John Wooden, the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency

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He got a call recently from somebody who wanted a copy of his new book, "WOODEN: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court." The caller said he needed the book right away, so Wooden got one off the shelf, stuffed some padding in the envelope, packaged it up, taped it shut and went out and mailed it. The man had given Wooden a collect Federal Express number, but Wooden fretted that sending the book that way would be much too costly for the caller. It never occurred to him that few Hall of Fame sports figures prepare mailings for strangers.

He has no secretarial help, and when asked how he keeps it all straight, he responds proudly, with a huge smile on his face: "I'll show you." He returns from the tiny study with an 8-by-10 calendar, each day filled in in longhand. "See, I've got you right there. Bill Dwyre at 1 o'clock on the 18th, then changed to the 19th."

February is filled. March looks like it will get even busier. He will be at Monday night's national championship game in San Antonio. Wooden didn't go to the Final Four much after Nell died, but recently he has been attending. "Yes, I agreed to go this year," he says, half regretting that it will stir memories of her, half thrilled to still be part of the excitement.

Then there are appearances for basketball's version of the Heisman, the Wooden Award, plus speeches and appearances for his book and for a bank he represents, all adding up to a pace that would tire a 25-year-old.

"My children are always telling me to slow down," he says, "and I think I'm doing a better job of saying no to things."

Soon, the phone rings, the caller makes a request and Wooden is scribbling on February or March.


Wooden took the job at UCLA in 1948 for a salary of $6,000 and soon discovered that his paycheck was being signed by the president of the student association, who also signed the paychecks of the maintenance staff. Since the Associated Students didn't pay into any retirement fund, Wooden earned no retirement benefits during his first 12 years there. So his modest amount of speeches and appearances benefit not only his state of mind but also his state of pocketbook.

"Had I known some of the things about how my check was being handled and about the retirement situation," he says, "I would have never come to UCLA. But I agreed to come. It was my decision, my duty to find out all the things I should have."

His top salary was $32,500, with $8,000 more from postgame radio appearances that averaged about $50 a show. The $32,500 contract was his last at UCLA, given to him after nine national championships. The comparison with Wooden and the current average annual salary of $475,000 for Bruin coach Steve Lavin, 33, who had no head coaching experience before he got the job in 1996, has been made often recently.

But Wooden wants none of that: "These are different times, different economies. I'm very happy for Steve Lavin. I would never begrudge him what he got. I never compare myself to anybody else. My father taught me that. He would always say, 'Don't look back, don't whine, don't complain.'

"So I don't."


The head of the Wooden family of Martinsville, Ind., was Joshua Hugh Wooden, who went by Hugh.

He was a farmer who lost the farm in rural Centerton during the Depression. On the farm, there had been no running water and no electricity. Hugh's family included wife Roxie Anna, two girls and four boys. One girl died at birth, the other at age 3. The boys were all athletes, and at one time or another, all would be teachers.

Remaining from the Wooden family (one brother died in 1985 and another in January) is Billy, father of seven, all college graduates, and John Robert, who will say that a large influence in making him the most successful college basketball coach ever was his father.

"My father was not big but a physically strong man," Wooden says. "He was a gentle man, and Mr. Lincoln, my favorite American, said there is nothing stronger than gentleness. When I think of my father, I think of a gentle man.

"I've seen dogs that would scare me to death, and my father would go up to them and they'd just lick his hand.

"I know I'd rather take a whipping than hear him say a bad word to me.

"He'd read to us at night. That's where I first got my love for poetry. I can remember him reading Hiawatha. 'By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water . . . '

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