LOS ANGELES — John Wooden’s friends, family and former players all say they didn’t need an award from a national magazine to confirm the identity of the greatest coach in American sports history.
Yet the Sporting News made it official Wednesday, recognizing the 98-year-old Wooden as the pinnacle of a profession that was redefined by the UCLA coach over his unmatched career in Westwood.
During a luncheon in the John Wooden Room at one of his favorite restaurants in Sherman Oaks, the coach saw the real reward for a life spent teaching, mentoring and improving lives: A room packed to overflowing with the recipients of those lessons, from his daughter, Nan, to current UCLA coach Ben Howland to former Bruins center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I thank you all for the very kind words,” Wooden said in a voice altered but not slowed by age. “No one can really honestly be the very best, no one … (but) these youngsters that have spoken — and some of them aren’t so young anymore — they’re the ones that make the coaches.”
Former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi was second behind Wooden, who received 57 first-place votes from a panel of 118 sports experts assembled by Sporting News. Alabama football coach Bear Bryant was third, with the NBA’s Phil Jackson fourth and football’s Don Shula fifth.
Wooden arrived at the luncheon in a wheelchair after a series of minor health setbacks in recent years, but the coach still has an appetite both for conversation and a hearty lunch. He sat at a table with Howland, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and former players Abdul-Jabbar, Marques Johnson and Andy Hill, while several other players gathered next to him.
“You get older, your memory gets a little bad, but a lot of other things get worse,” Wooden said during a short lapse in his train of thought.
Wooden won 10 national championships at UCLA, winning more than 80 percent of his games over 27 seasons. The Indiana native has been in the Basketball Hall of Fame since 1961, and has kept busy as a speaker and teacher since his retirement from UCLA in 1975.
“It was really very easy, I think, for the people on the panel to vote for this award,” said Howland, who has reached three Final Fours in his first six seasons at UCLA. “He was the greatest teacher ever. His integrity, the way he lives his life, is a model for all of us.”
Former players Jamaal Wilkes, Ken Heitz, Mike Warren, Lucius Allen and Gary Cunningham, who later became Wooden’s assistant, also attended the luncheon. The tall guests frequently left the low chandeliers in the John Wooden Room swaying from accidental contact.
Johnson shared memories of an encounter with Wooden during his freshman year at UCLA, when the coach spotted Johnson shooting pool. Wooden walked up to the table, grabbed the cue and sank eight straight shots, all with a toothpick dangling from his lip.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar both pointed out Wooden’s influence in their day-to-day habits as well as their overall views of life.
“He has an impact on us, even if we don’t want him to,” Johnson said, producing a handful of Wooden’s favorite white index cards from his jacket pocket. They were inscribed with notes for Johnson’s job coaching his 10-year-old’s summer league basketball team.
“The enduring thing is that sense of family,” Johnson added. “The example that he gave us in that area is one thing that’s outlasted all the basketball and all the accolades and everything else.”
Wooden’s daughter, granddaughter and several of his 13 great-grandchildren also attended the luncheon.
“The most important thing in the world is family and love,” Wooden said. “Love is the most important thing in the world. Hate, we should remove from the dictionary. … They say you never use love in your Pyramid (of Success). I just say I never thought of it.”