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John Wooden's legacy: 'He's in all of us'

UCLA students gather outside the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles after hearing that legendary Bruins basketball coach John Wooden died Friday at 99.

Luis Sinco | Los Angeles Times

UCLA students gather outside the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles after hearing that legendary Bruins basketball coach John Wooden died Friday at 99.

LOS ANGELES — Jamaal Wilkes answered his phone a week ago and heard Michael Warren's voice urging him to get to the hospital to see John Wooden.

The former UCLA coach and Hall of Famer had been in and out of the hospital in recent years, but this time it was different. Warren told Wilkes that Wooden might be nearing the end of his inspiring life. A few days later, a grave Bill Walton called Wilkes, saying, "Jamaal, you need to get over here."

So Wilkes headed to campus to see his 99-year-old former coach, one of many former UCLA basketball greats who gathered at Wooden's bedside in his final days to say farewell.

"There were lots of people coming through," said Keith Erickson, a star on the 1964 and '65 national title teams. "Everybody wanted to give their last regards to him and let him know for sure that we had been there and how much we loved him."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor in his college days, rushed back from Europe, reaching Wooden's side hours before he died Friday night. Gary Cunningham, a player, assistant coach under Wooden and later head coach of the Bruins, cut short a vacation in the Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, a longtime friend, came by, too.

"It was very sweet," said Andy Hill, a reserve on UCLA's national championship teams in 1970, '71 and '72. "I got to tell him he can leave, but he really can't because he's in all of us."

UCLA coach Ben Howland spent some time with his most famous predecessor. "He hadn't shaved in a couple of days," Howland said. "He scratched his whiskers and quietly said, 'I feel like Bill Walton.' "

Erickson spent a few minutes with Wooden on Wednesday night, tenderly holding the long, bony fingers of his mentor's hand. "When I spoke to him, he opened his eyes just a little bit and got a little bit of a smile," he said. "He talked a little bit, but I couldn't tell what he was saying."

By Friday, Erickson said, it was evident the end was near. Wooden didn't respond to anyone in the room, resting with his pale blue eyes closed, hours away from his long awaited reunion with his late wife, Nell, who died of cancer in 1985.

"They had a very, very close relationship. I'm sure today John is a happy person," said Gene Bartow, who had the unenviable task of succeeding Wooden in Westwood.

Erickson reminisced Saturday under the 11 national championship banners hanging in quiet Pauley Pavilion, taking solace in knowing that Wooden was no longer in pain.

"The last couple years he was not happy. He didn't want to go through this, but he was a fighter," he said. "He went two years longer than anybody thought he could, and he kept getting real sick, and he came back."

Walton didn't join an informal player gathering on Nell and John Wooden Court at Pauley Pavilion.

"The joy and happiness in coach Wooden's life came from the success and accomplishments of others," Walton said in a statement released by the university. "He never let us forget what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa, 'that a life not lived for others is not a life.'

"I thank John Wooden every day for all his selfless gifts, his lessons, his time, his vision and especially his faith and patience. This is why our eternal love for him will never fade away. This is why we call him 'Coach.' "

Wilkes, Cunningham, Erickson, Hill, and Marques Johnson traded handshakes and hugs not far from a wreath of red carnations, red roses and white roses sprayed Bruins blue that rested next to Wooden's seat in the second row behind UCLA's bench. Overhead hung the blue and gold banner signifying UCLA's 1975 national championship, Wooden's record 10th and last.

President Barack Obama said Saturday that he was saddened to hear of "the passing of an incredible coach, and an even better man, John Wooden. … As an American, I salute the way he achieved all that success with modesty and humility, and by wholeheartedly dedicating his life to the betterment of others."

Like Wooden, who starred at Purdue, Larry Bird became an Indiana basketball legend. The Pacers president said in a statement, "John Wooden, basketball, Indiana. One doesn't go without the others."

Denny Crum played for Wooden in 1956-58 then served as his assistant on three NCAA title teams before leaving to coach Louisville in 1971.

"Coach never talked about winning, ever," he said. "His theory was that you get the guys in shape, you teach them the fundamentals, and then you get them to play together. And he did that better than anybody.

"If you asked him what he did, he'd tell you he was a teacher. That's what he did. He was really good at that."

Wooden's lessons, basketball and otherwise, didn't always sink in immediately.

Erickson was long gone from UCLA before he understood Wooden's requirement that players have short hair:

"That was because if you perspire and run your hands through your hair, the next time someone threw you a pass, the ball could slip through your hands. That happened to me years later in a game, and I realized, 'Doggone it, that's the reason.' "

Wilkes said he didn't appreciate how special Wooden was until "after college, after the NBA, when my life focus began to change on marriage, divorce, children, the business world."

He rested his lanky body in a chair, arms folded across his chest, his eyes focused upward at the banners in the rafters.

"(Wooden's) aura isn't going to be hanging over the place, but he's still coaching up in heaven," Wilkes said. "He's doing his thing, he's got his note cards, he's running drills and making them better angels up there."

John Wooden's legacy: 'He's in all of us' 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 11:13pm]
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