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

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"Without a great deal of formal education, he was a high school graduate, a great chess player. And crossword puzzles. You'd get a word on a crossword puzzle, an unusual word, he'd have it. And three weeks later, he would still have that word. Well, I've loved crossword puzzles for a long time, and I work them and get words by working around the other words. Then it will come up the next day and I won't remember it. Dad would always remember.

"He was a kind man. I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody. He always said if you can't say something nice, just keep your mouth shut.

"We lost the farm between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. Dad had decided he wanted to raise hogs. Well, the hogs had been inoculated for cholera, and he got some bad serum. They all died. He never blamed anybody. It was just a decision he made.

"Then he invested a little something in some company that turned out to be crooked, so he lost all that. But he didn't blame anybody. He'd made the decision.

"So we moved [from the farm] into this little town called Martinsville, 30 miles south of Indianapolis. Martinsville was known as the Artesian City and that's because of the Artesian wells. At that time, I think there were seven sanatoriums. Something like Hot Springs, Ark. People would come from Europe and other places, and Dad became a bath attendant. He worked there till he died (in 1960). Never complained about what happened."


It is a night in November, a black-tie dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, and John Wooden is to be the featured guest and speaker.

He will share the spotlight on a program that has been advertised as "a night with John Wooden and some of the greatest basketball players in the world." Those basketball players are all in wheelchairs, all with Paralympic and national championship credentials. Outside, guests start filing in for the cocktail party. Inside, while the tables are still being set and the doors are closed to the cocktail party, they come to him, one by one, shyly at first, then surrounding him in tuxedos, cocktail dresses and chairs with wheels.

They are first intimidated, then charmed. Dave Kiley, perhaps the most honored and successful wheelchair athlete in the country, flew all the way from the East to be part of the program. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything," he says. Ruth Nunez, here from Champaign, Ill., and fast becoming Kiley's female counterpart, hangs on every word. "I can't believe I got to meet John Wooden," says she.

Businessman Barry Eichorn is retrieved from the cocktail party. He is a Southern California native as well as a former college basketball player at Pasadena City College and Weber State. He has admired Wooden from afar but never met him. They sit, alone, in this huge ballroom, talking basketball. Afterward, he is asked what they talked about. Eichorn doesn't say much. It's almost as though the conversation, no matter how trivial, is too sacred to repeat.

The dinner, called a Tribute to Courage, is for Casa Colina, a Pomona rehabilitation hospital. During the program, Wooden makes it clear that any courage he has shown in whatever he has done is minuscule compared to that surrounding him onstage. As more than a dozen world-class athletes in wheelchairs are introduced and their achievements chronicled, Wooden looks almost in awe. Later, he says, "I was."

But, as always, it is the almost folksy, homespun philosophy of Wooden that carries the night. He is from the same Midwestern stock that brought us Will Rogers' wit and now brings us John Wooden's wisdom. Interestingly, it is the wisdom of somebody who never met a man he didn't like.

In a quiet way, Wooden is becoming the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency in a sports world that offers less of that all the time.

When the program ends at 10 p.m., the audience is invited to bring Wooden the copies of his book that each attendee has received. He has agreed to do autographs. The line snakes through the ballroom. Wooden signs each meticulously, with personal messages for all that wish one. All do.

At 11:25 p.m., having listened to each story and satisfied each request, Wooden rises stiffly, feeling the effects of hip replacement surgery and a right knee that has almost no cartilage left, and shuffles off for his 45-minute ride home.

Just days later, Casa Colina receives checks totaling nearly $15,000 -- from people who have already paid between $3,000 and $5,000 for a table -- in additional contributions to its wheelchair sports program. Each donor cites the inspiration of Wooden's words, at the banquet or in his book:

* Discipline yourself and others won't need to.

* If I am through learning, I am through.

* What is right is more important than who is right.

* Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life.

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