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Jeff Eisenberg

Ten John Wooden anecdotes you may not have heard before

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You've heard about John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, his 10 championships and his life-long devotion to his late wife Nell? Well, in the wake of Wooden's death on Friday evening, here are 10 anecdotes you may not have heard before about the legendary former UCLA coach.

Rick Reilly, ESPN Magazine: Did you know (Wooden) should've been dead at 35? During World War II, he was scheduled for a tour of duty in the South Pacific on the USS Franklin when an emergency appendectomy put him in the infirmary. The Franklin left without him. It was eventually hit by a kamikaze, killing 724 crewmembers. Much the same happened years later, when your great-grandpa didn't take a flight from Atlanta to Raleigh that he had a seat on. That plane went down. Everybody died. "Pure, blind luck," Wooden says, holding on to the arms of his wheelchair. "I don't believe in fate."

T.J. Simers, Los Angeles Times: I will remember the minutes just prior to (2008's Scully & Wooden for the Kids charity event), getting a frantic call to join him, his family and mine in his Nokia Theatre dressing room. He had a beautifully wrapped box on his lap, UCLA colors, and he appeared so serious. The room went quiet as he gave this marvelous speech about getting the opportunity to be with Scully and help sick kids. "On behalf of the Wooden family,'' he said with a grin beginning at each corner of his mouth, "we would like to present this to you as a token of our appreciation.'' Inside the box was the hideous singing bass that my daughter and I have jokingly traded over the years, Wooden visibly thrilled to be in on the family one-upmanship, and delighted he had played his part to perfection. Who knew the man who inspires almost pope-like treatment could be so devilish?

Lute Olson, Lute! The Seasons of My Life: One day during that summer the phone rang. It was Coach Wooden, inviting me to speak at his annual coaches clinic. I'm certain I responded calmly that I would be delighted. That's the way I respond, calmly, but I'm just as certain I felt anything but calm. I was thrilled ... Afterward Coach Wooden and his wife, Nell, asked Bobbi and me to join several other coaches and their wives at dinner. We were all sitting a round table and a waitress came over and asked, "Would you like some wine or a cocktail?" As we all looked at the wine list, ready for a nice, relaxing glass of wine, or two, Coach Wooden said simply, "No. No, we don't care for any cocktails or wine." You could hear the wine lists snapping closed. As far as any of us sitting at the table were concerned, not only didn't we want any wine that night, we'd never wanted any wine in the past and never would want any wine in the future.

Ray Cave, Sports Illustrated (1962): Wooden will admit to being a disciplinarian, but rightfully claims he is "no ogre." "There are lots of things I suggest my players do, and a few things that I demand they do," he says. "They learn that I stick by my demands." His displeasure is best avoided. It is sure to be icy, succinct and possibly, in the rarest of cases, spiced with his strongest blasphemy, "Goodness gracious sakes alive!" He once made Willie Naulls, who was trying for the conference scoring title, sit out a whole game because he had been late getting to the field house. And this year he didn't start Walt Hazzard against Army because East Coast had been tardy for a training meal. "I had to be stern with (Pete) Blackman, too," Wooden said recently, and then promptly changed the subject. He was pressed for details. "Well," he said, and there may or may not have been just the faintest smile at the corners of his thin lips, "it was about his latest poem. It concerned USC, and I felt it wasn't in good taste." Thwarted poet Blackman has not published a work since.

J.A. Adande, Of all the stories Wooden shared with us, the one that stuck with me in the hours before and after his death Friday was a tale centered on pigeon poop. The story came from a ceremony for the inaugural members of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 in Kansas City, Mo., where Wooden was honored along with Dean Smith, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and (posthumously) James Naismith. At age 96, Wooden was back at the site of his first NCAA championship in 1964, prompting him to recall a message he had received "from above" right after the beginning of his 10-championship run at UCLA. "We won on a Saturday night," Wooden said. "I planned on going out Easter Sunday, my wife and I. Sunday morning, we were outside the Muehlebach Hotel, waiting to get a cab to take us to the church. And a pigeon hit me right on top of the head. And I felt, 'Well, we just won the national championship, the team did, don't let it go to your head.' And I think the Good Lord was letting me know, 'Don't get carried away.' I'll always remember that."

Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star: In 1947, Wooden had an impact on Kansas City by not visiting. He was in his first year coaching at Indiana State, which qualified for what's now known as the NAIA tournament. But the Sycamores' roster included a black player, Clarence Walker, and the tournament didn't welcome teams with integrated rosters. Wooden refused to bring his team. "I refused to go to the tournament if Clarence couldn't go," Wooden said in an interview with The Kansas City Star in 2002. "He was part of the team. I don't want you thinking Clarence was a tremendous player. He was not. He never got to play much at all. But he was part of the team, and that was that." The next year, Indiana State again qualified, and the NAIA changed its policy and Walker became the first black player to participate in a national college basketball tournament.

Rick Reilly, ESPN Magazine: Unlike so many coaches today, he didn't see the game as his own personal Hollywood screen test. He'd sit quietly on the bench, a rolled-up program in his right hand. In 27 years at UCLA, he remembers getting only one technical. "I really didn't deserve it, either," he says. "Someone behind me called the ref something not very nice. And the ref thought it was me!" Forty years later, he still blushes.

Sid Hartman, Minneapolis Star Tribune: If Frank McCormick, the Gophers athletic director in 1948, had not been caught in a snowstorm in South Dakota where he was visiting a friend, the late John Wooden would have been the Gophers men's basketball coach rather than move from Indiana State to UCLA. McCormick had offered Wooden the job, and Wooden had accepted it but only if he could bring in his own assistant coaches. However, McCormick wanted Wooden to keep Dave MacMillan, the coach Wooden would be replacing. ... McCormick did finally get approval from Coffman to allow Wooden to hire his own coaches, but the snowstorm had cut off phone lines in South Dakota and McCormick couldn't get in touch with Wooden. After not hearing from McCormick for a couple of days, Wooden took the job at UCLA.

Alex Wolff, Sports Illustrated: Nell had died almost precisely when his first great-granddaughter, Cori Nicholson, had been conceived, and even in his grief Wooden couldn't miss the pertinence of another of his favorite sayings: "God never closes one door without opening another." One day during Wooden's blue period, when she was three, Cori had tugged at her great-grandfather and pointed at the sky. "See that airplane, Papa? I'm going to take that airplane and fly all the way to heaven and get Mama and bring her back, so Papa won't be lonely anymore." At 11 Cori had asked her great-grandfather to agree to live another five years, so he might chauffeur her to the DMV for her driver's test. Now, he told me with unconcealable pride, she was a college freshman.

Bill Sweek, for Sporting News: We played Drake in the semifinal our senior year. I went in, and they were pressing us. We lost the ball a few times, and I got pulled out. I sat there discontented for a while, didn't get to play much at all. Toward the end of the game, our guard had foul trouble, so Wooden asked me to go in the game. I guess I was trying to show him I was upset, so I sauntered to the scorer's table. He yelled at me. He said, "If you don't want to play, come over here and sit down." Instead of sitting down, I just kept walking. I went to the locker room. I was just going to hitchhike home. We barely won the game. He was furious. He came into the locker room. He almost came into the shower after me. He was really upset. But then we had a big meeting, where all the players talked, all the coaches talked. We made amends. In the championship game, I got to play. I thought it was amazing that he would have the patience and the understanding. I deserved to be kicked off the team. The fact he was able to forgive me and bring the team together shows his great leadership skill.

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