UCLA family reacts to Wooden passing

Forty years after John Wooden gave John Vallely a stern warning about his future, Vallely stood in Wooden’s hospital room at the UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday, leaned over, said I love you, and kissed the man whose words would shape the rest of his life.

The stern warning had paid off.

Karen Vallely leaned over and kissed Wooden, too.

“I hugged him and I told him he helped put Team Vallely together,” said Vallely, who played on the 1969 and 1970 UCLA national championship teams, two of Wooden 10 title squads. “He had a broad smile on his face when I teased him about being a 21-year-old kid, on the way to the NBA, when I sat with him and said, “Coach, I’ve been with Karen for three years, but I’m such a young guy.’ He says one thing to me. ‘Son, you marry that girl.’ Here I am 40 years later with this fabulous woman next to me.”

If Wooden influenced one man, he influenced a million.

His words span the sporting universe, coaches and players alike, enough quotes for his own edition of Bartlett’s.

*Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

*Ability is a poor man’s wealth.

*Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

Wooden may have passed away on Friday night at 6:45 p.m. at the age of 99, but his words will live on forever.

For his family, for fellow Bruins, for basketball fans the world over, for those he mentored.

“He’s the primary caretaker of the game,” said former UCLA head coach Jim Harrick, whose 1995 national championship is the program’s only title aside from Wooden’s 10. “The symbol of everything that basketball stood for, for so many people. So many lives he touched. He could sit down and talk to anybody. Loved to talk to coaches, JV coaches, sophomore coaches. Anyone. If you’re ever going to call anyone a coach, it’s him.”

Wooden was so much more than a coach to so many, though.

His Pyramid of Success has become iconic in the business world, a throwback to the days before “synergy” and “corporate teamwork” became the buzzwords.

Wooden was a simple man, a man who believed in simple principles, a man who, quite simply, understood the world around him.

He coached UCLA during a period of unparalleled success, but also a period of unparalleled turmoil, the country turned upside down by a war thousands of miles away.

“Here’s a guy from Martinsville, Indiana, in L.A., with all this stuff going on; these young, very talented, high-energy, big egos, young men under his supervision,” said former UCLA forward Jamaal Wilkes, who visited his former coach twice during the last week. “All these challenges going around, yet he kept your focus. He really became somewhat of a unifying force, but not just regionally. It started off regionally – but throughout college basketball, with all that stuff going on, here was something stable, here was something pure, here was something pristine. Even after he retired, it’s like yesterday when he was coaching. His impact transcended basketball, transcended sports culturally.”

Even as a pillar that stood when everything else crashed around, Wooden did not realize the depth of his words.

UCLA fans describe his common touch, his ability to come down to the level of those who worshipped him and what he stood for. An impromptu UCLA eight-clap in front of the Bruin Bear and Wooden Center was organized hastily for 12:30 p.m. on Friday, hours before he was to pass. More than 2,000 said they would show up.

“He did not know what his words would mean,” Vallely said. “He knew that what he was teaching was solid principles because he’d used them in his own life. When you embrace something and live it and find peace of mind about your effort to achieve these things, when you see these things work, you find yourself sticking with them. In the process of living his journey, he shared how we could do that.”

Perhaps no coach has strived to embody the principles of Wooden as UCLA’s current torchbearer, Ben Howland. If the measure of a man is how he affects those he’s touched, there is not a measuring stick big enough in the world to gauge Wooden’s influence.

Howland likes to say that he’s just the steward of the program, that it truly belongs to Wooden, whose teams Howland watched as a young man growing up in Goleta.

“Having Coach here was something that was great for me,” Howland said. “He embraced every coach that coached here. He’s been supportive and has always loved this program. I remember the first visit I had with him after I was hired. I was in the Final Four in New Orleans and went to his hotel room. He was already at the Final Four. I had my son Adam with me. It was really special, sitting on that bed in his room. It’s really something I’ll never forget.”

He was sharing with UCLA coaches until the end.

An emotional Harrick, fighting back tears just more than an hour after Wooden passed away, described his last in-depth meeting with Wooden, just a short time after the death of Harrick’s wife, Sally. Wooden’s wife of 53 years, his beloved Nell, died in 1985, and those close to the coach said he frequently spoke during the past few years of reuniting with her.

“I saw him at Christmas for a long time at the Wooden Classic,” Harrick said. “Spent a long time with him just talking. My wife passed away in November, his wife had passed long ago, and he sat with me for so long.
“He really grabbed me close and he held me and he told me, ‘I know how you feel.’”

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  • Wow

    Jon, this is an incredible story. Thank you. I know why the DN hired you.

  • Maverick

    A great coach but an even greater human being. RIP Coach.

  • Matt

    Jon, a great piece about an unbelievable man.

    I’ve spent the past twenty minutes reading numerous articles on Coach, I have had tears running down my face for each and every one of those minutes.

  • Slippery Pete

    Well done Jon. I know you are spread thin with the Lakers in the finals and baseball and softball in the NCAA’s. Thank you for taking the time and care to relate how huge a force Coach Wooden has been to UCLA and the sports community in general.

  • ucla-of-the-rockies

    One year later, well done, Jon.