At issue | June 5 New York Times article, "Legendary basketball coach dies at 99; Coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles"
It was an old bungalow on Westwood Boulevard, across the street from the hospital where the man would die some 55 years later.
The boy felt nervous as he walked up the stairs with a basketball under his arm. John Wooden was ready for their appointment, the secretary told him.
The boy stepped into the room that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar later described as a walk-in closet.
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It may have seemed that way to a 7-foot-2, 18-year-old center on his first visit to UCLA, but to a 5-4, 13-year-old junior high school student, it looked big enough.
The coach rose from his chair, walked with a nimble step around his desk and smiled at the boy, extending his hand. He was the taller of the two by just a few inches.
Wooden's pale-blue eyes sized him up: "You probably play guard?"
"That was my position too."
The coach smiled. "Can I borrow your basketball for a moment?
The boy smiled too, handing the ball to Mr. Wooden.
"Let me give you a tip that always helped me to shoot over taller players." Staring at an imaginary hoop on the ceiling, the coach placed his hands and feet in position for a shot. "I want you to picture the middle finger of your shooting hand almost scraping the bridge of your nose as you release the ball."
He demonstrated in slow motion, then at normal speed. Later the boy would learn that repetition was one of the keys to the coach's method. "Try it," Wooden told him.
He did, grateful that there was not a real hoop in front of them.
Afterwards the coach returned to his desk, asking his visitor to have a seat. They talked for a few minutes. The boy wouldn't remember too much about that conversation, but the man and the lesson have remained in his mind.
He went on to have several coaches and many teachers in high school and during years of undergraduate and graduate study. He never got another tip, heard a lecture or received a lesson that stuck so deeply in his mind.
As Wooden liked to say, when asked about his profession, he was a teacher before all else. Coaching basketball was "like parsing a sentence," he said, sounding like the English teacher he had been.
Nowadays, he would have to change the metaphor, since most players and even English majors would not know what it means.
The coach was what we would call a master teacher. A master and a teacher.
"He was almost mystical in his approach," Abdul-Jabbar recalled. Like the mystics, John Wooden was calm and self-possessed, with power emanating from his person. "Be true to yourself," read one of his father's maxims on a sheet of paper he always carried with him. He taught by example.
Like the great masters, he was demanding of his students.
Bill Walton, his other 7-foot center, had to race to a barber shop to get his hair cut before practice ended one afternoon, knowing he would have been dropped from the team otherwise. Goodness gracious sakes alive, how many coaches would dare to be so firm with a star player?
Wooden always said that winning was not the most important thing, although he must have disliked losing. He was almost a mystic, but not a saint. He was known to ride officials and even opposing players.
And he hated being called the "Wizard of Westwood" because he knew that success did not depend on charms and spells, but on the old values of the one-room schoolhouse — like the ones in rural Indiana where he had studied as a child, and like the one on Westwood Boulevard where he offered a young boy the lessons of a lifetime: generosity, respect, dedication, humility.