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The other day I saw a new stamp in the post office and couldn’t stop myself from buying a sheet. (I know; the post office is my shopping mecca.) The stamp featured John Wooden, the most successful NCAA men’s basketball coach in history. Between 1964 and 1975, his UCLA teams won the men’s championship 10 times, including seven years in a row. At one point, his teams won 88 consecutive games.

But that’s not why I bought the stamps.

I bought them because those were the first postage stamps featuring a person I had met.  That’s a story worth telling.

It seems like this took place a lifetime ago, but it was only 2001. I had met a man named Alan, who was the director of Young Life’s ministry in Los Angeles. Somehow, John Wooden’s name came up, and I asked Alan if he was one of those guys who met regularly with Wooden. I had heard stories of Wooden meeting with groups of Christian leaders to talk about life, faith, and basketball.

“I am not one of those guys,” Alan said, “but I know those guys.”

I made my feelings clear: “If you ever can get me included in one of those meetings,” I said, “I will drop everything and be there.” A month or so later, around Thanksgiving, I got a phone call from Alan. “It’s on,” he said, “the Saturday before Christmas.”

I looked at the calendar. The Saturday before Christmas was December 22. I gulped. Well, I thought, what’s Christmas with my children compared to the chance to meet John Wooden? “I’ll be there,” I said.  Thankfully, I was able to figure out how to be there and still get home for Christmas.

I flew to Los Angeles on December 21st and spent the morning of December 22nd with John Wooden. Back then, my mother and brother both lived in Southern California, and I wanted to spend a little time with them too, so I stayed an extra day and took a red-eye flight back to Michigan the night of December 23rd. This seriously messed with my body clock, yet every time I yawned on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I thanked God for John Wooden.

When I got to California, I received my instructions: I was to be in a parking lot behind an apartment building in Encino at nine that Saturday morning. It sounded like something from a spy story. I made my way there, and Coach Wooden arrived a few minutes after nine, fresh from breakfast with a friend. When he appeared, about six or seven others, including Alan, whom I had not seen, got out of cars. Wooden was 91, a bit stooped and shrunk, and he walked with a limp and a cane. He led us upstairs to his modest apartment. It was soon clear that John Wooden wasn’t rich. I learned later his highest salary at UCLA was $33,000. (Bill Self was paid just under $10 million coaching basketball at Kansas last year.)

We sat in his living room for the next two hours. He told us that yes, it was true, the first thing he taught at the opening practice of the year was the proper way to put your socks on. “You can’t play if your feet aren’t right,” he said. “Balance is the second most important word in the English language.” Someone took the bait and asked what the first was. “Love,” he said. The whole morning was like that: stories and snippets of wisdom. “The purpose of discipline is to correct, never to punish.” “The most important rule on my team was ‘be on time.’” “Every player was vital, but not every player had the same role.”

 As he talked, my eyes wandered about the room. There was the 1972 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award sitting on the floor. There were framed handwritten notes from U.S. presidents on the wall. There were pictures of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren lying about, interspersed with pictures of Wooden with other famous people: one with Tiger Woods, another with Roger Clemens and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

The only drawback to being in the apartment was the phone kept ringing. Former players were calling to wish him a Merry Christmas, starting with someone who had played for Wooden in 1948. Then Swen Nater, a backup player at UCLA who went on to a long NBA career, called. Wooden told us Nater writes poetry and found a notebook and read a couple of his poems. Gail Goodrich had called the night before, and Wooden had been out to dinner with Jamaal Wilkes two nights earlier. He expected to hear soon from his two most famous players: Bill Walton, the Grateful Dead-loving hippie who worshipped Wooden, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was known as Lew Alcindor when he played at UCLA, and was also a Wooden acolyte.

Wooden was unadorned. Humble. Authentic. Real. I’d seen him interviewed dozens of times and knew well the distinctive sound of his voice. It was hard to believe that familiar voice was now addressing me.

After a while, he went into another room and signed autographs. I got a “pyramid of success” (just like the one Ted Lasso has) for each of my kids. While the other guys were getting autographs, I stuck my head into his bedroom to see if a story I had heard was true. It was. There was a fresh rose on the pillow on the side of the bed where his late wife Nell had slept.

