Wooden, who made UCLA a household acronym, died at age 99 on Friday, and for certain, we live in a lesser world without him.
Marv Harshman remembers when coaches used to misread John Wooden. They thought he was stuck up.
Unlike the custom of those times, Wooden would never take opposing coaches out for drinks when they came to Los Angeles. He preferred to stay home with his family. Back then, it was a big deal that the Wizard of Westwood wouldn’t ignore his homebody tendencies and socialize in this manner.
“It was a fraternity-type situation with a lot of coaches,” recalled Harshman, the beloved former Washington and Washington State basketball coach. “It was an issue. People thought he was too stuck up, but it wasn’t too long before I learned that was a misconception.”
Harshman learned something quite simple, but very important, about Wooden. You don’t read into him. You go to him, get to know him, have a frank conversation with him. And then it would become clear: He’s just John Wooden.
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No games. He wasn’t ignoring his coaching buddies to keep a competitive edge. He genuinely loved his family so much, he couldn’t bear to leave it when it wasn’t necessary.
It’s one of the many lessons Harshman took from his friend, the greatest coach in college basketball history, the most trusted sage in sports. Wooden, who made UCLA a household acronym, died at age 99 on Friday, and for certain, we live in a lesser world without him.
“We lost the best coach ever,” the 92-year-old Harshman said. “We lost one of the best gentlemen, too.”
We lost John Wooden. That’s almost all you need to say.
“He was always just John Wooden,” Harshman said. “He never changed any time. What you saw was true.”
It’s strange that Wooden is gone. It felt like he’d never die. He had been a wise old man forever, and until recently, he barely showed signs of slowing.
Harshman had spoken to him two weeks ago, and Wooden reported he was feeling fine. Three months ago, they had enjoyed a conversation about their favorite topic — basketball, the sport that binds them — and Wooden slipped in that he was now wheelchair-bound.
“Well, I’ve finally given up on being able to get around without this thing,” Wooden told him. “But life is good.”
They were free to kid each other and alternate between being friends and rivals again. Harshman was the last coach to beat Wooden — a 103-81 Huskies victory over UCLA on Feb. 22, 1975 — and he likes to add that he beat Wooden the first time he faced him, back when Harshman coached at WSU.
“I’ve always said that giving Wooden his last loss was maybe my greatest win,” Harshman said. “I think I’m the only one to beat him the first time I coached against him and the last. But I always add, ‘We don’t talk about what happened in between.’ “
What happened in between was domination, but Wooden did that to every coach during his reign. He won 10 national titles. His teams played the most suffocating full-court defense. His half-court offense was efficient and difficult to solve. He convinced superstars to play unselfish basketball. For Harshman and many others, game planning against Wooden’s teams was more difficult than playing the actual games.
And you couldn’t hate him for it, because he was such a virtuous person.
“He was an amazing man,” said Dave Niehaus, the Mariners’ Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer who called UCLA games in the 1970s. “Just maybe one of the most respected human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”
Wooden’s influence extends into infinity, even in Seattle. From Harshman to Niehaus. From current Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar to Seattle University coach Cameron Dollar, who both have UCLA ties. Wherever you go in this country, you can find evidence of Wooden’s impact.
Romar calls Wooden’s advice “priceless.” When he was deciding where to attend college, he ran into the Wizard at an airport and asked for help. Wooden told him not to pass up an opportunity to go to Washington and be coached by Harshman. Romar followed his advice. Now, he’s coaching his alma mater and leading the Huskies to new heights.
Dollar, who played at UCLA during the Jim Harrick era, says Wooden’s words “are always with me.” The sports world won’t be the same without his wisdom.
“It’s a sad time for basketball,” Harshman said. “But it’s a great time, because for all the things John did for basketball and for me, for all the positions he took in life and coaching, they’re being remembered and recognized again. We’ll always remember him as a gentleman.”
We’ll always remember him as just John Wooden, the most revered name in sports, a gift to humanity.
Times reporters Percy Allen
and Bob Condotta contributed
to this report.