooden said that he certainly respected Walton’s position and indeed had admiration for a young man who wished to live by his own personal creed.
“We’re going to miss you, Bill,’’ the coach said.
Walton chose to stay, as you may recall, winning two NCAA championships while being the focal player in those 88 consecutive victories.
In later life, Walton became a surrogate son, practically a fifth Beatle to Wooden’s own children. He had been in touch with the old coach on just about a daily basis for the past two decades. The highest praise Walton has for anybody is that they merit a remote comparison to Wooden in any area whatsoever.
Walton once took me to see Wooden at his condo in Encino, Calif. In the course of an enlightening and thoroughly delightful one-hour visit, he charmed me by reciting from memory the batting order of the South Bend high school baseball team he coached a couple of years or so after his 1932 graduation from Purdue, which was certainly impressive. But what made the moment even more memorable was that all nine players in that lineup had tongue-twisting Polish names. I think I still have the tape.
John Wooden was 89 years old at the time.
You could almost say he was a 19th century man who somehow thrived in an otherwise alien culture. His marriage to Nell Riley was one of the great love stories of the 20th century. She died on March 21, 1985, and until the very end he would visit her grave on the 21st of each month and then sit down to write a love letter, as if she were alive. I don’t know about you, but that puts the little ones standing up at attention on the back of my neck.
Thirty-four years is a long time to spend in retirement, and John Wooden made the most of it. He was a constant presence at UCLA, but he was never intrusive. He loved baseball, and frequented both Dodger Stadium and the ballpark in Anaheim, whatever its name of the day. He was available for counsel at all times and, most of all, he set a general example of how to live one’s life.
But he may not have been above telling a little fib now or then. I once sat in a hotel lobby listening to him tell me how much he had enjoyed coaching Sidney Wicks.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.