Saturday, June 5, 2010

Thank You, Coach Wooden

As a very young kid, I was fond of most of the sports teams in the City of Angels. My parents were both into sports, following the Dodgers even before they moved to L.A. from Brooklyn. In football, we all followed the perennial "win the division, lose to the Cowboys or Vikings in the playoffs" Los Angeles Rams. While I loved watching the Dodgers and Rams growing up, the end result - not winning the whole thing - was very frustrating!

My solace as a youngster was that the basketball teams which ruled our city (the Lakers and UCLA Bruins) were winners. My first sports memory as a kid was watching the Lakers team led by the late Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West win the NBA title in 1972. A couple of months earlier (but beyond my recollection), the UCLA Bruins men's basketball team won it's 6th consecutive championship. The next year, the great Bill Walton behind a ridiculous 21-for-22 shooting performance led UCLA to it's 7th straight title as they mauled Memphis State by an 87-66 score. To this day, I still remember being awed by Walton's performance and coach John Wooden's amazing achievement. I also remember what happened the next year, as the Bruins played Notre Dame, seemingly on their way to their 89th consecutive regular season win. Up 70-59 with 3 1/2 minutes to play, the Bruins would not score again, as the Fighting Irish ran off a 12-0 run to stun them, 71-70. It was the first time as a child I actually cried over something other than physical pain. Yes, at the ripe old age of 6 1/2, I was a Bruin fan... UCLA's streak of seven consecutive titles would also be snapped that year. The next year, 1975, the Bruins came back though to win their 10th title in 12 years, defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 92-85. It would be the last of coach Wooden's 620 wins as a coach.

What a way to go out, I thought. As I grew up, I read about and studied coach Wooden. Each year that went by, I grew to admire the person he was more and more. He was a man of discipline, principle and faith. He also had a love for his late wife Nell which was truly an AMAZING love! When I graduated from high school, I applied to exactly ONE college: UCLA. Yes, this was the only place I wanted to go school as I'd been a Bruin at heart thanks to coach Wooden since I could remember. When I got accepted, I was ecstatic!

When I graduated from UCLA in 1990, I was very proud because I had graduated from the same school that coach Wooden had truly put on the sports map. Who was my favorite basketball player growing up? It was Walton's teammate, Jamaal "Keith" Wilkes. "Silk," as Wilkes would later be nicknamed as a pro, along with his UCLA teammate, the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), would team up ( with Earvin "Magic" Johnson) to lead the Lakers to three titles. Kareem won a total of five titles with the Lakers and also one as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The great thing about coach Wooden was that he was more than just a coach. He was simply an AMAZING human being! His two heroes growing up were Abe Lincoln and his father Joshua. Upon graduation from grammar school, his father gave him a seven point creed. This creed helped him model his life:

* Be true to yourself
* Make each day your masterpiece
* Help others
* Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible
* Make friendship a fine art
* Build a shelter against a rainy day
* Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day

Although I always believed in God growing up, I didn't attend church for the first time until two years after I graduated from UCLA. Coach Wooden's words of inspiration and his lifestyle were things I tried to emulate growing up. I'm thinking that maybe that's why I felt so "at home" the first time I actually attended church and accepted Christ into my heart in 1992. He was the one who planted the seed in my youth - it just took some time to harvest! Kind of like how it took him a while to actually become a GREAT coach! The morals, the integrity, the convictions and the positive outlook on life he preached remain ingrained in me to this day! Indeed, they've seen me through most of my life.

No, I never personally met the man, but the impact he had on me is unmatched by anyone other than my own family. What did I do last night and today? I talked to friends about how coach Wooden impacted me and served as a source of inspiration growing up. He was THE REASON I ended up at UCLA! Thanks coach Wooden for mentoring me, and teaching me how to live life the right way. In a world so devoid of role models, you TRULY were one! We should all thank the Lord that He allowed coach Wooden to spend over 99 years here on the earth. When he left our world about 6:45 pm last night, I do know two words he certainly heard from our maker before being reunited with his beloved Nell: "WELL DONE!"


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