Wooden: Faith and fidelity (updated)

Many people simple called him the "reverend," which was nice since he hated his famous nickname -- the Wizard of Westwood. He was constantly reading his Bible, as well as stacks of other books, which was perfectly natural for a former English teacher who hardly ever missed church. However, try to find a picture of this man reading his Bible.

He studied Abraham Lincoln and the person he admired the most -- among those who lived during his 99 years of life -- was Mother Teresa.

However, a strange thing happens if you open up the main Los Angeles Times story about the life and death of the legendary UCLA coach John Wooden and run some basic searches.

Let's try "Christian." Phrase not found. OK, how about "Disciple"? Phrase not found. I tried those two right off, since Wooden was a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It isn't very hard to learn that fact, since his church was a huge part of his life. This is even mentioned in the official mini-biography of the coach posted at the website for UCLA athletics.

At the same time, a search for "Christian" in this obituary of record would have also turned up references to his decades of service to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (watch for tributes here).

How about "religion" or "religious"? Phrase not found.

OK, too specific. Let's go very vague, with "faith" or "spiritual." Phrase not found. Phrase not found.

However, I do have some good news for anyone interested in the faith-based foundation of Wooden's life, marriage, teaching and coaching. I am happy to report that The Los Angeles Times also ran a column about the coach by T.J. Simers, under the fitting headline, "John Wooden's life was a love letter." Here is the opening:

To say it is a sad day would be to risk meeting him again, and getting that look from John Wooden.

To say it is a time to be happy might not sound right, but you could hear the anticipation in his voice about this very day whenever he spoke about the chance to reunite with Nellie Riley, the love of his life. He meant so much to so many, but it was the only girl he ever dated and then married who meant the most to him -- a love letter written from husband to wife on the 21st of every month to mark her death.

On the table in his condo is a stack of inspirational sayings, which are designed to reveal a new passage every day. But it has been 25 years since anyone turned the page, Nellie the last to do so before going to the hospital and never returning.

"It says, 'Oh Lord, make me beautiful within,''' Wooden said in recounting the inspirational reading that still sits there today. "She was beautiful within.''

The Simers column is the must read of the day, along with a Los Angeles Times tribute written in 1972 by the great Jim Murray. The latter is part of a great package on Wooden at ESPN.com, which includes many indirect references to his faith and a tribute to John and Nellie that, honestly, requires a box of tissues (when viewed by anyone with a heart).

That stunning Rick Reilly video feature ends with Wooden quoting a poem written by one of his former players. It's about death, eternal life and, of course, Nellie. The same poem appears in the Simers column, like this:

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. A few years back, moved by such devotion, one of his former players, Swen Nater, put it in a poem, "Yonder,'' which Wooden recited from memory near the end of Scully & Wooden.

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.

On the other coast, the obituary in the New York Times mentions that Wooden was a "religious man whose strongest exclamation was 'Goodness gracious sakes alive!', a fact that the story links to the fact that some other coaches did not consider him a saint. Wooden would have certainly agreed with that statement.

However, at the end of the story, this report by Frank Litsky and John Branch did find a way to address -- in secular terms that would not offend the newspaper's audience -- the kind of moral influence that Wooden had on his players. Thus, we read:

For most of his retirement, large crowds flocked to his speeches, usually revolving around his "Pyramid of Success," 15 conceptual building blocks of traits like industriousness, alertness and poise, held together by faith and patience. In recent years Wooden simply sat in a chair and spoke for up to an hour without notes, hoping to impart his wisdom to newer generations. His former players said they did not appreciate Wooden's life lessons when they were young, but the precepts stuck with them.

"At the time it was like, 'Pyramid, shmyramid,' " Marques Johnson said. " 'Where's the party at? Where are the girls at?' I didn't want to hear anything about principles and living a life of integrity at that time. But as you get older, and you have kids, and you try to pass on life lessons, now it becomes a great learning tool." ...

[Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar recalled that there "was no ranting and raving, no histrionics or theatrics." He continued: "To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith. He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence. Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything. He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents.

"In essence," Abdul-Jabbar concluded, "he was preparing us for life."

Watch for more tributes in the days ahead, because you know that they are coming. For example, here's an inspirational, but faith-free, second-wave piece from Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN.

It may take time for some insiders to pull their thoughts together. Some of the players -- Bill Walton leaps to mind -- may simply be too stricken to go on camera and offer comments at this point.

It will be interesting to look for faith-based material in the mainstream press coverage of Wooden's funeral and any memorial service that is held on UCLA, perhaps even on the "Nell and John Wooden Court" in Pauley Pavilion. John Wooden agreed to allow the court to be named in his honor -- once the school agreed to add his wife's name and to put her first.

Please help me watch the ongoing coverage. Meanwhile, I will start searching in my files for my notes from an interview with Wooden in the mid-1980s. He was, of course, in Denver for a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (and to watch some basketball).

UPDATE: The ESPN.com package just keeps expanding. A classic Rick Reilly magazine column on the elderly Wooden, with more on Nell, is right here. Check it out. New Reilly video here, with the veteran journalist fighting back tears.

Please respect our Commenting Policy