Former players pay tribute to UCLA coach John Wooden

Former coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins watches as the Bruins take on the University of California Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion January 29, 2009 in Westwood, California. UCLA won, 81-66.
Former coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins watches as the Bruins take on the University of California Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion January 29, 2009 in Westwood, California. UCLA won, 81-66.
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Former players paid tribute Saturday to John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, many of them calling him a friend, teacher and mentor as well as coach.
(Audio: 2004 interview by KPCC's Kitty Felde with John Wooden.)

Wooden died of natural causes Friday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center at age 99.

He coached the Bruins to a 620-147 record from 1948 to 1975, and 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 seasons, including a record seven straight from 1967 to 1973, with teams led by future Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- then Lew Alcindor -- and Bill Walton, accounting for five of those titles.

Despite having just one returning starter, UCLA won another title in 1975, in what Wooden called his most gratifying UCLA season. After winning that championship, he decided to retire while at the top of his game.

"It's kind of hard to talk about Coach Wooden simply, because he was a complex man,'' Abdul-Jabbar, who was on the 1967, `68 and `69 championship teams, said in a statement. "But he taught in a very simple way. He just used sports as a means to teach us how to apply ourselves to any situation.

"He set quite an example. He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn't let us do that."

Bill Walton, who followed Abdul-Jabbar at center, was on the Bruins' 1972 and `73 championship teams and later won two NBA championships with the Portland Trailblazers.

"UCLA can easily claim an endless list of alumni who have helped make the world a better place. But of all the special spirits who have given so much, it is John Wooden who has truly had the greatest impact on the largest number of people,'' Walton said in a statement.

"It has been 36 years since I graduated from UCLA. I have spent those years trying to duplicate that incredible period in my life. Our family home, where it all began so many years ago in San Diego, to this day is still a shrine to John Wooden, with UCLA memorabilia, the 'Pyramid of Success' and pictures of the coach everywhere.

"Over the years I've regularly taken our children (including Luke Walton, who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers) to coach's 'Mansion on Margate' in Encino to get for them the timeless lessons of life, including how to put your shoes and socks on, just like he taught us 40 years ago.

"John Wooden represents the conquest of substance over hype, the triumph of achievement over erratic flailing, the conquest of discipline over gambling, and the triumph of executing an organized plan over hoping that you'll be lucky, hot or in the zone. John Wooden also represents the conquest of sacrifice, hard work and commitment to achievement over the pipe dream that someone will just give you something, or that you can take a pill or turn a key to get what you want.

"I thank John Wooden every day for all his selfless gifts, his lessons, his time, his vision and especially his faith and patience. This is why our eternal love for him will never fade away. This is why we call him 'Coach.'''

Other former players to issue statements included Jamaal Wilkes.

"To be recruited by and play basketball for Coach Wooden at UCLA was an honor and opportunity I'll always cherish,'' he said. "He made a shy and skinny young man with a different-looking jump shot into a 12-year NBA champion and All-Star with his fundamental coaching.

"He made certain the start and release of my jump shot was sound and allowed me to be different. He instilled in me the belief and confidence to be a champion.

"Over the years, our coach-player relationship grew into a life-mentoring relationship, and then into a friendship. Coach was always there during the up and down times for me and my family, especially the down times.

"He had a knack for saying what I needed to hear at the right time about anything. Coach would say things that stuck with me and I'd think about. Coach was fun and had a great sense of humor.

"I love him, my family loves him, we'll miss him dearly, and we'll always be grateful he cared and touched our lives.''

"Nobody was more beloved than Coach, said former player Gail Goodrich. ``He loved people and had this tremendous gift to communicate with everyone, regardless of age or background. He always considered himself a teacher, and a teacher he was.

"When I played for him, he taught me the game of basketball. Later I came to realize, he really taught me the valuable aspects of life. As competitive as he was, both as a player and a coach, he was incorruptible. He lived and taught with a simple philosophy that building a winning team or a successful life can be accomplished without breaking the rules or sacrificing personal values.

"No one influenced or impacted my life more than Coach. He was my mentor. I will miss my chats and visits with Coach, but his wisdom and teaching will remain with me forever. I'm blessed to be `one of his boys.' He was always there for me. I will miss him dearly.''

Former player Walt Hazzard also called Wooden a mentor and friend.

"He taught us about basketball and life and being the best you can be. My love to the Wooden family and to all of the Bruins who had the privilege of studying under one of the great teachers of all time. He will be missed by many but by none more than me.''