Larry Bird, arguably Indiana's second-basketball icon, gave the above quote upon learning of Coach Wooden's death. For all of the love that we have for Coach Wooden, and the wider notoriety that he received during and after his tenure in Westwood, it can escape our minds that Coach was at heart a Hoosier. The bond between Coach and Indiana never wavered, even after he made his permanent move westward.
It should come as little surprise then that Coach's passing was taken with great seriousness and sorrow by the people of Indiana. The Indianapolis Star devoted extensive coverage to Coach over the weekend, not only with its detailed obit covering his life in great detail, but also a series of archived articles from throughout the years, and even an insightful documentary on his life before leaving Indiana to coach at UCLA. The Star's tribute to Coach Wooden included some details of his life that I has not been aware of. For one, as a high school senior, Wooden’s Martinsville HS team was one of the first to play in Hinkle (then Butler) Fieldhouse, which had opened just before the Indiana State tournament that year (1928). Another story that I had never heard, from the summer after his graduation from Purdue and his impeding marriage to Nell, during the darkest days of the Great Depression:
He saved $909.05 from barnstorming games after his senior season in anticipation of his marriage to high school sweetheart Nellie Riley. But two days before the ceremony, the bank where Wooden had placed his money closed.
The money was lost, but he accepted a loan and got married as planned Aug. 8, 1932, at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.
In an earlier post, Nestor mentioned that his Indiana State team was the first to integrate what was then the NAIB (now NAIA) tournament, after declining an invitation the previous year due to the tournament's demand that he leave one of his (African-American) players home. It seems that the impact of his action was wider than just that one tournament (italics mine).
In 1946, he took his first college coaching job, at Indiana State. In his second season, he finished second in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament. Wooden’s team included Clarence Walker, who became the first black player ever to compete in the NAIB tournament, or any national college basketball tournament outside New York.
While even most followers of the life of John Wooden are not aware of this small step toward racial tolerance in athletics, that does not mean that it was not a major event to the Wooden family.
Although the event hasn’t gained the recognition of other sports barrier-breaking moments, consider this: More than 60 years later, those closest to Wooden, who died Friday at 99, regard it as the most important achievement in his unparalleled career.
"What could be bigger?" asked his daughter, Nan.
In addition to providing the line which titles this post, Larry Bird - who starred at Indiana State, the school that gave Coach his first collegiate head coaching opportunity - also had the following to say about Coach.
...His contributions to the game, both for the State of Indiana and on a national level, are unmatched. We at Pacers Sports & Entertainment have been, and are, quite proud to have a game or games every year in Conseco Fieldhouse that carry his name along with the word Tradition, a great tribute to a great man. This is a loss for all basketball fans, but in particular for those of us who grew up in Indiana with the legacy Mr. Wooden left us. Our sincere condolences go to the Wooden family.
Purdue head basketball coach Matt Painter recalls the first time that he met Coach Wooden
Matt Painter was Purdue's coach-in-waiting, a former little-known role player when he and the Boilermakers staff met with the legendary coach prior to the annual Wooden Tradition basketball event in Indianapolis in 2004.
"I walked into that dinner and he knew me by face and name, and it just blew me away," Painter said after Wooden, 99, died Friday night. "I was just a coach from Southern Illinois and he knew I was going to be an assistant and take over the next year and had already formed an opinion on that. It shocked me that he even knew who I was. I couldn't believe it."
Indiana University head coach Tom Crean recalls his lone meeting with Coach Wooden, at the 2003 Wooden Award ceremony in Los Angeles, while Crean was the head coach at Marquette.
Wooden spent individual time and posed for pictures with the players, then did the same with the assembled coaches... Most were asking Wooden to expound on his general philosophies as a basketball teacher. But Crean wanted to talk specific basketball strategy, and Wooden was more than eager to oblige.
... When it was time to leave for the awards, we go down an escalator and we get downstairs. All of a sudden, he hands his cane to one of the people in his family because he wanted to demonstrate to me, in front of all of these people, what the rear screen looked like. He actually walked a couple of us through it in the hallway and I was just blown away. Coach Wooden never missed an opportunity to teach.
It just proved again to me that the great ones never, ever stop teaching people that want to learn,'' Crean said. "It was just one day in time, but it was a very important day for me.
Some of Coach's surviving players from his high school coaching days at Dayton (Kentucky) and South Bend Central High Schools recalled their memories of Coach Wooden.
Back home in Indiana, where his coaching career first blossomed, Wooden's competitive flame sometimes flared brightly. Like during the morning game of the 1941 Hammond Semistate, when Wooden's South Bend Central High School Bears fell behind Lafayette Jefferson. "We were playing in the (Hammond) Civic Center and when we went down for the half, the janitor hadn't come down and unlocked the locker room door," recalled Eddie Ehlers, Central's star of stars. "Coach Wooden broke the door down. He kicked it in and let us have it."
"He was an educator, a teacher. He expected your best," said Jimmy Powers, who played for Wooden at Central and Indiana State. "He would say, 'Goodness gracious sakes alive, Jimmy,' and make whatever his criticism was. He would not raise his voice but when he nailed you, you knew you were nailed. "It would be difficult to put into words the profound effect he had on me, on everybody."
Ben Stull, 92, remembers. He was a reserve forward on Wooden's two Dayton teams. "We all learned to shoot 'bunnies' with our left hand,'' Stull recalled. "We had never done that before. He taught us a lot. He taught us to be disciplined in everything you do.''
Stull, Wooden's sixth man at Dayton, feels the same connection nearly 80 years later. He still received a birthday card from Wooden. "Every year,'' Stull said. ''And I send him a card on his birthday.''
The world lost John Wooden this evening.
Notice, I didn't say Purdue University, or the game of basketball, or UCLA where he won all of those National Titles. John Wooden was one of those rare people that knew his purpose in life was to give back to others in a positive way. And he did. His Pyramid of Success and Seven Point Creed were far more than tools for teaching the game of basketball. They are ways that we should live our lives. In my cynicism I see where so many people have lost this simple way of living, but Coach Wooden did something about it. He made sure that he told everyone he knew about these values:
The Star sent a reporter to Martinsville to gauge the reaction of the town to Coach Wooden.
Until here in the later years, it wasn't unusual to look up during practice and there he was, taking in everything," said Tim Wolf, Martinsville High School's basketball coach for the past 23 years. "More than a coach, he was a great teacher, and he's always been great to us here.
It's a loss for the whole country," said Louise Tutterow, 77, a cancer survivor who was at the American Cancer Society Relay for Life at the Morgan County Fairgrounds on Saturday. "He was an example of how we should live our lives.
And, a local television station interviewed members of the community where Coach had grown up, and had continued a connection with over all the years.