In a hallway were pictures and books about his two favorite people: Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln. There were baseballs lying on a shelf, one signed by Reggie Jackson, another by Hank Aaron. The words “Drink deeply from good books” were carved onto a bookcase.

What was it that made this man so successful? His Midwestern plainness? Beginning each season with how to put on your socks? His homespun wisdom? His lack of pretension that won over people as diverse and complicated as Walton and Abdul-Jabbar? When someone asked about this, Wooden shrugged and said, “The team with the best players usually wins.”

We left a few minutes after noon. Just before we left, someone asked if he was going to watch basketball that day. He said he watched more women’s basketball than men’s basketball—he hardly recognized men’s basketball anymore, but women played basketball the way he remembered it. He said he usually spent most afternoons reading, prompting someone to ask what sort of books he liked. He smiled and said, “Short ones.” He waited a beat and added, “I’m 91.” Then he said, “You know, I am more than ready to die. I don’t know why God keeps me alive. I’d like to be reunited with Nell.” Then he quoted Swen Nater, the seven-foot poet:

Fear of leaving does not bind me

And departure does not host a single care

Peace does comfort as I ponder

A reunion in the Yonder

With my dearest who are waiting over there.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thank you. I can so identify with you trying to absorb everything when you were in that moment with John Wooden. What a gift and a holy moment. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Beautiful story, Jeff. For some unknown reason I awakened early this morning thinking about John Wooden’s emphasis on proper sock wearing…triggered by nothing. First time thinking of that in years. Then I read of your encounter. Whatever significance this holds, I am not sure. But thank-you.

  • Nickdv says:

    Thank you for that wonderful story! I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Wooden when I was a high school basketball player in Orange City, Iowa. For a number of years, the then Milwaukee Bucks sponsored a basketball camp at Northwestern College, and would bring in a number of NBA players and legendary coaches including Mr.Wooden, Adolf Rupp from Kentucky, Ralph Miller from Iowa, among others. I was invited to help at the camp, mainly because I was a local. For a week I watched Mr Wooden run drills, teach, instruct and coach all players equally regardless of ability. He was quiet, kind, yet powerful (Mr. Rupp was also powerful, but loud and brazen), and even at my age, I could tell he was a man of integrity and of deep faith, and witnessed to us all as he quietly walked off the campus, down the road to the American Reformed Church to worship on Sunday morning. For a smaller man he was indeed a giant in my eyes.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Thanks for this delight-full piece. Makes me want to re-read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book, Coach Wooden and Me. Our 50 Year Friendship On and Off the Court. It’s full of life-lessons and insights into the stuff Coach Wooden was made of as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of my favorite authors, as he describes their mutually enriching relationship. Reminds me of playing ball during the days just before the Dunk and the Jump Shot.

    • Dale L. Strobel says:

      Thanks for the recommendation! I will put that book on my reading list for sure! Both men are wonderfully inspirational!
      Dale L. Strobel, SLC

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    My favorite Wooden story involves his rule of no beards for his players. Walton showed up at the first practice one year sporting a bushy beard. “It’s my right” Walton told Coach. “Yes it is, Bill. And I admire people who stand up for their rights. I really do. Also, we’re going to miss you very much.” Walton went to the locker room and shaved if off and years later called Coach about every day to say he loved him.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Great story–and a timely one as well, since it was just announced that Bill Walton died today. The stories live on, thankfully.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    And today Bill Walton died. Mr. And Mrs. Wooden and my parents were cherished friends. I know why. After they all retired, they always sat together at the Final Four. After my father died, many tried to get John and my mother to marry. Each humbly declined.

    Odd reading this and an affirming reply after reading about having an assured deep belief in the total depravity of absolutely everyone. As poet Jerry Stern exclaimed when first hearing of this belief, “TOTAL?! TOTAL?!” After Jeff’s lovely essay, one might say,”John Wooden?! Totally?!”

  • Ann Conklin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and learned a lot. The coach who came after Wooden is a very active member in the congregation I serve and there are many UCLA alumni, so I hear a lot about John Wooden. Now I have more context – thank you!

  • Gail Ebersole says:

    Great job Jeff! Grateful I had a couple hours as well!

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