Like this year’s nasty flu virus, millions of Americans have been bitten by the college basketball bug. It’s a strain of Spring fever that finds us sweating out how the results of games will impact our individual brackets. We call it March Madness.
It’s the time of year that inevitably finds me recalling the enviable opportunity of interviewing coach John Wooden before his death in 2010.
This sports legend who came to be known as “the Wizard of Westwood,” touched our culture in remarkable ways. Although he reached many milestones in his life, he failed to achieve one for which he took aim. Like Billy Graham, he just fell short of reaching his 100th birthday.
While getting to know coach Wooden, I learned he was born in Martinsville, Indiana in 1910 only 19 years after the game of basketball was invented. As an 8 year old, he stuffed rags in his mother’s stockings and took shots aiming at a tomato basket his father had nailed to the side of a barn.
Although he was a standout player in college at Purdue, Wooden’s love affair with basketball became a full-blown romance as a coach. From 1948 to 1975 he courted success as the head coach of the UCLA Bruins. His impressive (and unmatched) success underscores why “round ball” is a source of ongoing infatuation. During those years the Bruins set all-time records with four perfect 30-0 seasons, 88 consecutive victories, 38 straight NCAA tournament victories, 20 PAC 10 championships, and 10 national championships, including seven in a row.
During our time together, we talked about basketball, marriage and his faith. I discovered he married his high school sweetheart. It was a marriage marked by storybook commitment and romance that lasted 53 years.
“In my marriage to Nellie,” John recalled, “I learned how important it is to find peace in yourself so that you can overlook the flaws in others. My marriage also taught me how to work through misunderstandings. The devotion I had for my wife had a tremendous impact on me. It allowed me to overcome all kinds of obstacles.”
Nellie Wooden died in the midst of March Madness on March 21, 1985. While cancer robbed the coach of his mate, it could not undermine his love. The dedication that marked the coach’s devotion to basketball was evidenced in the way he continued to honor his wife’s memory.
Every year since Nellie died the coach wrote a letter to her on the 21st day of each month. In each letter he expressed his love and confessed how much he missed her. He also chronicled the ongoing activities in the lives of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That stack of 252 letters was tied in a ribbon and sat atop her side of the bed that has remained undisturbed since the day of her death.
In spite of such amazing devotion, there was something that outdistanced John Wooden’s affection for his wife. Without apology, John voiced his love for his Savior. He compared his walk with the Lord to his marathon marriage. He confessed that although both required hard work, the benefits are more than worth it.
“There’s no way I can fully describe how my faith in Christ has influenced the way I coached,” John said without hesitation. “It gave me an inner serenity in the face of stressful situations.”
He told me his faith motivated him to treat his players and colleagues with a degree of understanding that was beyond own natural ability. By learning to accept people and circumstances he didn’t fully agree with, he was able to act in ways he would not later regret.
“There is only one kind of a life that truly wins, and that is a life placed in the hands of the Savior,” Wooden told me.
John Wooden’s love of basketball punctuated our visit from start to finish. But as our interview concluded, I was convinced of one thing. As much as he was mad about the game of round ball, he was crazy about his Lord.
Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is the full-time chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island. He is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter and contributes original poetry each Blue Friday to KOMO news radio.