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The Passing of Both a Legend and My Personal Hero

By Jim Gillespie | June 8, 2010

It’s difficult for me to even remember a time when I didn’t know who John Wooden was. Ever since I was a kid sitting watching UCLA basketball games along with my father, his name and what he represented to me have always been in the very forefront of my mind; and what he represented to me was true excellence.

But it’s who John Wooden was as a man above and beyond his basketball accomplishments that really counted. And it’s why, outside of my own father, that he’s always been my personal hero.

To give you an idea of what an outstanding human being this man was, in 1998 I wrote him a letter in care of the UCLA Athletic Department, telling him how much he’s meant to me, and how much he had inspired me over the years. And I also told him that I would like to take him to lunch sometime.

Then as only a world-class hero would do, his response soon came to me in the mail. It was a handwritten note thanking me for the kind words I had said to him, along with his home phone number within the note, telling me he would like to have lunch with me also, and that I should call him and we’d schedule the lunch together.

And if you’re not familiar with this man and what his accomplishments have been over the years, here’s a list of some of them:

As a high school basketball player in Martinsville, Indiana, his team reached the state finals during three consecutive years, winning the state championship in 1927…and Coach Wooden was named to the All-State Team during all three of these years.

As a college basketball player at Purdue University, his team won the national championship in 1932, and Coach Wooden became the first player ever to be named as an All-American in college basketball for three consecutive years.

While coaching the UCLA basketball team, his teams won 10 national championships during his final 12 years of coaching. And no other college basketball coach in history has won more than four national championships.

He was the first person ever elected into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and as a coach.

The annual award given to the best college basketball player in the country is named after him…The John R. Wooden Award. It’s the college basketball equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, which is given annually to the best player in college football.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that the United States can give to one of its civilians.

And this is the same man who wrote me back with a handwritten note, giving me his home phone number, accepting my invitation to go to lunch with him.

But Coach Wooden was about so much more than this, and his players continually talk to this day about how much he taught them about life, and how much he prepared them for life also. There are so many different lessons and expressions of his that I could mention to you here, and here are just a few of them:

"What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player."

"It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts."

"You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."

"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming."

While he represented the greatest level of excellence and achievement imaginable in basketball, it was his love of humanity and the people around him that formed the true foundation for his achieving excellence.

Over the 25 years he continued living after his beloved wife Nell passed away, every single month he’d visit her grave and write her a love letter on the 21st of the month, the monthly anniversary of the date that Nell had died. And all of these letters continually rested on the pillow next to him on the bed where she had slept with him for more than 50 years, before she passed away.

When UCLA told him they wanted to name their basketball court after him, he told them that they could do it, but under one condition…they had to include Nell’s name along with his on the court, and her name had to come before his own name on the court, too. And because of this the basketball court at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to this day is still inscribed with the words, "Nell and John Wooden Court".

And when I got together for lunch with Coach at his favorite restaurant, it was a truly amazing experience. Afterwards he invited me back into his home, and into his private study. It was there that he showed me all of his awards and memorabilia from his many years in basketball, and where he had me listen to something that was quite unexpected…He played me a recording of one of his former basketball players, Swen Nater, singing Bette Midler’s song, "Wind Beneath My Wings" to him.

So here I was listening to someone who was 6′ 11" tall and a former professional basketball player, singing this soft, emotional song as his heartfelt tribute to his Coach. And Coach was just sitting back in his easy chair, getting a bit misty-eyed, and taking in the beauty of the moment.

It completely blew all my pictures of who anyone needed to be in their own personal life, in order to be one of the greatest competitors and greatest champions in history.

And as I keep reaching for the tissue box here on my desk, I’ll close in saying this:

There will never be another man like John Wooden, and maybe that’s why God had him live among us for more than 99 years. I am honored to have been inspired by him, honored to have met him, and I’m honored to still have his principles to follow in the best way that I can, when I’m putting one foot in front of the other one, just trying to live my life.

Click here to see the photo of me along with Coach Wooden.

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