LOS ANGELES — When I think of the greatest sportsman who walked a sideline, I think, instead, of where John Wooden lay his head.
It was a tiny bed in a cluttered room in the dark Encino condo in the San Fernando Valley where he lived for the past three decades.
He showed it to me once, without a trace of discomfort or embarrassment, led me inside and pointed to the threadbare white bedspread, Coach still coaching.
"That's Nell," he said.
It was, indeed, a smiling picture of his beloved late wife of 53 years, propped up above the pillow where he slept.
In the space next to the pillow, where Nell used to sleep, there was another propped-up photo of her.
Below that photo, in the middle of the bed, was a bundle of carefully scripted letters, all in the same intricate handwriting.
"Fan mail?" I asked.
"You might say that," he said.
The letters had been written by Wooden to Nell.
They contained humble descriptions of his day, gentle laughs over private jokes, eternal promises of his affection.
They had been written once a month, every month, since 1985.
They had been written after she died.
"I obviously don't have anywhere to send them," he said. "But I had to write them anyway."
He said he had talked to his wife every day for more than half a century, and it still wasn't enough. He wondered, when you are best friends, can it ever be enough?
"I miss telling her things," he said.
As he led me out of the bedroom in that darkened apartment, I realized he taught me again, only this time it was something that cannot be found in a pyramid or a rolled-up program.
I realized that I had just been given a glimpse into a lifetime of simple devotion, from Nell to UCLA, from a sport of basketball that didn't deserve it to children who will never understand it.
Coach had just shown me the meaning of undying love, and, as he led me out of the darkened room, I quietly wept at its power.
This, though, is why I do not weep now, in the wake of John Wooden's death on June 4 at age 99. He was buried Friday, and UCLA plans a public memorial June 26 at Pauley Pavilion.
Our loss will be his gain.
He will no longer have to sleep with a photo. He will no longer have to pick up a pen. The light of our lives can finally be with the light of his life.
All these things he has wanted to share with Nell, he can finally tell her himself.
"I haven't been afraid of death since I lost Nell," Wooden told me that day. "I tell myself, this is the only chance I'll have to be with her again."
Heaven knows, he earned it.
When the great ones leave our courts and fields, don't they usually leave our lives?
Jackie Robinson died young, Muhammad Ali lost his voice, Michael Jordan lost his basketball sense, and Joe Montana refused to be honored at the Super Bowl unless he was paid.
When the great ones retire, so, often, does their greatness.
But John Wooden was different. Has any sports figure ever broken every record in his field, then contributed more to the world after the games ended?
Wooden will be remembered as Coach by those who never even knew he coached.
He won 10 national championships at UCLA, a record that will never be broken, yet many know him only for applying those lessons to real life.
He spent 27 years coaching the Bruins. But after his retirement in 1975, he spent the next 35 years coaching, well, the rest of us.
Guess which job had more impact?
Hint: It was not the one where he earned the name the Wizard of Westwood.
"I am not a famous man," Wooden said. "I hate being called wizard. I am not a wizard."
Everyone called him Coach, and he was a teacher, and that is how he will be remembered, the sports world's greatest teacher, a man whose quiet voice somehow rose above the clatter of those who had long stopped listening.
He will be remembered not for diagramming a triangle offense, but for writing a pyramid bible, his Pyramid of Success long since becoming the best-known sports motivational tool.
He will be celebrated not only for sitting on the UCLA sideline, but for being in the bleachers just above the UCLA bench, where he sat for nearly every home game after his retirement, signing autographs and spinning wisdom.
He will be known not only for his loyalty to his many great players, but for his loyalty to his late wife; he once insisted that if the Pauley Pavilion court was named after him, Nell's name would have to come first, and so it does.
He will be applauded not for any endorsements, but for the one sponsorship he canceled. He removed his support of the John R. Wooden Award — college basketball's Heisman — when he believed that organizers weren't playing fair with his name.
During a time when the sports world was drastically changing, John Wooden never budged an inch, and in doing so, he moved us forever.
He was the only major basketball figure to disdain the NBA for the WNBA because he loved the fundamentals.
The last time he was seen at a prominent baseball game, it didn't involve the Dodgers; it was in Anaheim during the 2002 World Series, Coach preferring to support an Angels team that could bunt and steal and think.
His wisdom of "failing to prepare is preparing to fail" works better than ever on today's self-entitled athletes.
His bromide, "The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success" could be the motto of every modern, Internet-hounded, alumni-harassed college coach.
What he said back then works even better now, and so for years he never stopped saying it, giving speeches to groups who couldn't pay, spending time with kids who had no idea.
Because his words will last forever, it is impossible to imagine that he did not.
But we are comforted in knowing that he is reunited with his inspiration while leaving us with plenty.
"Be quick," we wanted to tell Coach before he set off for Nell and immortality, "but don't hurry."