thank you Coach…

It was 4:30pm on the day I moved into Sproul Hall at UCLA when I got the call: “There’s a scrimmage planned in Pauley, wanna go?” I walked down the hill towards Pauley Pavillion, and found the unlocked door at Gate 15. I walked in and met my friend at the court. We were the lone spectators as the scrimmage began. Baron Davis, Earl Watson, Matt Barnes, Dan Gadzuric, Ray Young, and the rest of the 98-99 Bruin squad were playing on the court. Over on the side… Kobe Bryant was shooting free throws and hoping for an invite from the “insider” crew to play. And amid all of that insanity… I walked over to John Wooden’s bench seat… and sat down… and just looked up towards the rafters.
I honestly didn’t even notice what was going on for a good 15 minutes with the guys on the court. I just kept looking around in awe that I was where I was… and almost all of that magic came from just one person who wasn’t even there. But his spirit definitely was.
For me, he was always so much more than just a simple man… but he was a living legend. My dad used to recount the stories of John Wooden’s teams with awe as he’d teach me the importance of good strong pass and a good hook shot growing up. His quotes were the first ones I ran through when searching for my perfect senior yearbook quotes. Seeing him on TV every other Thursday and Saturday at games was like having a friendly celebrity sighting. Every book of his that I read was so pure and true that it was like reading the gospel of life. So when I finally met him, you have to understand that I grinned like a maniac, my heart was full of joy, and I couldn’t believe that this man was really talking directly to me and only me.
I was lucky enough to have more than a few opportunities to speak with him while at UCLA and beyond. But while my conversations were special, what was better was hearing friends and colleagues talk about their experiences with Coach. Hearing about the dinner that a friend had at his condo, or the speech he gave to the water polo team, or the chance encounter that someone had with him in the valley or a call he made in regards to a new basketball recruit. He really was a member of our family at UCLA, and we all treated him with undying love and respect. He was there whenever anyone needed him… and he was welcomed everywhere with open arms. We got worried when we didn’t see him at a basketball game and cheered and gave him a standing ovation whenever he came.
The picture above is from a book signing event in 1999. I was working the event for the AD and got to hear him speak to every guest that passed through asking for his signature. I waited until the end to have my two books signed. One was for me… and the other was for my grandfather. I told him that even though my grandpa was the biggest Cal fan alive… he’d always tell me that he’d never seen a better coach than Wooden. He laughed and told me to thank my grandpa for giving him a fair chance. Years later, I told him about how I was using his Pyramid of Success in my middle school classroom with great success. He told me to never give up on my kids and that teachers were the most important people on the planet.
My favorite memory, however, was an occasion when he was speaking about Nell. Someone mentioned her name, and his face just changed and you saw this spirit pass over his eyes. He smiled and simply said, “There is nothing in life that compares to love.” You could see the ache in his heart, but his eyes just smiled. That was more magical than any mythic basketball championship banner I’ve ever seen.
He meant so much to so many, both as a coach and a person. It will be so hard for so many of us to know what life as a Bruin would be without him around. But we’re all better people to have had him in our lives: as an author, a mentor, a coach, a visionary, a teacher, a legend, and a man. Thanks, Coach. Without you, I may never have yearned to have been a Bruin so so badly. Thank you for your wisdom along so many paths… and thank you for sharing it with everyone. We’ll miss you so…

Coach John Wooden 1910-2010



  • Michelle

    Well written!
    I am teary eyed!!! I loved watching UCLA celebrate last night knowing that they fought so hard for victory with John Wooden on their minds. It is so amazing that you had a chance to know him and use his words and wisdom throughout your life. It makes me wish I would have gone to a school with a rich tradition like that.

  • Janet

    What a beautiful post, Kim! I thought of you immediately after I heard the news. He was such a great man, all-around. RIP!

    And boy did those names of players bring back some memories! That was a great year.