A hero on and off the court

The passing a few years ago of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put the final stamp on an era that many of us miss.

There was a golden age of athletics where sports figures were role models, where sports pages were about earned-run averages, assists and yards gained per carry – not about spoiled, overpaid brats charged with murder, cheating with drugs and brandishing firearms in locker rooms and nightclubs.

There was a time when youngsters read about fictional sports heroes – like Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett – in stories that were designed to teach good sportsmanship and healthy competition.

John Wooden embodied those qualities. Yes, his Bruins won a record seven straight national titles – and 10 in 12 years. But, almost to a man, the athletes who were on his teams said they learned more about how to live a decent life than about zone defenses and fast breaks.

Perhaps Wooden’s best-known quote reveals the true nature of the man:

“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.”

The love of his life, his wife of 53 years, Nellie, preceded him in death. After her death, he left a note on her pillow every month, sharing a thought. He told friends he was not afraid of death, because as L.A. Times columnist T. J. Simers put it:

“Wooden lived what he preached, as sound a road map as anyone might want to follow, and while obviously in no hurry to die, he did so at peace with the prospect of even happier days ahead with the woman he loved.”

His life was a love affair with a woman who “was beautiful within” and with teaching youngsters.

Simers’ column about the coach concluded with a poem written by one of Wooden’s former players, Swen Nater. Wooden committed it to memory and could recite it flawlessly:

Once I was afraid of dying,

Terrified of ever-lying,

Petrified of leaving family, home and friends.

Thoughts of absence from my dear ones,

Drew a melancholy tear once,

And a lonely, dreadful fear of when life ends.

But those days are long behind me,

Fear of leaving does not bind me,

And departure does not host a single care.

Peace does comfort as I ponder,

A reunion in the yonder,

With my dearest who is waiting for me there.

(A version of this editorial has appeared previously in The Maui News.)

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.